Star Wars: Episode II—Attack of the Clones

(2002) *** 1/2 Pg-13
140 min. 20th Century Fox. Director: George Lucas. Cast: Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Hayden Christensen, Ian McDiarmid, Pernilla August.

George Lucas' new batch of Star Wars movies defies most reasonable critical standards. With corny dialogue, sleepwalk acting, and eyebrow-raising plot machinations, the baroque Star Wars: Episode II— Attack of the Clones may make some long for the relative quaintness of Episode I—1999's The Phantom Menace. And yet, it's impossible (as with the dazzling but inevitably disappointing Episode I) to dismiss a film with this much stuff: exotic production design, imaginative characters, and a wide variety of digital jedi fu. So is Star Wars: Episode II— Attack of the Clones a good movie or a bad movie? A bomb, a masterwork, or something in between? For most, it's enough to say, "C'mon, dude. It's a freakin' Star Wars movie!"

The story, such as it is--it is, after all, the middle part of a trilogy-- observes Anakin Skywalker's problematic training under Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor). The arrogant yet sensitive Anakin (Hayden Christensen) has been pining after Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman) for ten years, so when it's time to play intergalactic bodyguard (cue the Whitney Houston ballad), romance is in the air. Meanwhile, a separatist movement threatens the Republic, making a secretly created clone army a pivotal strategic prize. As usual, it's up to the Jedi to beat the bushes until two rendezvous can be properly arranged: a gigantic, hardware-filled battle and an intimate lightsaber duel.

As a Star Wars movie, Attack of the Clones encompasses all of the attendant mythology (and for fans, emotion) caught up in Lucas' universe. Taking the characters, settings, and trappings of Lucas' original 1977-1983 trilogy of Episodes IV-VI, the writer-producer-director has a head start in the "good movie" sweepstakes, and his additions to the saga are worthy, particularly in the planet designs expressed in astounding digital effects. For the massive, hardworking, and talented design army under Lucas's command, this task must be something akin to scouting a James Bond movie in one's head.

Episode II revists the highly trafficked airspace of Episode I's Coruscant (mostly by night) and Episode IV's iconic Tatooine, while adding the dark, rainswept clone planet of Camino and the sunbaked dust of Geonosis (home to a gladiatorial arena missing only a Heston or a Crowe). Frankly, it (like Phantom Menace) has exactly the sort of epic scope that wins Oscars...when not in a science-fiction film. Further distinguishing himself, Lucas embeds just beneath that sci-fi surface poker-faced political allegory that's arguably subversive and arguably laughable but undeniably there.

Lucas scores substantial victories in plot and character, as well. Jar Jar Binks is refreshingly relegated to brief appearances, and the now all-digital Yoda works far better than one accustomed to Frank Oz's puppet might reasonably expect. Bounty hunter--and Boba Fett father--Jango Fett (Temuera Morrison) picks up the slack for the understandably missing Darth Maul. Ewan McGregor and Ian McDiarmid reprise their slyly performed roles, and Christopher Lee is a stalwart presence as the sinister Count Dooku. In the climactic act, Lucas eventually musters all of his resources in the service of pull-out-the-stops action, from a Rube Goldberg droid factory to the aforementioned eleventh hour clashes. Add to all this the stirring and lovably old-fashioned bombast of John Williams and a kick-ass Yoda, and the magic is back once more.

Picked apart, however, the first two acts of Episode II add up to a talky fashion show of bad-poetry come-ons, psychic-friend-network jedi pow-wows, and foregone-conclusion politics. With this initial trilogy, all is prologue, so the story is naturally portentous. One might wonder: must the acting and directing also be so? Lucas inflates Attack of the Clones with self-importance, but dramatic irony does not necessarily make for thematic resonance. Lucas's instant-replay of the beats of other episodes risks preciousness, and the bloated midsection invites speculation of missed opportunities.

With Anakin straddling the line between the "Yippee!" kid of Phantom Menace and the deadly Darth Vader of the next trilogy, Lucas has all the makings of wrenching dramatic conflict; instead Christensen is asked to be a puppy dog turned pit bull and back again, with too little ambiguous middle ground. In the romance plot, Christensen and Portman bring a natural sex appeal, but a darker, more primal drive to Anakin's romantic pursuit of Padmé surely would have enlivened both characters. Worse, Anakin's obligatory breakdown briefly mires Christensen in callow Charlton Heston mode, and Portman occasionally seems sedated. Though amazing, the mostly digital environments can sometimes feel oppressive or garish, and should you slip out of the film, you may daydream images of the actors wandering through the blue-screen studios.

Cumulatively, Lucas' pursuit of the original's spirited serial-meets-space-opera tone feels a bit strained and creaky. It's not for nothing that so many critics bemoan the loss of Harrison Ford's coiled tension and brash, wisecracking energy. The original trilogy did not lack for B-grade acting moments or cheesy dialogue, it's true, but the odd Lawrence Kasdan rejoinder packed more memorable punch than those concocted here by Lucas and co-screenwriter Jonathan Hales.

The criticisms are quibbles which, as Lucas now knows all too well, come with the territory of recapturing lightning in a bottle. Moviegoers (and especially fans) can't help but evaluate Lucas more for what he fails to provide than what he actually brings to the table. But in the final equation, the new mythologist has the last laugh, having successfully recreated himself as the digital Willy Wonka. His impressive phantasmagoria of creature clashes invites your inner (or outer) child out to play. Resistance is useless--or, in other words, it's a Star Wars movie.

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