Episode II best "Star Wars" movie since "Empire Strikes Back"

This time, The Force is with George Lucas. After the impossibly dreary "Boy's Life" adventure of "The Phantom Menace," I had just about given up on Lucas and "Star Wars." Fortunately, the Guru of Marin County gets down to business with "Star Wars, Episode II: Attack of the Clones" and the result is both more and less than I had anticipated.
While still suffering from tone-deaf dialogue, an overdose of "Fraggle Rock"-like puppet creatures, and stilted performances, Lucas has done something quite amazing here.
Arguably this is the best "Star Wars" movie since 1980's "The Empire Strikes Back," and certainly the most visually scintillating entry in the series to date. There's so much glorious eye candy that "Clones" is literally a feast for the senses.
By creating a completely digital dreamscape with no artistic precedent on heaven or earth, Lucas finally achieves the kind of technological alchemy he's been fantasizing about for over a quarter-century.
An early scene of Corsucant, a city immersed in clouds, is quite possibly the most rapturously beautiful image in the history of science fiction.
Set 10 years after the laborious backgrounding plot of "Phantom Menace," "Clones" picks up the action mid-stream. The Republic is in shambles, making it politically vulnerable to a separatist movement led by the scheming former Jedi Master Dooku (Christopher Lee). Former Queen Padme Amidalda (Natalie Portman) is now a senator, but still a favorite target for terrorist plots so Jedi-in-training Anakin (Hayden Christensen) and his mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi (McGregor) are assigned the task of guarding her.
Obi-Wan leaves Padme in Anakin's care to go off and do some galactic detective work in the hopes of getting to the bottom of an attempt on the senator's life. During his fact-finding mission, Obi-Wan makes mortal enemies out of ruthless bounty hunter Jango Fett (Temuera Morrison), while Anakin and Padme begin a heavy-duty flirtation.
The action climaxes with the start of the Clone Wars, a fearsome spectacle that's capped off with a light saber duel between the revered Yoda and his one-time student Dooku. Oh yeah, a top-secret wedding figures into the movie's denouement as well.
My biggest fear going in was that Lucas was going to turn "Clones" into a teenybopper romance for the 'N Sync crowd the same way he geared "Phantom Menace" to a preschool audience. As it turns out, nothing could be farther from the truth. If anything, Lucas shortchanges the love story between Anakin and Padme to such a degree that we're literally begging for more.
Even their first kiss, which should send a shiver down our collective spines, is only good for a giggle. A charming courtship scene involving a pear used as foreplay is cut almost sadistically short.
One of my biggest gripes with "Clones" is that the best stuff -- including Yoda's audience-pleasing battle with Dooku -- feels oddly truncated, whereas the less interesting action setpieces (e.g., an aerial dogfight between Obi-Wan and Jango) drag on forever. John Williams contributes his usual overbearing score, but I'm guessing that Lucas told him to go full-throttle as a way of filling in the emotional blanks.
Of the human cast, only Lee and Morrison make favorable impressions. Poor McGregor looks like he's auditioning for the lead in a road company production of "Jesus Christ Superstar;" Christensen was far more impressive in last year's "Life as a House" (his incessant whining about Obi-Wan sounded like a suburban brat bellyaching because he got grounded); and Portman, so good in reality-based films like "Anywhere But Here" and "Beautiful Girls," once again fails to convince as sci-fi royalty.
Of course, anyone who goes to see "Clones" for the acting is seriously deluded. Like Kubrick's "2001," Lucas' doozy of a movie is like taking a trip into the deepest recesses of your imagination and finding it a very cool place indeed.

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