Universal Themes

Love, hate and the clash of great powers play out in George Lucas' dazzling `Attack of the Clones.'

May 16, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Are you hurt?" e-mailed a friend in mockery of the Saturday-serial dialogue style in Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones. "Are you blind?" I e-mailed back. For the latest entry in George Lucas' transgalactic saga of the moral rise and fall of Anakin Skywalker and the deterioration of democracy into despotism has an electric visual majesty and boasts Lucas' best direction since American Graffiti.

All the talk about Lucas as an empire-builder clouds perceptions of him as an artist. But as that Jedi guru Yoda would say, an artist is he. Lucas tests the boundaries of the picture frame, fills it to breaking point with bulging action and scintillating detail-work and then moves from one frame to another with a steady, plangent pull.

This movie isn't mechanical; it's voluptuous. In a single chase through the city planet of Coruscant, Lucas encapsulates all of Blade Runner; in a single pitched battle on the arid planet of Geonosis, he sums up the delirious appeal of stop-motion creature master Ray Harryhausen. And with the help of cowriter Jonathan Hales and composer John Williams, he taps an emotionalism that fuses the eclectic ingredients of the Star Wars saga, from the pioneer-clan feelings of John Ford Westerns to the dystopian dread of Lucas' debut feature, THX 1138 (1971).

Lucas' Star Wars sequels are the biggest independent movies of all time. Seen that way, the first Star Wars trilogy not only revived special-effects action yarns but also established dysfunctional families as the theme of off-Hollywood moviemaking. What puny indy has a primal scene to compare with heroic Luke Skywalker finding out that his dad is Darth Vader?

Star Wars: Episode One The Phantom Menace showed how Luke's father and Vader-to-be, Anakin Skywalker, was plucked from slavery on the sand planet of Tatooine when a maverick Jedi (Liam Neeson) realized that the Force was strong within him. At the end of that first prequel, the Jedi's apprentice, Obi-Wan Kenobe (Ewan McGregor), became a full-fledged Jedi himself and took on the role of Anakin's mentor.

In this second prequel, teaching Anakin requires Obi-Wan to handle teen-age moodiness of cosmos-quaking proportions. Attack of the Clones is one escapist fantasy that stays true to adolescents' tortured ideals and desires. It evokes pangs in open-minded adults as well as shocks of recognition in 13-year-olds.

What gross-out comedies and action extravaganzas miss, and what Lucas gets, is the romantic self-seriousness of youth: the clash of hormones and nobility, the thick emotional atmosphere young adults carry around with them like clouds. The heart of Clones lies in Hayden Christensen's brave, volatile portrayal of Anakin as a kid who has so much more going for him than anyone else that he can't see why he shouldn't break and remake the rules of Jedi training or democracy. His rebellion takes reactionary form: He chafes at the lectures of do-gooders and sparks to the warm glint of corruption he finds in worldly wise counselors. Yet as the devoted son of a slave woman who is freed only to face a fate worse than death, he has more than enough reasons for his piled-up angst and grievances.

When Anakin tells his true love Padme Amidala - once Queen, now Senator of Naboo - that he hates sand because "it's coarse and rough and irritating, and it gets everywhere," not like Naboo, where "everything's soft and smooth," the line gets a bad laugh. But it's not supposed to be a deft come-on. Anakin is a rugged do-it-yourselfer from a desert planet, who dreams of his mother even though he's putting the moves on Amidala.

Christensen conveys Anakin's precocity and immaturity simultaneously, and has the shadowy bone structure that draws the camera in. And if Natalie Portman, as Amidala, is too intent on maintaining an aristocratic veneer to break through dramatically, she gives Lucas the warmth he needs to complete his portrait of young love. They're a great-looking couple.

The plot, as always, is simple and complicated. The Jedi Council throws Anakin and Amidala together when they assign the Jedi-in-training to protect the Senator after a couple of failed assassination attempts. Meanwhile, Obi-Wan Kenobe traces a bounty-hunter's toxic dart to the planet system Kamino, a watery realm of expert cloners whose location has mysteriously disappeared from the Jedi archives. In the background, then the foreground, is a rift between the Jedi-protected Republic and a Separatist movement headed by a potent former Jedi named Count Dooku (Christopher Lee).

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