"I don’t like sand. It’s coarse, and rough, and irritating, and it gets everywhere. Not like here. Here everything is soft, and smooth."
May 2022 marks the 20-year anniversary of the release of Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones in theaters – and, with it, one of the most quoted romantic scenes in cinematic history. For years, Anakin Skywalker’s opinion on the demerits of sand which preceded his first kiss with Padme Amidala have been cited as shorthand for the failings of George Lucas as an unchecked scriptwriter. The Star Wars Prequel Trilogy is a set of films where a sole creator is given first and last say over every element of a film series which, which is in contrast to the original trilogy that was a testament to the power of collaborative storytelling in its myriad directors, screenwriters, and story editors who had the power to tell a creator even as imaginative as Lucas when to pull back, and address his shortcomings.
This, at least, is the common wisdom when it comes to analysis of this scene, where natural chemistry can be difficult to find between Hayden Christiansen (as Anakin) and Natalie Portman (as Padme) with this strange, stilted dialogue. The first problem with this idea is that Lucas did in fact have a co-writer on Attack of the Clones: Jonathan Hales, previously known for his work on the Young Indiana Jones television series, and early Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson star-making vehicle The Scorpion King. But the more interesting challenge to this scene is that maybe critics of the dialogue in this intimate lakeside exchange of feelings are missing the point. After all, it’s hard to argue that anyone knows what Anakin would say when confessing his love better than George Lucas himself, who’s lived with this character in his head longer than anyone else. So maybe 'Why would they write this? is the wrong question to be asking about this scene. The real question is, 'Why would Anakin say this?'
Digging deeper into the "I don't like sand" situation
For those looking for more depth and dimension to the Naboo getaway where Anakin and Padme fall for each other, there’s no better resource than the film’s contemporary 2002 Attack of the Clones novelization by R.A. Salvatore. In Salvatore’s extended retelling of the film, little to none of the dialogue is changed. But in lieu of absent visual cues, the author allows us into the minds of the main characters for a clearer expression of their true feelings. The story paints a picture of a young man cloistered by the Jedi order through his adolescence, with the clumsy tongue of someone face-to-face with his very first crush. The love-smitten Anakin internally cringes and admonishes himself for every leaden attempt at charm he attempts towards Padme, failing at each turn to emulate the effortless charisma of his master Obi-Wan. With that simple recontextualization, Anakin’s wooden performance begins to feel relatable to all of us who have ever founds ourselves in conversation with the subject of our infatuation, only to be completely at a loss for words.
Padme, for her part, is shown to find Anakin’s guilelessness charming in its own way. As a political figure for her entire life, first a queen, and then a senator, Padme was accustomed to dealing with people who rarely ever said what they truly meant, maneuvering around her for their own capital and potential exchange of favors. Anakin’s complete disarmament in her presence, not as a queen, or a senator, but as a woman, is what gave Padme exactly what she needed in an environment where she often felt more like a symbol than a person. If Anakin had the pretense to find more honeyed words in her presence, he wouldn’t be the man she could love at all.
How a 2022 Star Wars prose novel gives to insight into "I don't like sand" quote
The new novel Star Wars: Brotherhood by Mike Chen attempts to anchor a deeper meaning in Anakin’s particular choice of words. Set very shortly after Episode II and before the Clone Wars animated series, Brotherhood follows Obi-Wan and Anakin on a very early mission to Cato Neimoidia, where the themes of the Clone Wars as a whole of a government brought low by rapid militarization are laid to bare. But importantly to our subject, a number of memetic moments throughout the prequels are granted more thoughtful context.
To Anakin, subjected to sand once more on the beaches of Cato Neimoidia, the notion that "sand gets everywhere" crosses his mind once more. No matter how far Anakin travels, or how much his Jedi masters stress the importance of detaching himself from his past, the coarseness of Tatooine stays stubbornly with him. The injustice he endured as a slave, and which continues unchecked in the galaxy’s outer rim; the mother he was forced to leave behind. The harsh, uncaring sands of the desert are ingrained within his soul, preventing him from ever knowing peace. Only the smoothness, the softness, of Padme’s warm presence represents a momentary respite from those irritating sands.
What the original Attack of the Clones filmmakers have said (and haven't said)
What may be most telling to the authorial intent, however, is that in the Attack of the Clones DVD commentaries, George Lucas and his collaborators are uninterested in examining the dialogue in this particular scene at all. In both commentary tracks, the film’s creative talents choose instead to focus on the scenery, and the importance of Anakin’s body language when confessing his love in his own strange way. The message was never in his words, but in his touch.
A possible tribute to Asian cinema again for George Lucas?
In Japanese, there’s a phrase used very often when confessing one’s love: “Tsuki ga kirei desu ne.” This literally translates to “The moon is beautiful, isn’t it?” Ideally, the context is on a moonlit night, at a quiet moment alone with your partner. Drawing attention to the beauty of the moon is an indirect way to emphasize the beauty of the moment: that what’s truly beautiful is not the mere circumstance of your environment, but that you’re sharing this special moment with someone you care about.
As a student of Japanese cinema, borrowing heavily from filmmakers like Akira Kurosawa in the creation of Star Wars, George Lucas was no stranger to the nuances of Japanese colloquialism. Much of the Jedi philosophy, and how his characters express themselves, can be traced back to those films. With that in mind, the cultural lineage of this particular romance starts to make a little more sense. The coarseness of the sand, the smoothness of the lake, amount to little more than sweet nothings expressed between new lovers, repressed by emotionally restrictive traditions of monkhood and royalty to a necessary indirectness, where feelings shared transcend any words which could be spoken.
Embracing "I don't like sand"
Today, Anakin’s distaste for sand has spawned a new memetic life of its own. Comedic references are made everywhere from moden Star Wars comics to LEGO video games to exclusive Star Wars Celebration 2022 merchandise immortalizing the "I Don't Like Sand" vibes with a T-shirt, a towel, flip-flops, and even a Zen Garden.
It’s worth a laugh, sure. But maybe that towel can be something you share with your own Padme, watching the sun descend over that irritating sand. After all: as Han Solo showed us in The Empire Strikes Back, the most memorable “I love yous” are often in entirely different words.