The force is unquestionably strong with George Lucas.
He has endured three years of questioning since the release of "The Phantom Menace," the first prequel to his original "Star Wars" trilogy. The first "Star Wars" film in 16 years, "Menace" arrived on a tidal wave of hype. Despite earning $431 million at the box office, it was considered something of a disappointment by "Star Wars" fans.
All doubts about the Lucas magic will be quelled with the latest installment, "Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones," opening Thursday (May 16).
"Clones" brings back much of the classic trilogy's darkness, delivering a tighter story with improved pacing, suspenseful action sequences and dazzling visual effects.
"Attack of the Clones" is brilliant. It's a family-friendly film that isn't simplistic. You just can't get it all in one viewing.
"Clones" is set 10 years after the events of "Menace," and the crisis facing the Republic has escalated to a perilous peak. The galaxy is on the brink of war; the twisted plot is fraught with intrigue.
The central figure, Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen), is now the Jedi apprentice of his Master, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor). Obi-Wan is sent to track down a bounty hunter after an attempt on the life of Sen. Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman). Obi-Wan finds much more than he bargained for.
Anakin, who will become the evil Darth Vader of the classic trilogy, is given the task of guarding Padme. Before the war begins, the fireworks between them take center stage as they are torn between duty and their forbidden love. The characters in "Clones" are marvelously conflicted and multi-layered. The actors from the previous film have grown into their roles, and the cast's newcomers add even more spice.
Lucas began his epic in Homeric style with the fourth episode, so everyone knows the ending. The beauty of this prequel is watching him tie the twisted knots of his story together. Instead of a tangled mess, Lucas weaves all the threads beautifully. There is delightful suspense as we helplessly watch his tragically flawed hero start down the dark path.
The special-effects wizards at Industrial Light and Magic have unleashed the most grandiose of Lucas's imaginative visions. Careful eyes note that in the original "Star Wars" movie, there were never more than a dozen storm troopers in any scene; a small budget limited the costumes and extras. Now, the storm troopers of the clone army are seen as countless legions thanks to computer animation. The battle scenes are a visual feast.
More than sheer spectacle, the character animation shows great detail and is executed with amazing artistry. Previously a puppet, Jedi master Yoda is now unbound and steals the show. Finally we see that the master's great reputation is deserved.
The menace of "Phantom Menace" was anything but, and the film suffered from the lack of a strong evil presence. The villains in "Clones" are wonderfully villainous, especially Count Doku, played Christopher Lee. The bounty hunter Jango Fett balances out the mystical powers of the Jedi Knights with straightforward shoot-'em-up action.
"Attack of the Clones" puts the back story of "Phantom Menace" in perspective and superbly foreshadows the classic trilogy. By the time the final credits roll, the only disappointment will be that the final installment isn't due until 2005.
CAST: Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Hayden Christensen, Ian McDiarmid, Samuel L. Jackson, Pernilla August, Jack Thompson, Christopher Lee, Anthony Daniels and Frank Oz. Director: George Lucas. Writers: George Lucas and Jonathan Hales.
RUNNING TIME: 132 minutes
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