In the quarter century since George Lucas first carried us back a long time ago, to a galaxy as far, far away as your neighborhood multiplex, he's produced something truly novel in the annals of pop culture: A product that's as arcane as it is mass-market. It can't possibly matter much commercially, but only those audiences already up to their necks in "Star Wars" ephemera could possibly care about the actual plot points on which the latest installment rests. For the rest of us, each movie has to be regarded singularly, as an act, an event and -- all puns intended -- an episode.
"Attack of the Clones," aka "Episode II," arrives 25 years after "Star Wars" (Episode IV) but it's set just 10 years after we left the ultra-irritating Jar Jar Binks doing his Stepin Fetchit routine in that crashing techno-bore "The Phantom Menace" (Episode I).
That Binks is back at all -- eliciting hisses at one preview screening -- sort of says it all about this much-anticipated and ultimately lackluster movie: It's overriding tenor is arrogance, a haughty disregard for any criticism at all. Evidence? The oh-so-easily mocked title, the high school Marlowe Society recitation of Lucasian dialogue, and the series' recurring half-fly/half- Faginesque slave trader, whose elephantine nose and Lower East Side inflections make him at least as offensive as another Jar Jar Binks.
Add to this the Christians-fed-to-the-lions scene -- in which a galactic Colosseum's worth of space vermin cheers the imminent annihilation of Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen), Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) -- as well as the echoes of Lincoln's Second Inaugural evoked by the "Army of the Republic" subplot and confederacy of separatists threatening the entire "Star Wars universe, and what you have is a set of religious/political allusions as out of control as Lucas' film references. Which, by the way, are already of biblical proportions (and include, notably, "The Searchers," "Spartacus" and the burning of the Hindenburg).
So let's talk romance. Had Lucas allowed McGregor's Obi-Wan -- who is sounding distinctly like a younger version of "Star Wars'" patron saint, Alec Guinness -- to dominate more of the movie, the movie might have had legs. Although everyone else in the film, including the refreshingly virile Samuel L. Jackson, speaks as if he/she is at Oberammergau, McGregor alone can pull it off. He alone has the gravity of a young Guinness (a gravity the real young Guinness didn't actually have) and the capacity for something that might actually be called heroic.
Instead, Lucas devotes a huge chunk of time (it certainly seems like a huge chunk of time) to Christensen's Anakin -- whom, we all know, will grow up to be Darth Vader, his future infecting his present ("Why do I have the feeling," Obi-Wan asks, "that you're going to be the death of me?"). Fans, therefore, will be watching his every move, as a clue to how "Episode III" will eventually reconcile with "Episode IV." But Christensen makes it tough. His is the kind of whiny, irritating performance that would get most actors thrown out of "Dawson's Creek," much less a billion-dollar enterprise like "Star Wars." And yet, there he is, as pretty as Portman and easily as useless.
Anakin, now a prodigy Jedi Knight and student of Obi-Wan, accompanies his teacher to investigate the attempted assassination of Senator Padme Amidala -- the queen of "Episode I" -- which is being blamed on "disgruntled spice miners" but is really the work of separatists aligned with the evil Count Dooku (a delicious Christopher Lee, the movie's second-best bit of casting). Between action sequences we retire to flowery fields and Venetian canals where Padme and Anakin discuss the impossibility of their love affair. "You're studying to be a Jedi Knight," she bleats. "And I'm a senator." Are we supposed to laugh? I hope so.
"Attack of the Clones" -- yes there are clones, yes there's an epic battle -- does attempt to recapture the offhanded humor of the original films and redeem the series from "Phantom Menace." The action is freer; the characters are fuller, and some familiar faces, if you want to call them faces, are back -- including C3PO, R2D2 and Yoda, the unquestioned star of the film, whose 20 or so minutes of screen time may or may not save the universe, but can't quite save the movie.
"Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones"
MPAA rating: PG for sustained sequences of sci-fi action/violence. Some of the action is more intense and frightening than the rating would indicate, including a decapitation scene.
Ewan McGregor...Obi-Wan Kenobi
Natalie Portman...Padme Amidala
Hayden Christensen...Anakin Skywalker
Ian McDiarmid...Supreme Chancellor Palpatine
Samuel L. Jackson...Mace Windu Christopher Lee ...Count Dooku
A Lucasfilm Ltd. production, released by Twentieth Century Fox. Director George Lucas. Producer Rick McCallum. Executive producer George Lucas. Screenplay George Lucas and Jonathan Hales. Story George Lucas. Cinematographer David Tattersall. Editor Ben Burtt. Costumes Trisha Biggar. Music John Williams. Production design Gavin Bocquet. Supervising art director Peter Russell. Set decorator Peter Walpole. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.
Opens Thursday, May 16, in general release.