We started singing:
My, my, this here Anakin guy
May be Vader sometime later but right now he's small fry
He left his home and kissed his mummy good bye
Singing "Soon I'm gonna be a Jedi."
"Soon I'm gonna be a Jedi."
Return of the Jedi ends with Luke Skywalker removing Darth Vader's mask and seeing his father face to face for the first time. This scene could stand as a symbol for the whole series.
From Luke's point of view, the unmasking of Vader represents the transformation of the Evil Father back into the Good Father, the Jedi-daddy he always wanted. In terms of the narrative of the trilogy, it represents the defeat of the Empire, as the technocratic superstructure is stripped away to reveal a human being beneath it. From the point of view of the audience, it is the redemption of Anakin Skywalker, the villain of Episodes IV - VI renouncing his evil and revealing himself as the hero of the whole saga.
Some people claim to be disappointed that under the mask, Darth Vader turns out to be 'just an old man'. But that surely is the point. For the story to work, we have to believe that Anakin and Vader are two different people. Anakin was consumed by the Dark Side of the Force: when that happens, says Ben, the good man who was Luke's father ceased to exist. When he turns back to the Light Side, Vader doesn't exist any more; and Anakin is just ordinary—just a fat old man. So the unmasking of Vader also represents the end of the golden age. From now on, all the heroes are going to take off their masks and reveal that underneath, they have feet of clay.
Attack of the Clones constructs a line from this 'Unmasking' scene and extends it out to infinity and beyond. Episode II amounts to an unmasking of the entire setting; a deconstruction of the Star Wars universe.
The 'clones' of the title are Palpatine's cloned army, who will become the Stormtroopers of Episodes IV-VI. It transpires that they are clones of one Janga Fett, the clone-father of Boba Fett. Boba Fett is a mysterious figure in the original trilogy: clearly an important person (even Darth Vader treats him quite politely) but never given an origin or a background. The Stormtroopers, of course, are purely iconic; organs of the Emperor who the heroes can kill without compunction.
In Episodes IV-VI, neither Boba Fett nor any Stormtroopers are ever seen without their helmets on. In Attack of the Clones, we see their faces. Out of costume, Bobba-Jango is under-acted, about as unassuming person as you could imagine, living in an anti-septic bed-sit and wearing a bland prison uniform. There is not a hint of rapport or affection between Jango and his son. The clone warriors are rather pitiful figures in a training camp that recalls the slave-world in THX 1138. They are stated to be 'docile and obedient'; and even when we see them in their armour, you can't quite shake this original image. Two key icons of the original trilogy have been brought down-to-earth with a resounding thud.
This debunking and de-romanticizing happens consistently throughout the movie. The opening 20 minutes of the movie are full of images of falling: from the cloud-capped heights of Coruscant into the seedy under city. In Coruscant the Jedi are addressed as 'your grace'. But once they descend to ground level, they are little more than plain clothes police officers, and not treated with much respect. 'Gang way….Jedi business' says Anakin, to work his way through a crowd. Is this really how legendary knights were treated in the golden age?
When Luke went into a tavern, it was a Wild West saloon, full of aliens who have the death sentence on 12 systems, and a cool Clint Eastward smuggler who wins gunfights without getting out of his chair. The equivalent scene in Attack of the Clones is of a nightclub, with video screens showing sports matches and drug dealers offering 'death sticks' for sale. The Emperor, who spends Return of the Jedi as a dark lord with his face cloaked in shadow, is represented in Attack of the Clones as a lying, scheming politician. When we first met Yoda, he was a mysterious, distant figure who had once instructed Obi-Wan. In Attack of the Clones we catch a glimpse of what that 'instruction' might actually have been like. A wise old man studying at the feet of a holy mystic? Hardly. Yoda has become a friendly, patronizing schoolmaster observing a class of primary school children. Is how heroes were trained in the golden age?
(Of course this scene's primary purpose is to write Lucas out of an inconsistency: Yoda was stated to be Ben's teacher long before Qui-Gon was ever thought of; so we have to show that Yoda trained everybody to stop Alec Guinness being caught up in yet another porkie.)
Even the central psychological plot of the movie is substantially debunked. The process which will culminate in Vader being consumed by the dark side of the Force is here represented as an adolescent sulk, a series of temper tantrums. 'He never lets me do anything. He always criticizes me. It's not fair. Yippee.'
Watching A New Hope, we imagined that the Old Republic which Ben and Darth Vader inhabited would be something more epic, grander and more operatic than Star Wars. (The Old Republic was the republic of legend; no reason to ask why it existed, only to say that it was the Republic.) But the republic which we see is in fact rather banal: skyscrapers and Jedi temples, bickering politicians…finally, seedy nightclubs, coach stations, coffee bars and car chases. Star Wars was a fairy tale: this is just a sci fi movie. Corsuscant: is only New York with flying cars. Mos Eisley might as well have been Shangri La.
Watching Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones we feel nostalgic for a romantic past, 'before the dark times', when everything was clear-cut and simple, before the Force went out of balance. But that romantic past is the age of Luke Skywalker: an age which is nominally located in the future. The golden age of the Old Republic turns out to be a time of cynicism and betrayal; the Dark Times turn out to be, in fact, the heroic age. Does that mean the hoped-for-time of innocence will come after the fall from grace? And that the 'lost past' of Luke's childhood is actually located in the future?
It is perhaps very natural to locate the lost golden age in the future, given that this futuristic sci fi movie is supposed to be happening 'a long time ago.'