“Attack of the Clones” is the longest Star Wars movie, and it feels like it.
In fact, it feels a lot more than two minutes longer than Episode III, the series's closest competitor for length. That's largely because all three of the prequels could use a more ruthless editor; each of them is longer than any of the movies in the original trilogy. However, Episode II's central sin – the one that makes it the worst Star Wars episode to date – is its decision to ape “The Empire Strikes Back” by splitting up the main cast and sending them on two separate adventures.
In “Empire,” this trick works, because the romantic leads have a crackle and humor that drives their scenes, and the heroic lone Jedi is likable and joined by perhaps the saga's best supporting character, doing his best supporting character work. The plot is good (though a little inscrutable – how long does Luke train before leaving Dagobah?), but it's ultimately unimportant. We want to be with those characters because we like them.
“Attack of the Clones” falls apart when it splits Obi-Wan from Anakin and Padme because Obi-Wan is the only character of the three with any redeeming qualities. In addition to the loss of the movie's only consistence source of good humor and charm, Anakin and Padme's solo scenes are stranded by Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman's lack of screen chemistry and George Lucas's inability to write convincing romantic dialogue – that and the fact that their subplot mostly consists of waiting around until they can regroup with Obi-Wan for the film's climax. When I watch Episode II, literally the only enjoyment I get from the Anakin/Padme portions other than making fun of how terrible they are is in the brief appearance of what appears to be a homeless Watto, because I love Watto for reasons that baffle modern medicine.
In addition to the inept performances and creaky dialogue from the romantic duo, the scenes also illustrate another problem with the prequel trilogy: while I have and will continue to go to bat for the underrated quality of the prequels' overarching story structure of small political maneuvers leading to democratic destruction, the parallel storyline of Anakin's fall to the dark side is both unconvincing and unsympathetic. Why do he and Padme like each other? Where is the spectrum of moral greyness that leads to his decline? In Episode I, he's a nice kid, and halfway through Episode II, he's whining about Obi-Wan holding him back as Padme fails to scold him for committing genocide against a tribe of Tusken Raiders.
Much has been made of “The Phantom Edit,” Mike Norton's acclaimed cut of Episode I that removes clutter, midichlorians and the “Jar-Jar-ness” of it all, as well as its Episode II counterpart, “Attack of the Phantom.” However, what I would do to fix “Attack of the Clones” is much simpler: I would just cut out all of the Anakin and Padme stuff after they're tasked to go back to Naboo as refugees and pick them back up as they enter the stadium in chains. Granted, you'd miss the story of the couple falling in love, but I'm so checked out from what's going on in those scenes anyway that a simple title card describing their adventures in a couple of sentences would do as well.
For sheer entertainment value, the movie only improves in this version. Obi-Wan's story problems aside, his adventure of traveling to Kamino, learning of the clones, tangling with Jango Fett in two cool scenes and getting caught on Geonosis is pretty fun, and Ewan McGregor tries his best to inject some life into the role.
The movie still has plenty of problems without Padme and Anakin, but it's remarkable how much the couple acts as a millstone around the neck of an otherwise diverting couple of hours. By trimming away the fat on all three prequels, it's easy to see that Lucas still had some good ideas rattling around – he just wasn't sure how to separate those ideas from jokey battle droids and annoying children.
Oh, and if you weren't sold on my Padmakin-free edit, remember that in cutting out their scenes, we also remove this movie's evidence of R2-D2 having jet packs, and I think we can all get on board with that idea.