Yes, "Episode II" is livelier and more visually and aurally impressive than "Episode I," and if that's all you're looking for, pop those corks.
But for those of us who respond more strongly to storytelling than computer-generated effects, the new "Star Wars" installment hasn't escaped the rut dug by the last one. If you've ever wondered about the difference between plot and story, here's Exhibit A.
"Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones" is big on plot, small on story. A whole lot is going on, yet the central narrative - what there is of it - never grabs our hearts.
"Star Wars" visionary George Lucas has said these prequels are dedicated to showing how someone good turns bad. On these terms the trilogy in progress must be deemed a failure.
Anakin Skywalker, the future Darth Vader and father of "Episodes IV-VI" hero Luke Skywalker, is this trilogy's central character, and he's a shell. You may have forgiven his lack of dimensionality in "Episode I" because he was just a 9-year-old, played without significant depth by Jake Lloyd.
Now Anakin is a headstrong, moody 19-year-old played with doleful looks and a curling lip by Hayden Christensen, and he's still barely a person. He speaks in topic sentences, and what they say is this: I like to take risks. I love Padme (Natalie Portman). I'm ready to be a Jedi knight. I resent that Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) still bosses me around. I love Padme. I'm frustrated that I'm so strong, yet I can't protect my mom.
For such a visually oriented filmmaker, Lucas commits an unpardonable sin: He tells instead of shows. We don't see Anakin falling for Padme; we just hear him proclaiming his love over and over. We know Padme has succumbed not because we've been seduced along with her but because she finally tells him so.
Lucas' tin ear for dialogue doesn't help. Padme to Anakin: "I've been dying a little bit each day since you came back into my life." Oh, ick.!!!!!!!
Christensen plays Anakin not unlike his sullen teen in "Life as a House," but then Lucas has given the actor little to work with aside from an overly formal speaking style. Anakin's character outline is all there is. What's the source of Anakin's drive, angst, daredevil impulses and all-consuming love? Does he have friends? Does he even have fun as he zooms spaceships around dead-spaceman's curves? We can't tell.
Anakin's promised transition to the dark side will carry little dramatic weight if we have so little feel for him. Imagine if Anakin had been more of a Han Solo type - swaggering, self-destructive, brash and undeniably charming. We'd be invested in the struggle for his soul, especially if he were played with as much verve as Harrison Ford did Han.
Or consider Al Pacino's Michael Corleone in "The Godfather," made by Lucas's former mentor, Francis Ford Coppola. Michael goes from saintly to murderous over the course of three hours without needing to verbalize his struggles, and we're with him for every step of his tragic descent. Coppola accomplished in one movie what Lucas likely can't do in three. (And Coppola still had enough to fill one great sequel.)
Granted, movies inspired by "Flash Gordon" serials aren't designed for character depth, but then Lucas always has had more on his mind than sheer escapism. The first trilogy explored myths and political intrigue, and in this one Lucas is making sharp observations about how a republic, like a person, can turn evil. "Episode II" is at its most provocative as it makes you unsure about who the bad guys really are.
This last point, unfortunately comes at the expense of a strong villain. Christopher Lee's Count Dooku may wield a mean saber, but he's an ambiguous figure, a Jedi-turned-separatist who mirrors Lee's Saruman character in "The Lord of the Rings."
Obi-Wan shows spunk
Still, in the first movies, the characters drove the ideas and not the other way around. That initial trilogy hooked you because you had to know what happened to Luke, Leia, Han and those lovable droids. They displayed great camaraderie and exchanged banter that didn't function solely as plot exposition, or thematic explanation. Heck, you cared more about Chewbacca than you do about Anakin.
McGregor's Obi-Wan provides the most life here; the movie's best moment comes early when he spontaneously leaps through a window to grab an evil module hovering outside Padme's bedroom, thus setting off a thrilling chase filled with free-falls and sharp turns. Almost everyone else seems constrained.
Portman's Padme certainly lacks the spunk of Princess Leia. You can imagine Reese Witherspoon or Kirsten Dunst having more fun with the role, but it's hard to blame the actors when Lucas asserts such complete control over every frame and image.
What he seems most engaged in is introducing us to a universe of crazy digital creatures and showing off an incredible array of nifty spaceships; his love of sleek vehicles hasn't abated since his breakthrough film, "American Graffiti" (1973). Much attention also is lavished on the spectacular sound design.
Being able to imagine and create so many alien beings, planets and cultures is nothing to sneeze at; the ambition here dwarfs that of "Spider-Man." I still find CGI effects to be somewhat distancing in the "Gladiator"-style free-for-all - I was all too aware of the digital origins of the rubbery beasties - but at least a high-level of artistry is going into the Lucas team's efforts.
Nevertheless, being impressed by technical feats isn't the same as being wowed by a story. At one point in "Episode II," C-3PO says to R2-D2: "You obviously have a great deal to learn about human behavior." In Lucas' world, count on a robot to get to the heart of the problem.
"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.
Mark Caro is the Chicago Tribune movie reporter .Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun