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Archive for Friday, May 17, 2002

Sequel energetic, brainless

May 17, 2002

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If "Phantom Menace" resulted in mindless boredom, then "Attack of the Clones" at least offers mindless entertainment.

Despite the teen-age girl-aimed trailers that marketed this installment like a galactic "Dawson's Creek," "Episode II" features more edge-of-your-landspeeder moments of adrenaline than all the previous efforts. Unlike "Phantom Menace," these SFX-driven action scenes don't clutter the drama  perhaps because there's not enough drama to be cluttered.

This episode concerns the blossoming relationship between Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) and young Senator Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman) as they fend off assassination attempts on her life. Meanwhile, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) is sent by his Jedi leader Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) to investigate the reasons behind the creation of a clandestine clone army. Or as the opening crawl clarifies, "There is unrest in the Galactic senate" and the "mysterious Count Dooku" blah, blah, blah ...

Honestly, as long as you keep track of who to root for, the whole mechanics of the Trade Federation/Republic dissension/Jedi hoo-ha is vaporous information. It's all simply fodder to separate the characters in order to take turns having them heroically rescued in a series of well-staged adventures.

But for a long stretch the plot is more meandering than "Mulholland Drive."

Creator George Lucas has found that his specious claims that "Star Wars" was originally conceived as a nine-part film series are finally coming back to haunt him on a narrative level. The proof is in the fact that Lucas has to inject a ludicrous amount of knotty exposition in order to justify the "big surprises" sprung in the original three epics. Simply trying to unravel the sibling anachronisms of Luke/Leia leaves Lucas with very little story of interest to wrap this prequel around.

The result is that characters make internal decisions that seem forced upon them. (Why only now does Anakin decide to search for his mother?) And they interact romantically or confrontationally only because the plot dictates they do so, not because their personalities warrant it.

As for the human performances, the best that can be said is that no one overacts. (Even the repellent computer-created Jar Jar Binks is toned down.) But the cast has a certain glazed look in their eyes, as if all those months spent filming in front of blue screens has mesmerized them. At times their line readings are more befitting brainwashed members of a doomsday cult than outer space heroes.

Christensen is the worst culprit. For as much press as there was about casting the Canadian unknown, it's hard to believe this is the best dreamboat they could find. Particularly sterile are his scenes opposite Portman, an actress who's shown tremendous charisma in movies such as "The Professional" and "Beautiful Girls." Together, they generate as much compulsory passion as divorced parents at a child's birthday party.

There's no reason to believe that the princess/senator would find anything appealing about Anakin. He's an insolent dud, and he does more whining than Mark Hamill's Luke ever did. You'd think the rat-tail hairstyle alone would be enough to repulse the midriff-baring aristocrat.

Who's to blame for the artifice of this central relationship? The director? The screenwriter? The creator? Conveniently, they're all the same person.

Lucas makes it clear from the beginning that he's not interested in working with actors or writing cogent dialogue or crafting a plot that is compelling. He is all about the visualization of bizarre creatures and brave new worlds, and in finding ways to fit these elements into an entertaining package.

When Obi-Wan says about Anakin, "His abilities have made him arrogant," he might as well be talking about Lucas.

Yet, while stodgier critics might disagree, the filmmaker ultimately delivers the goods. The opening sequence alone  in which Anakin pursues an assassin above a technologically buzzing city scene, thus meriting his surname  is worth standing in line. Throw in a phenomenal duel between Jango Fett (Temuera Morrison) and Obi-Wan on an ocean docking platform, and a "Gladiator"-like coliseum battle that keeps upping the ante of combatants, and it's hard not to get caught up in the pure eye-candy of the proceedings.

"Attack of the Clones" also contains one legitimate showstopper that ranks right up there with the Death Star exploding (the first time, anyway) or Darth Vader revealing he is Luke's dad. This involves the nimble abilities of a customarily hobbled Yoda. That peewee green sage proves mighty handy with a lightsaber.

If ever Lucas could concoct an entire story that conjures the sheer joy of this small moment, he'd be fathering a film that truly stands the test of time ... like "Star Wars."

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