Attack Of The Groans

Yes, it's better than "the Phantom Menace." Yes, the 24-frame high-definition digital photography looks swell. Yes, though Yoda has graduated from puppet to fully computerized Jedi Knight his gnomish appeal is still intact.

No, it's not great.

"Star Wars: Episode II--Attack of the Clones," the fifth and penultimate installment in George Lucas's series, has arrived. Will it be successful? Hey, will people go to church on Sunday? Lucas's enterprise has long since passed out of the arena of mere entertainment and into the realm of pure faith. You're either a true believer or an agnostic. To the former, its value is beyond debate, and all criticism a form of heresy. Which leaves guys like me doing the Devil's work. Let the hate mail commence.

"Attack of the Clones" is a decidedly mixed bag. Star Warians are going to leave happy, for Lucas comes through in the last reel with some genuinely rousing popcorn- movie thrills--the kind of excitement that, 25 years ago, made "Star Wars" such a kick in the pants. When 19-year-old Anakin Sky-walker (Hayden Christensen) and Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman) are thrown defenseless into a gladiator pit on the planet Geonosis with three of the largest, ugliest monsters eying them for lunch, Lucas orchestrates an escape that is sure to make every kid--and every adult's inner infant--cheer. And Yoda has a surprise up his sleeve that will drive the faithful wild.

But the really fun stuff is a long time coming, and it only confirms your suspicion that "Attack of the Clones" is just for kids. Once upon a time--in "The Empire Strikes Back," directed by Irvin Kershner--the tale had stirring mythic undertones that spoke to every generation. The biggest disappointment about "Clones" is how little resonance Lucas gets out of Anakin's journey from innocence to the Dark Side. (He won't get there till Episode III, but he's en route.) This is, after all, the story of Lucifer, the fallen angel, but the Anakin we see here--rebelling against the authority of his Jedi teacher, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), and falling in love, against the rules, with the beautiful Senator Padme--comes off as a whiny, brattish American teenager. He's vapid, not Vader.

It's not all Christensen's fault. Lucas, frankly, is a feeble director of actors. Christensen showed a lot of talent in "Life as a House." Here, stranded in flat, graceless love scenes with the utterly hapless Portman, he doesn't stand a chance. (He tilts his head and hangs his jaw like a pretty teenage Jimmy Stewart, without the charm.) But what can you do with the dialogue Lucas and co-writer Jonathan Hales supply? It defeats even the reliable Samuel L. Jackson, who intones his clunky exposition as if he had marbles in his mouth. It's no accident that a machine, C-3PO, gets the biggest laughs. The only actors who rise above the stiff B-movie style are McGregor, who adds wit and Alec Guinness diction, and Christopher Lee, who cuts a formidably villainous figure as the leader of the separatist movement threatening the Republic.

Lucas's true heart is in the technology, and "Clones" is packed with some eye-popping digital effects, extraordinary imaginary landscapes and lots of cool hardware in the form of droid soldiers, hot-rod spaceships and anthropoid weapons of war--though almost none of the wares, in this CGI world, are actually hard. At times there's so much digital information crammed into a frame that you don't know where to cast your eye. Yet for all the up-to-the-minute razzle-dazzle, the "Star Wars" enterprise is showing its age. The movie feels long, and compared with the flowing, more emotionally charged "Lord of the Rings," the storytelling feels stiff in the joints. Thank God for that peppy, crowd-pleasing last reel. It's just enough to remind us what all the fuss was about in the first place.

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