One great problem of making a prequel arises from the fact that the ending is preordained. In "Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones," Anakin Skywalker must fall in love with Padmé Amidala in order to produce two of the major players in Episodes IV, V and VI.
So while the first "Star Wars" trilogy created a certain mystery - how could we know watching the first picture that Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia were brother and sister? - the big things in "Clones" are predictable, and thus somewhat yawny, despite all the action. There is absolutely no chance that Obi-Wan Kenobi will have a shot at getting the girl. Jar Jar Binks looks like a non-swain as well.
The foreknowledge of the central story line, the love between the brash Anakin and the cool Amidala, is not the only element that undermines the latest chapter in George Lucas' psuedo-mythological science-fiction romance. The scenes between Natalie Portman's Amidala and Hayden Christensen's Anakin range from flat to absurd. And while Ewan McGregor does his quietly heroic best by Obi-Wan, he is on his own much of the time, with only a built-in droid on his plane for a companion. Too often the characters seem like cardboard figures, with little of the appeal of Luke, Leia and that rascal Han Solo. Clearly now, Lucas, who gave up directing for many years after "Star Wars" (now additionally designated as Episode IV - A Hope), is less interested in people than in the wonders that can be created digitally.
Lucas, who besides directing wrote the screenplay with Jonathan Hales, opens "Episode II" with a lethal blast after the crawl brings us up to date on the separatist movement threatening to fracture the Republic. The attempt on the life of Padmé Amidala, whose term as Naboo's queen has expired, succeeds in killing only her friend and double, Dorme. But the explosion sets off the central plot element: Amidala, now a senator deeply into politics, must have Jedi protection. Initially, both Obi-Wan and the green but gifted Anakin stand guard. But soon Anakin has Padmé all to himself.
But who wants to kill Amidala, she of the many coiffures? ("Episode II" largely concerns itself with hairstyles, with Anakin sporting a braid and a sort of ponytail, and Obi-Wan subjected to a sort of mullet cut.) To get the answer, Obi-Wan turns detective and discovers a strange planet erased from the Republic's star archives. On the rain-beaten Kamino, he finds that clones are being bred by the tall, white, extremely polite inhabitants, creatures who seem to have escaped from a Spielberg galaxy - either "Close Encounters" or "A.I." The dark, stormy landing and escape from Kamino give the digitally shot "Clones" its most vivid moments. And the breeding of the storm troopers of Darth Vader sets up another back story for the first trilogy. The model for the clones, bounty hunter Jango Fett, strongly played by a glowering Temuera Morrison, poses a dangerous adversary for Obi-Wan and sets up a son, Boba Fett, for a later appearance in "The Empire Strikes Back." Later in "Episode II," there is even a glimpse of a holograph of the future Death Star. But even as Lucas reveals how the future will take shape, "Episode II" really is not much fun. Often it feels like wandering through a huge video arcade.
Lucas has filled his continuation of the prequel cycle with plenty of action, including Obi-Wan's bruising flight through an asteroid belt and a final light-saber duel with the powerful force of the Dark Side, Christopher Lee's deep-voiced, towering, imperious Count Dooku (a similar role to his wizard Saruman the White in "Lord of the Rings"). Samuel L. Jackson's Mace Windu plays a somewhat larger role this time, often conferring with an entirely digital Yoda, still voiced with playful syntax by Frank Oz. Jimmy Smits has a small role as Sen. Bail Organa but will loom larger in "Episode III," which Lucas is now writing.
The writer/director/special-effects king claims that "Episode II" is aimed at 12-year-olds, and it will probably appeal more potently to somewhat older kids than "Episode I." That widely reviled but technically amazing epic told a boy's story, of course, and now that Anakin is a teenager, the tone of his life becomes more turbulently adolescent. Even Jar Jar has matured. Still dopey, he has nonetheless become a senator, underlining the Republic's government crisis.
Christensen successfully portrays Anakin's shift to the Dark Side and is even moving when cradling Pernilla August's dying mother, Shmi Skywalker. This terrible loss pushes Anakin over the edge into uncontrolled violence, signifying his irresistible transformation into Darth Vader, to be expected in the 2005 "Episode III." For Anakin's homecoming to the desert world of his boyhood, Lucas returns to Tunisia, his Tatooine in "Episode I." The impossibly beautiful Villa Balbianello on Lake Como in Italy provides the love nest for Anakin and Amidala, in scenes that call to mind the magic realism paintings of Maxfield Parrish. But the location work and the digitally created environments are finely integrated, though at least one interior background lacks depth.
Screenings of "Episode II" begin on the stroke of midnight in many theaters, kicking off a four-day weekend that may challenge the monstrous opening of "Spider-Man," which grossed more than $114 million. So the race will soon be on. If the count includes having the most toys, however, "Star Wars" wins, for the film abounds in new stuff, and stores are already offering a Jedi Starfighter (both Hasbro and Lego) and an Amidala, with gun.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun