By Stephanie Zacharek
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Three years have passed since Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace thrilled some and infuriated others, yet the schism in the Church of Lucas remains. Die-hard supporters still refuse to admit that Episode I has some truly awful acting and dialogue, as well as borderline-offensive caricatures; and dyed-in-the-wool detractors won't acknowledge that, despite its faults, the film is still somehow compulsively watchable. After all, a movie doesn't make in excess of $300 million and break DVD sales records without having some sort of repeat-viewing appeal (it's also a better film on DVD, especially when viewed with the Spanish-language audio track).
For Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, the hype may have been turned down and fewer tie-ins slated, but the spin machine has nonetheless gone into overdrive, with numerous publications such as Time running feature stories that all say the same thing: Episode Isucked, but, hey, the next one will be better! George Lucas has never yet admitted that Jar Jar Binks should have had far less screen time or that his directing failed to draw up-to-snuff performances from Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor and Jake Lloyd (yes folks, Lloyd can be a good actor -- check out Unhook the Stars and be amazed). But he did send a letter out to merchandising-tie-in partners promising there would be no children or silly characters in this one. Well, what he told them was true...from a certain point of view.
Indeed, as has been widely publicized in hopes of winning fans back, the infamous Jar Jar gets scant screen time. The little he does get is actually genuinely amusing this time around, and it has nothing to do with him falling down or sniffing farts, but rather being treated like the naive dope that he is. As for children, there's one who plays a key role -- but fans of the first trilogy probably won't mind, as it's their beloved bounty hunter Boba Fett. Relatively minor in the grand scheme of this movie but impressively acted by a young New Zealander named Daniel Logan, Boba's here to gain motivation for his later evil deeds under the tutelage of his father, Jango (named, perhaps, after the spaghetti-Western bounty hunter Django?), played by Temuera Morrison. Grown-up kids long disappointed that the first Boba Fett action figure didn't fire its missile will be happy to know that they at last get to see some rocket-firing-backpack action. And Morrison helps to fill in the villain void left by Darth Maul's untimely demise, though he's still not as scary a baddie as he was playing the drunken husband in Once Were Warriors or the Dog-Boy in The Island of Dr. Moreau.
Episode II is definitely better than the last one, but so are lots of other films. It isn't better than Spider-Man, but at least it delivers the goods; it's full of the requisite explosions, duels, sci-fi landscapes and action set pieces that the average moviegoer expects. It isn't at the level of the original trilogy (though it contains plenty of nods to it), but then, a sequel or prequel will almost never be as good as something new and groundbreaking. For a fifth film in a franchise, it holds up far better than one might expect. Best of all, it brings a sense of danger back to its universe as heads and limbs roll.
The problems with Episode II have to do with (big surprise) plot and characterization. Sure, the plot to a point is obliged to fill in the blanks, but there are more interesting ways to do it, and a whole lot more blanks are left for part three. As in the last film, Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid, still the saga's best actor) secretly tries to foment civil war in order to gain emergency war powers that will ultimately result in his becoming emperor (a cynic might try to make an analogy to current events, but Lucas simply isn't a clever enough writer to have done so, except for a couple of ham-handed references to campaign-finance reform).
Meanwhile, there's a plot to kill Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman) that may or may not have anything to do with the impending conflict, and Jedi knights Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor, more alive this time) and his apprentice Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen, occasionally wooden) are dispatched to get to the bottom of things. Obi-Wan ends up playing detective with the aid of a mostly useless droid named R4, while Anakin, in the film's most tedious scenes, runs off to romp around in meadows with Padmé, where he inevitably falls: first off the back of a giant mutant pig, then head over heels in love. An obligatory subplot brings young Skywalker back to Tatooine to pick up C-3PO (Anthony Daniels, who sounds like he sucked down some helium since last time), and then everyone reunites for the final showdown.
About those blanks left to be filled in: There's no reference to Anakin's supposed virgin birth, or midichlorians, or even the long-promised explanation as to why Liam Neeson's dead body didn't vanish like other Jedis do at death. Several more Jedis die without disappearing, however. There is an explanation as to why the Force-sensitive Jedi can't tell that Palpatine is really the evil Darth Sidious, and it's a stupid one: "The dark side clouds everything." Continuity geeks will, of course, have a field day arguing about the first wave of storm troopers created here, as they all have New Zealand accents and kick the asses of enemies far more formidable than the gibbering teddy bears who will one day defeat them. But that's a discussion best left to the Internet.
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