George Lucas has the last laugh, or at least the penultimate chuckle, with "Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones." The fifth movie in his long-running series of grandiose, light-hearted space operas and the second in chronological order is the most visually spectacular and exciting of all "Star Wars" movies to date.
Lucas carries the "Star Wars" saga 10 years past the much-maligned "Episode One The Phantom Menace," extending the yarns of old favorites such as wizened master Yoda, adventurous robots C-3PO and R2-D2 and newer additions such as the youngObi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), his cocky protegee Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) and the beauteous Padme, Former Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman).This movie should thoroughly please old fans and even create new ones, even if it probably won't win over critics who believe the series has turned into the movie equivalent of a slick, vacuous theme park.
Yet, defying the curmudgeons, who (with some justification) damned his 1999 "Phantom Menace" as a cliched, over-juvenile disappointment and bore, Lucas has stretched his imagination and technical mastery to the limit jam-packing his movie with churning excitement and visual if not verbal wit. Lucas harks back to the youthful brio that informed 1977's "Star Wars" and some of the darkness that made "The Empire Strikes Back" the series' consensus critics' favorite. You can tell that he and his technicians are having more fun with this one, and they keep treating us to blowout action sequences, fantastically detailed alien worlds (an Italian renaissance hideaway that looks like a Maxfield Parrish villa, a long sandy Tattooine homage to "The Searchers") and hilarious aliens who recall old Astounding Science Fiction Magazine covers by Kelly Freas.
Nothing in the first four movies quite matches the continuous visual bravura of this one, which is almost as much a digital age marvel as the '77 "Star Wars" was of an earlier era of miniatures and models. For most of its 2-hour span, the movie keeps topping itself, not dramatically, but with one pure, explosively delivered, ripely detailed action set-piece after another from a hell-for-leather nighttime skycar-chase through the metropolis of Coruscant's noirish spires and skyscrapers (a knockout scene that suggests "Blade Runner" crossed with "The French Connection"), through a terrifying fight on a slickened hull in a planet of eternal rain to an extravagant mock-Roman show-battle before evil Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) in an arena full of robots and rhino- and spider-monsters: a set-piece that suggests a Looney Tunes version of "Gladiator."
Some of the plucky spirit of the first movies are revived, and other things too especially Yoda (now digitally created but still voiced by Muppet master Frank Oz), the little green reverse-speaking warrior-savant who actually brings down the house in one unexpected turn toward the movie's climax.
This is a landmark film, for technological bravura (and its trailblazing digital filmmaking and projection process) if nothing else. If it can be easily faulted for cardboard characters and clunky dialogue, then it should be recalled that these are defects of the entire series which takes most of its cues from the old "Flash Gordon" serials, as clunky and cardboard as they come. The dialogue in "Clones" isn't any worse (or better) than the dialogue in the first "Star Wars" and, in treating the Flash vs. Emperor Ming plots as if they were worthy of a David Lean-John Ford epic visual style, Lucas supplies a straight-faced humor that his detractors mistake for straight-lowbrow lunacy.
The appeal of the "Star Wars" movies has always lain in their mix of grandiosity and naivete, the mammoth scale that Lucas brings to the kind of space opera story that in its '40s-'50s heyday was almost always encumbered with the cheesiest of effects and the campiest of low-budget techniques and acting.
What's more interesting about the movie is the way it piles on epic sweep and links up more strikingly with the "future events" of the first trilogy. So we see Palpatine, the future Emperor (Ian McDiarmid) wheeling, dealing and betraying in the Senate, setting in motion the crises that will turn the republic here into the evil Empire. We see heroic young Anakin wooing Amidala in a courtship we now know will result in the births of Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia and we see Anakin displaying an arrogance, temper and penchant for dictatorship that will ultimately turn him into dark warrior Darth Vader, tyrant/father of trilogy No. 1.
As for the acting, it's as serviceable and archetypal as most of the performances in "Lord of the Rings" or any other "Star Wars" movie. Nobody is as irritating as Jar Jar or the child Anakin were in "Phantom Menace," and if Anakin and Amidala are not classic lovers if one of their scenes suggests "The Sound of Music" with armadillos they're pretty enough to win us over. Oz's Yoda and Anthony Daniels' C-3PO are likably wise or twee and Lee makes almost as fabulously cruel a villain as James Earl Jones' Vader. As for McGregor, he makes a nice transition from callow warrior in "Menace" to a more preternatural cool with canny foreshadowing of Alec Guinness' older Obi-Wan.
All the performances though are secondary to the overall vision. This is visual storytelling of a high order, and though we've heard and seen it all before, it has never been with quite this childlike awe and incredible elaboration. "Attack of the Clones" celebrates a certain youthful spirit in both moviemaking and movie watching; because it's as much phenomenon as movie, audiences will either ride with or reject it. I was happy to take the ride.
Want a second opinion? Read additional "Attack of the Clones" reviews by Tribune movie reporter Mark Caro,
"Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones"
MPAA rating: PG for sustained sequences of sci-fi action/violence. Some of the action is more intense and frightening than the rating would indicate, including a decapitation scene.
Ewan McGregor...Obi-Wan Kenobi
Natalie Portman...Padme Amidala
Hayden Christensen...Anakin Skywalker
Ian McDiarmid...Supreme Chancellor Palpatine
Samuel L. Jackson...Mace Windu Christopher Lee ...Count Dooku
A Lucasfilm Ltd. production, released by Twentieth Century Fox. Director George Lucas. Producer Rick McCallum. Executive producer George Lucas. Screenplay George Lucas and Jonathan Hales. Story George Lucas. Cinematographer David Tattersall. Editor Ben Burtt. Costumes Trisha Biggar. Music John Williams. Production design Gavin Bocquet. Supervising art director Peter Russell. Set decorator Peter Walpole. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune movie critic.