On Screen

'Episode II': The Force Falters

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 17, 2002

FOR THE legions of "Star Wars" fans, some of them still lining the block to see "Star Wars: Episode II -- Attack of the Clones," nothing stands between them and a good time. And may the force be with them.

And also, may they read no further. They're not going to like this.

To this set of ears, there's a distant rumble. But it's not the army of clones marching across the battlefield or George Lucas's cutting-edge sound system. It's the collision of two Lucas eras -- the better one, in which Harrison Ford was the newest kid on the block; and the later one, in which the new sensation is . . . Hayden Christensen.

Quick quiz. Christensen is . . .

" The third guy from the left in 'N Sync.

" The guy who does the third guy from the left's hair.

" Some guy from Canada.

Christensen is indeed some guy from Canada. He also starred in the Fox TV show "Higher Ground." In "Attack of the Clones," he plays Anakin Skywalker, soon to become Darth Vader. He'll be Anakin/Darth again in "Star Wars Episode III," slated for 2005. But in the tortured syntax of Yoda, Vader not is he. And while we're talking in funny Muppet language: Great movie not is "Attack of the Clones."

But first, the story, which is set 10 years after the events of "Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace." Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman) has become the senator of her home planet, Naboo. There is an unsuccessful attempt on her life. The Jedi Council concludes she needs security. They dispatch the Jedi, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), and his Padawan learner, Anakin Skywalker (Christensen) to be her protectors.

Obi-Wan uncovers a bigger picture that includes a bounty hunter named Jango Fett (Temuera Morrison), who's assembling a clone army, and the rogue Jedi, Count Dooku (Christopher Lee), who's amassing a coalition of separatists against the Republic.

While these dark forces threaten the welfare of the cosmos, and Obi-Wan gets the go-ahead to investigate further, Anakin "Ani" Skywalker is left to guard, and fall in love with, Senator Amidala.

They have to fall in love, we know that. Or Luke Skywalker won't be born. There's a timetable over their heads. Unfortunately, that seems to be the only discernible reason for their romance. The chemistry between them is a frigid zero.

For one thing, neither party is particularly engaging, either as character or performer. Christensen's Anakin is a one-dimensionally arrogant brat given to surges of petulant rage. It's not his fury so much as his limited range that brings him up short. Portman is brittle, chilly and unconvincing as Padme; it's as if she hasn't quite committed to being a "Star Wars" character yet.

The net result: a love affair between a hothead and an ice bucket.

"I've been dying a little bit ever since you came back into my life," Padme confesses to Anakin. Does it get any Ami-duller than this?

Christensen and Portman are just two elements that don't jibe with the "Star Wars" movies of the 1970s and 1980s.

McGregor is an engaging personality in most films. But he can't produce the gravitas we'd expect of a budding Obi-Wan Kenobi. After all, the older O-W was played by Sir Alec Guinness, only one of the greatest actors of his generation. McGregor's valiant attempt at a hoity-toity accent -- presumably to suggest a young Alec Guinness -- simply reminds us of the casting mismatch.

It reduces the tremendous import of this comment, which he exclaims playfully to Anakin: "Why do I have the feeling that you're going to be the death of me?"

Lucas, the supreme being of the "Star Wars" franchise, has made things extremely difficult for himself. I mean, by creating a prequel series using a younger generation.

Had the Christensens, McGregors and so forth been the second generation, the children of Darth, Han Solo and Luke and so forth, there'd be less of an adjustment to make. But by making them earlier versions of the older characters, Lucas forces us to match Guinness with McGregor, and James Earl Jones (who was the voice of Darth Vader) with Christensen. No contest there.

Which is to say, "Attack of the Clones" works only in theory. Yes, we "get" the Obi-Wan death comment. And yes, we can trace the source of Anakin's later actions to his tension with his mentor and a traumatic incident at home.

But it doesn't feel powerful enough. "The Phantom Menace" and "Attack of the Clones" have reduced the franchise to, well, a franchise. Now, we're watching a television series with a revolving door of guest stars. (Look for Jimmy Smits in this movie.)

Even the storytelling has slumped. The rivalry between McGregor's Obi-Wan and Christensen's Anakin is practically phoned-in. And when you've seen one scene of mass-generated clones marching in symmetrical fashion, you've seen them all. There's nothing to stir us, no scene to savor for life -- such as the father-son battle between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader in "The Empire Strikes Back." Back then, we were watching a classic, still the best film in the series. This time, we're watching just another "Star Wars" flick.

STAR WARS: EPISODE II -- ATTACK OF THE CLONES (PG, 142 minutes) -- Contains sustained sci-fi action and violence. Area theaters.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company