Lucas improves 'Star Wars' franchise with 'Clones'

"Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones" is the best "Star Wars" installment since "The Empire Strikes Back," hurtling along so quickly that you hardly notice the many moments when the story fails to make sense – even on its own fantastical terms.

The familiar "Star Wars" slogan has also never seemed more appropriate: "A long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...." That's because the franchise has never seemed more old-fashioned. "Attack of the Clones" is a fast-paced compendium of plot twists and dialogue recycled from Hollywood's deep gold mine of pop-culture clichés.

This is hardly a news flash. The whole "Star Wars" concept was stitched together from George Lucas's treasured memories of old westerns, World War II epics, and matinee serials. Mass-media nostalgia has fueled this phenomenon from the start, and Lucas hasn't tried to hide that for an instant.

What's surprising about "Attack of the Clones" isn't how familiar its ingredients are, but how impetuously Lucas has slapped them together this time. Evidently stung by the critical pans hurled at "Episode I – The Phantom Menace" three years ago, he's worked to achieve a broader range of emotions and characters. Among other improvements, you'll be relieved to know that Jar Jar Binks has been demoted from comic-relief standby to cameos so brief, you'll miss them if you blink.

Lucas also puts more thought into cinematic style. He was an artistically ambitious filmmaker before "Star Wars" colonized his career, and "Attack of the Clones" serves up enough eye-spinning color, razor-sharp editing, and crisply choreographed movement to suggest that he's taken his imagination off auto-pilot.

The plot is too convoluted to sum up thoroughly, but everyone in this galaxy knows the "Star Wars" premise well enough to guess its general outline. Anakin Skywalker has grown from a child in Episode I to a young man, a Jedi knight-in-training, with Obi-Wan Kenobi as his master. Padmé Amidala, the young Queen of the planet Naboo, has become a senator in the Republic's government, which is facing a crisis as numerous solar systems threaten to secede.

Anakin becomes Padmé's protector after fending off an assassination attempt, complete with high-speed chases and a poison-dart attack, while Obi-Wan investigates the most ominous danger of all – a plan by Dark Side enemies to subvert Republic rule and impose their own power via an army of clones.

Advance scuttlebutt said the movie would have a political edge. This boils down to a couple of civic-minded scenes, as when Anakin tells Padmé that "wise" people should tell messily democratic governments what to do, and she sets him straight by saying this "sounds like dictatorship." This isn't advanced philosophy but it's more relevant to real human experience than most "Star Wars" dialogue, so it let's give it a mild cheer.

The movie's main motive is not to furrow our brows with thought, of course. It's to lure the maximum number of 13-year-old boys to their local multiplex, and "Clones" is certain to succeed wildly, given its onslaught of speeding spacecraft, flailing light sabers, and grisly monsters.

"Clones" may also steal the hearts of slightly older girls, ratcheting Lucas's box-office prospects higher than ever. Yes, young Anakin and Padmé fall in love – not the heady lust that hovers over many contemporary movies, but the yearning that can be expressed only in ponderous dialogue inspired by 19th-century novels. That's the only way Lucas can express it, anyway.

Acting hasn't been a strong point of "Star Wars" since Harrison Ford left the series – before that, actually – and this remains an area where Lucas and company need to put in more work. Natalie Portman is irresistible as Padmé, and Ewan McGregor gives Obi-Wan more charisma than I expected. But much-touted heartthrob Hayden Christensen fails to give Anakin any depth, and Samuel L. Jackson gives one of his flattest performances ever.

Perhaps the film's heavy reliance on special effects sapped the creativity of actors not accustomed to playing their characters on empty soundstages, with scenery and props digitally inserted after they cashed their paychecks and went home. Aside from Portman, only horror-film veteran Christopher Lee makes a lasting impression, providing a jolt of screen-seizing energy as Lord Dukoo, the most menacing of the movie's villains. Yoda also makes a strong showing, but then, he's digital from the get-go.

Finally, it's worth pausing to consider whether a movie aimed primarily at early teens should be among the year's most eagerly anticipated cultural events for young and old alike. One answer might be that it's designed to appeal to the kid in all of us. But we live in a time when an insanely high proportion of the daily media barrage is aimed at that uncritical inner kid. How about a meticulously produced, gazillion-dollar-grossing epic targeting the inner grownup in all of us?

That might be a movie worth watching.

• Rated PG-13; contains cartoonish violence.

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