Lucas gets his force back with ‘Clones’

Justin Ballheim

Not too long ago, in this very same galaxy, a phantom menace of unprecedented cultural force was unleashed. It was cold, clunky and, for all its invigorating visual zing, lacked a pulse; its force felt artificial, an anxiously orchestrated mess of showiness. Despite this, millions still went nuts with jovial shrieks of delight upon seeing it – and then kept seeing it, again and again and again. They lined up four or five or 28 times to relive the excitement of the best intergalactic trade dispute movie there ever was. A menace, indeed.

But the period of denial is over. Fans now all accept that “The Phantom Menace” isn’t a great movie, which means it’s time for George Lucas to bring out the next prequel to his original trilogy of record-stompers, “Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones.” What a title.

Yet those of us who lined up last week to see the movie were presumably wiser in the ways of blockbuster cultural phenomena than three years ago. Our hopes were simpler, if not somewhat desperate; indeed, you could practically hear, in the cheers that greeted the Lucasfilm logo on screen, a universal plea: “Please be better than ‘Episode I,’ please be better than ‘Episode I.'” And – as Anakin Skywalker once said, “Yippee!” – “Episode II” is better than “Episode I,” a lot better. Darker, smoother and fueled by a force reborn, “Clones” is ultimately a royal – and, this time, a very real – treat.

It’s 10 years after little Anakin left home to be a Jedi while a kid who could actually act was off seeing dead people instead of wookies. Anakin is now showing signs of a dark side and genuinely wanting to show something else to the lovely former Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman, whose presence here sadly often seems as restrained as her hairdos). But there are worse people to play Anakin than Hayden Christensen: This guy seems born to brood and emits some nice I’m-gonna-be-Darth Vader vibes. While our would-be hero is protecting Amidala, now a senator marked for assassination, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor, having fun this time) hunts a mysterious bounty hunter by the name of Jango Fett (fans of Boba, get pumped). Meanwhile, the Republic is in utter disarray and there’s a war on the horizon, all of which is stressing out Yoda (now marvelously computer-generated but still with Frank Oz’s signature voice) and fellow Jedi Master Mace Windu. played by the always cool Samuel L. Jackson.

The thrust of the story is still within fans’ communal knowledge of what will happen in the future, which is both a strength and a weakness. It lends an epic, ominous weight to the love story that doesn’t initially deserve to be there. For all he cares about the characters’ tragedy, Lucas doesn’t seem to give a damn about his screenplay, which was co-written by Jonathan Hales and, despite some welcome wit, is too often distractingly trite. Lucas himself seems distracted by his own grand design at this point and his excitement at watching his saga develop is infectious. He knows what’s coming, just as we do, and he knows what he wants.

Lucas likes themes, Lucas likes images, Lucas likes the emotional “pow!” that comes from a pure, rich sense of wonder originating not from the brain but from that kid within us. These well-enchanted trademarks are what make the original trilogy great and, despite all of “Episode II'”s flaws, you can feel Lucas regaining his ability to work with them and translate his enthusiasm to the screen.

In “Episode I,” he was so busy trying to blow audiences away with the gee-wiz ocular spectacle afforded to him by advances in his own special-effects technology that he forgot to give his creations a soul. Now, he’s more relaxed and more confident. He just wants to have a blast, and he does: There’s a breathless high-speed chase through an urban airborne rush hour, a clever jaunt through a chaotic clone factory assembly line and a fantastic “Gladiator”-style showdown featuring gleefully terrifying monsters that remind us of the boundless possibilities of childhood nightmares. There’s a light-saber duel in the dark that’s wonderfully powerful and then a crowd-rousing climactic scene featuring Yoda that must be one of cinema’s most deliriously giddy moments ever.

By the end, Lucas is at home, finally, back in the unpretentious and awe-soaked universe he founded. There’s a thrillingly classic sense of fate closing in on the film’s characters in the last shots that is as exhilarating as John Williams’ score and as sharp as the remarkably vibrant digital wizardry on screen. You can feel the force here.

But perhaps the greatest pleasure is the simple realization that Lucas, for all his problems with words, has it back. nyou