Force Fizzle
A Long Time Ago, George Lucas Had a Story to Tell in 'Star Wars'

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.

Hmmm, I forget what happens next. Somehow they get separated, the two youngsters on their own, hiding on Anakin's native planet of Tatooine, I believe, while Obi-Wan tracks down intimations he's heard that the clone army has already been built, on a star system whose location has been removed from, er, star system central.

I'll tell you one thing: no star system central, as in, say, MGM, would have built a movie around the dim Americans who haunt this one. In fact, the movie is kind of a laboratory on American vs. British technique. Score: Brits 10, Yanks 0. That's because to the Brits, who work from the outside in, acting is physical mastery of face and voice and body, strategically employed at certain moments for impact. An actor imposes himself on the character, and invents charm and wit and sparkle where none exists. So even the guy playing Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) is creepy-elegant, and McGregor, athletic and earnest, can even bring a little life to a line like, "I am concerned for my Padawan. He is not ready to be given this assignment on his own yet."

The Americans, on the other hand, are trained to get into the character's mind and imagine as he would imagine, to work from the inside out. But there is no inside here: These characters are nothing but pop-cult props, and that leaves the performers helpless and inert. Natalie Portman has always enjoyed good press, but she was at her best as a child in "The Professional." She's just overwhelmed here. And even an actual great actor, Samuel L. Jackson, seems ridiculous. He never looks comfortable as the Jedi Mace Windu, in robes and boots, and there's nothing he can do at all with a line like "The Genosians aren't warriors. One Jedi has to be worth a hundred Genosians!"

The 'N Sync kid is even worse. He seems to have wandered in from a Pepsi commercial. No, that would have been Justin Timberlake. Who knows where this dreary boy has been?

There's no reason for the woodenness of the cast other than the director's decision. Has Lucas lost the will to work with good, spontaneous, creative actors? He seems to prefer the closest thing he can get to droids. But it wasn't always so: In the original three "Star Wars" films, Lucas got extremely good work out of Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and especially Carrie Fisher. The trio sparkled, and between them was something like chemistry, even in the childishness of the emotional situation. That never happens here: We see handsome children dully repeating memorized lines on dreary soundstages; they seem not to imaginatively see what will be digitally painted in around them.

It is true that eventually "Episode II" springs to some kind of life, when the clones actually attack, as the title promises. In fact, soon enough it's clones vs. droids for control of the empire, but as to the technical difference between a clone and a droid, that I can't tell you, because then I'd have to kill you.

Lucas rather haphazardly just decides to end the movie on a lollapalooza: A rescue (Anakin of Amidala) becomes a romp through a droid factory (clank clank go the stamping machines) which becomes a capture which becomes an execution (by giant crab, no less) becomes another rescue becomes a battle becomes an even bigger battle with ships exploding becomes a series of lightsaber fights between new villain Count Dooku (Christopher Lee, still a legend) and, one by one, Anakin, Obi-Wan and even tiny li'l Yoda, who, animated digitally, turns into quite the fencer.

And then it's over. And not an eon too early. And now, for at least three blessed years, peace.

STAR WARS: EPISODE II -- ATTACK OF THE CLONES (PG, 140 minutes) -- Contains digital but bloodless battle violence. At area theaters after midnight tonight.

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