Here’s the good news: Attack of the Clones, the latest toy from George Lucas’s soulless Star Wars factory, is better than The Phantom Menace. Now the bad: it’s not much better. The branches of Lucas’s intergalactic family tree are a lot easier to make out this time around but the link between Hayden Christensen’s pre-Darth Anakin Skywalker and Mark Hamil’s Luke begins and ends with their rudimentary moping. Far more humorous is the Lamarckian tie between Natalie Portman’s Amidala and Carrie Fisher’s Leia: Amidala’s ability to recover from injury is about as nonsensical as Leia’s impromptu “aren’t you a little short for a Storm Trooper?” come-on from the original Star Wars. Still, Lucas has clearly learned from his Phantom mistakes. Not only is he generous enough to trim the Jar Jar fat and provide a much needed tax break, the film itself is so viscerally engaging it’s easy to forgive his elementary understanding of legal and political jargon.
Amidala is on the run from a mysterious bounty hunter, delegating her Senate position to Jar Jar and going positively hog-wild for Anakin on her not-so-little house on the intergalactic prairie. What with all the hokey declarations of love (“I’m haunted by the kiss” and “You are my very soul trembling”) and the harlequin John Williams score, the teen romance at the center of the film plays out like a high school stage production of The Red Shoe Diaries. Before lush fields of grass and gently rolling waves, Christensen and Portman recite their love-struck, prepubescent blatherings as if they’ve come to terms with the fact that, like every actor-cum-pop-figure catapulted into the Star Wars stratosphere, they must fend for themselves while Lucas tends to his story’s digital bits and pieces. Even Pernilla August is no match for Lucas’s soapy plot points and loopy narrative pacing: Tuscan raiders kidnap her mushroom-hunting Shmi, who holds on to dear life just long enough give Ani a half-assed goodbye (not to mention a reason to turn to the dark side).
Lucas cleverly sets up Anakin’s resentment for Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) though Anakin’s post-Shmi pouting is ludicrously internal (“Life feels so much simpler when you’re fixing things,” he says, tinkering with one of his step-father’s shoddy contraptions). The Republic needs an army to assist the overwhelmed Jedi but over on the now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t Camino planet, the film’s sexiest aliens are more fixated on their extra-long sleeves than the Republic’s good intentions. A suspicious Kenobi keeps watch over Jango Fett (Temuera Morrisson), dodges a few meteors on his way to Geonosis, and finds himself inside a gladiator ring with Anakin and Amidala, who gives way to love in the face of death (“I’ve been dying a little each day every since you came back into my life”). Though the detail work is curiously lazy (Amidala conveniently finds a hairpin to unlock her handcuffs; the same button on her sleek spacescraft summons both the ship’s radar screen and transmits messages to the Jedi council), the Geonosis battle sequences are all genuinely riveting.
As wise men, Kenobi and Yoda are still low men on the guru totem pole. Kenobi demands restraint yet he shows none himself, risking death by throwing himself off Amidala’s penthouse suite and holding on to the bounty hunter’s flying robot messenger. Anakin smothers his muse with “yes, master” respect as if Kenobi’s popcorn wisdom (“Dreams pass in time”) didn’t sound as if it were being culled from a stale fortune cookie. Yoda is more proactive this time around and while he’s still drunk on Alanis-speak (note to Lucas: mixing adjectives and verbs does not wise person make), there is some reason to rejoice. Lucas’s use of light and shadow is particularly evocative during a ferocious light saber sequence between Anakin and Christopher Lee’s Count Dooku. Yet the film’s grandest moment is when his Royal Greenness also gets in on the action. It’s a frank reminder that Lucas’s toys always look better when keeping mum and waving their sticks around.