- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 15, 2002

The new installment of the "Star Wars" saga, which opens at midnight tonight at many theaters, proves to be pictorially impressive but melodramatically redundant.
A number of fans of the original set of "Star Wars" movies felt a keen sense of disappointment with "Episode I: The Phantom Menace," released in 1999. In the new episode, "Attack of the Clones," filmmaker George Lucas makes a joke of would-be combatants dropping their light sabers. The disgruntled easily could seize on this gag as an unwitting metaphor for the way Mr. Lucas' grip on "Star Wars" has grown defective.
However, less disappointment seems to be in store for old-timers this time, in part because "The Phantom Menace" drop-off has had three years to settle. There's not an overwhelming tendency to expect wonders of "Episode II."
I-told-you-so sentiment also may be appeased by the demotion of Jar Jar Binks, who has just two brief scenes, one as Padme Amidala's replacement in the Senate, a telling indication of its decline and fall as a legislative body.
Mr. Lucas isn't incapable of humor, but sometimes he may not anticipate the funny resonance in certain elements of his "Star Wars" spectacles.
For example, he's reliably clueless about dialogue meant to be either informative or ardent. The lovely but teeny-voiced Natalie Portman as the heroine Padme Amidala an imperiled queen turned imperiled legislator is stuck with some choice examples.
By way of superfluous explanation at one point, the little miss clarifies her departure from a seemingly vast and ineffectual Galactic Senate by commenting, "I'm taking an extended leave of absence." Oh.
Stirred by the nearness of her bodyguard, Hayden Christensen as the 19-year-old incarnation of Anakin Skywalker, apprentice Jedi knight and mixed-up pouty kid, the heroine confesses, "I'm haunted by the kiss you should never have given me." Sweethearts who dare to say that one out loud may share a priceless comic bond for the rest of their lives.
On the discouraging side, this chapter laboriously spins its storytelling wheels while pretending to inch us closer to a consummation of the Anakin-Amidala romance on one hand and that long-promised conflagration called the Clone Wars on the other. You're reminded of the odd nature of Mr. Lucas' shortcomings. He combines an abundance of fancifully intriguing backgrounds with a scarcity of fresh or compelling narrative of the dynastic-epic persuasion.
It's worth remembering that Mr. Lucas revived the series only because remarkable advances in computer graphic imagery made it possible to illustrate a science-fiction environment as richly and flexibly as he desired. The new installments look much sleeker than the first set of "Star Wars" movies, made before the emergence of digital imagery.
Mr. Lucas probably cannot decisively reinvigorate the series in dramatic terms. While he pretends to do that and drags his feet over depleted ground, it remains diverting to let the eye wander from foregrounds to backgrounds. It's easy to admire the settings and props that enhance "Episode II," notably the cosmopolitan Coruscant of the opening reels and the mystery planet Kamino, discovered by Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan Kenobi in midpassage.
Mr. Lucas is like an anxious chaperon with his lovebirds. I don't think he'll ever get Anakin and Amidala into a consummation fade-out. He passes up several opportunities in the current chapter. At one point, Anakin dashes back home to Tatooine to rescue his mother from Tuskan marauders.
Mr. Lucas is prone to hilarious panic attacks when the young people threaten to get physical in the way they would need to in order to engender those future long-lost twins Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia. Moreover, when Yoda comments, "Begun the Clone War has," during a curiously contrived epilogue, you have a very strong suspicion that the war (or wars) might be over before "Episode III" begins. An awful lot could happen off-screen between this movie and its sequel.
Nevertheless, while the characters jet and promenade around Coruscant, the setting provides considerable distraction. It appears to teem with skyscrapers and flying machines and neon and a presumably enormous, productive population. There must be at least 50 million stories in this gleaming city, and I would guess that 49,999,995 would be more interesting than the dysfunctional-family plot Mr. Lucas continues to belabor.
To be fair, he gets momentum going when Mr. McGregor is off investigating Kamino, the site of a secret laboratory that is manufacturing a cloned race of warriors.
Simultaneously, Lake Como is borrowed to glamorize the puppy love of Anakin and Amidala. There's also a commanding new addition to the villains: Christopher Lee as Dooku, a renegade Jedi. No one twirls a light saber with more panache, and the happiest single image in the movie is Mr. Lee supposedly buzzing around on a sky scooter of some kind.
After a sluggish start, Yoda comes out charging for the finale, which pits him against Dooku a former apprentice, inevitably. It's so amusing to witness their improbable light-saber duel that you're almost willing to forgive two hours of derivative cliffhanging teases and letdowns, some that recall familiar situations in the earlier "Star Wars" movies, others that crib rather embarrassingly from better sequences in "Chicken Run" and "Starship Troopers."
As if one father-son hang-up weren't enough for the chronicle, "Episode II" presents us with the juvenile version of the future bounty hunter Boba Fett, who suffers traumatic setbacks while devoted to his disreputable dad, Jango Fett. The one consolation is that a game called "Namin' Fetts" might gain popularity, in the spirit of Christopher Guest "namin' nuts" in "Best in Show." I hope the clock won't run out on the series before we meet a Bubba Fett, a Hoagy Fett, a Sissy Fett and a Fats Fett, at the very least.


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