I'll say it with pride: I really enjoyed "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace." It's an unpopular opinion, and one that arouses bitter disagreements, but the 1999 installment of George Lucas' sprawling space opera was a cheerful and agreeable spin around the "Star Wars" universe. It was a roller coaster ride that rarely let up, and the entire movie was such a joyful experience that, if not perfect, at least had the guts to lay out formidable plans both narratively and technologically, and accomplish them with seeming ease. If "Episode I" was a mammoth cornucopia of sugar-coated amusement, "Episode II" (IMDb listing) is an uncompromising toothbrush handed over after three long years of cinematic tooth decay.
It's been ten years since the events of "Phantom Menace," with young Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen, "Life As A House") now grown up and quickly mastering the Jedi arts. Anakin, and his teacher, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), have been summoned to Coruscant (which looks like modern-day Toyko for some reason) to protect the former queen, now senator, Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman) from assassins who want to end her political career. Anakin is asked to accompany Padme as she returns to her home planet of Naboo to hide from her enemies. Anakin has deep romantic feelings for Padme, but as a sworn Jedi, he is forbidden to act upon them. Across the universe, Obi-Wan stumbles upon a plot in which an evil Jedi master (Christopher Lee) is using the DNA of Jango Fett (Temuera Morrison, "Once Were Warriors")you might remember his son, Boba?to fashion a huge army of clones to defeat the Republic once and for all.
"Phantom Menace" was fun, "Attack Of The Clones" is not. At least not in any of the familiar ways that I've come to expect from Lucas and his risk-free approach to these films. He's building a huge narrative arc with this new trilogy, and "Clones" serves the same function as 1980's "The Empire Strikes Back" did. Both films are the dark sections of their respective stories. The tales where the good guys get the stuffing knocked out of them, and the bad guys win in the end. To the relief of many, I'm sure, "Clones" take its universe much more seriously than "Menace" did. It uses this chance with the more complex, darker plot to play up all those wonderfully nightmarish images and characters that I've come to love from "Star Wars." I also enjoy the lighter side of the saga, but "Clones" has more on its mind than Jar-Jar Binks (whose screen time in "Clones" is alarmingly tiny) and pod races. "Clones" takes on weightier subjects such as forbidden love, evil and malevolent Jedi masters, and of course, Anakin's violent spiral into the dark side of the Force. Lucas also begins to play up the angle of the Jedi's ultimate destruction, and the looming shadow of Darth Vader starts to form in "Clones." That alone will slap the Jake Lloyd right out of you.
There's much more texture and story to "Clones" making it a much different moviegoing experience, especially for the younger fans of "Menace." But I like where Lucas is taking this story. I like the epic way in which "Clones" unfolds, using separate corners of the "Star Wars" galaxy to add the much needed contrast to the narrative. I welcome how Lucas manages to create absolute CGI mayhem without ever losing focus on the bigger points of the scene. I loved the romance between Padme and Anakin, and how it is strung along (helped greatly by John Williams' opulent "love theme") all the way through the picture, up to the ambitiously poignant climax. The constant foreshadowing of the other installments is also a nice touch, from an unusually wicked joke (Obi-Wan to his zealous student: "You'll be the death of me, Anakin"), a glimpse of a planning-stages Death Star, and the introduction of Episode IV's Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru. Lucas also deserves credit for taking the beloved Yoda character (now fully a computer effect, to a degree that isn't all that promising) and giving the little green guy a lot more to do in "Clones." There won't be a dry seat in the house once Yoda pulls out his lightsaber in the film's climatic final battle. It is the film's most spectacular, and spectacularly outrageous moment.
But that doesn't mean Lucas has completely changed. The man still has a penchant for some pretty flat dialog, even with the help of co-writer Jonathan Hales, and it doesn't help the performances. Hayden Christensen does a fine job stepping into the tiny shoes of young Jake Lloyd. His realization is tricky, as he must play the future Darth Vader, yet remain appealing enough to sell the Padme courtship. Christensen balances the two nicely, and I hope he's allowed to stick around for "Episode III." Natalie Portman and Ewan McGregor seem more comfortable in their respective roles, and even get a rare opportunity to show off sides of the characters (him: humor, her: personality) we haven't seen before. Also given more to do this time out is Samuel L Jackson, looking like he's having a blast as a purple-lightsaber-wielding master Jedi. All of the cast still share that slightly bewildered look as they often play to nothing (sets and entire characters were added after shooting ended), and the CGI often leaves them out to dry during the more emotional moments. And does this matter? Not really. This is "Star Wars," after all, not "Macbeth." As long as you show me Slave-1, a bad-ass Mace Windu telling the bad guys that "the party's over" before proceeding to show them what he means, and some serious lightsaber action, I'm willing to forgive the less than competent elements of "Clones."
"Attack Of The Clones" should go a long way toward winning back bitter fans after "Phantom Menace," but more importantly, it provides another winning chapter in this consistently surprising saga. I ask now what I asked in 1999: Do we really have to wait another three years?
Filmfodder Grade: A