Force Fizzle

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 15, 2002

The emotional climax of "Star Wars: Episode II -- Attack of the Clones" is fabulous. Soaring and majestic, it reaches deep inside you to stroke chords of fond memory, to reaffirm the pleasure and healing power of narrative, to liberate the imagination.

Unfortunately, it comes in the first two seconds. That's when the legendary words "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away . . ." materialize on the screen and John Williams's familiar music rises thunderously. After that, the movie doesn't go downhill or uphill; it doesn't go anywhere. It flatlines.

Memo to George Lucas: Hire an editor, bud.

You're a great man. So what? You still need an editor. Everybody needs an editor, and nobody needed an editor more than the writer-director of this film. It's too long, it's too dull, it's too lame. Only in its last 40 minutes or so, several eons from the beginning, does it leap to the warp speed of kinetic grandeur, and even then it's the grandeur of spectacle, not emotion.

Lucas has previously taken his talking points from the great storytellers and story thinkers of the species: from Joseph Campbell, from Homer, from Thomas Malory, from Akira Kurosawa, from John Ford, from 4,000 years of tradition of epic voyages and grand adventures. But the mythic source he seems to have based this episode on is . . . "The McLaughlin Group."

It is inordinately obsessed with politics. Talking heads, some of them green, sit around and say things like, "It's outrageous that, after all those hearings, and four trials in the Supreme Court, Nute Gunray is still Viceroy of the Trade Federation. I fear the Senate is powerless to resolve this crisis. On an ontological scale of 1 to 10, with 10 representing metaphysical certainty, Mor-ton, do those moneymongers control everything?"

That's almost, but not quite, an exact quote, as the fiery Sio Bibble gets in his licks at a conference between Padme (also known as Senator Amidala), Queen Jamillia (blue lips), a couple of advisers and himself in the Naboo Palace. It gets the gist of much of the early blabbering in the film, which is largely stilted political commentary about legislative bodies, parties, maneuvers, treaties, personalities and reports we know nothing about. It's like reading the latest dispatch on the Mongolian parliament, as reported by Elizabeth Drew in a really cranky mood.

But as for human contact with the story, as for the themes of love and honor, of loyalty to family and tribe and kind, of heroism and sacrifice, wisdom and craven opportunism, there's almost nothing, certainly nothing like those sounded in the first cycle of "Star Wars" films. Not even the action sequences truly stir; too often, they simply resemble "Jetsons" shtick -- individual space buggies as sports cars buzzing through Tomorrowtopia -- re-created digitally at a budget of billions.

Agh! It's so frustrating to see so much pictorial energy wasted. But then that appears to be where the energy was invested: in an immaculate vision of that long-ago faraway place, which now more than ever has come to resemble a dream in the mind of the smartest teenager of 1935. Even the ships have been retro-ed back to '30s art moderne, and when Senator Amidala's chrome hood ornament of a ship glides in for a rooftop landing, all gleamy, creamy, shiny and sleek, the sound produced isn't the whoosh of rocket engines but the drone of props. Very impressive. It's like the Hindenburg mooring at the radio mast of the Empire State Building. Strange, but impressive.

What little story creeps out in dribs and drabs never really assembles into a coherent whole; the conflicts are never clarified. I think it goes a little something like this. Senator Amidala (Natalie Portman), who was Queen Amidala in the last one but never mind, journeys to the Republic's capital city-planet, Coruscant, to lead opposition in the Senate to some plan to create a clone army to dissuade the growing threats of the Separatists from . . . I'm lost in space already.

As Jedi master Obi-Wan, Ewan McGregor, left, manages to instill a little zest into the proceedings. 20th Century Fox

Someone tries to kill her. Ka-boom, there goes the chrome ship. The president Palpatine (who will become Emperor) assigns two Jedi to protect her, the master Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor) and his young mentee, Anakin Skywalker (played by 'N Sync star Justin Timberlake -- no, no, played by Hayden Christensen, who looks like an 'N Sync kid but doesn't have as much talent). There's another attack on Amidala's life, this time by poison caterpillars, which Anakin lightsabers into sushi, and then that sports-car chase through the corridors of the city 2,000 feet up.

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