Warning: This review contains spoilers
Is the magic back? Not without a price, baby. The Star Wars engine has been stalled for so long, you have to trudge through nearly an hour of Episode II - Attack of the Clones just to hear it cough and turn over. Still, the Force against dullness is finally goosing George Lucas. To alleviate his usual cornball jokes and solemn mythmaking, Lucas throws in Jedi love (who knew Jedis take a vow not to screw?). And check out the babe casting of the lovers: Natalie Portman as queen turned senator Padme Amidala, decked out in belly-baring outfits Britney would envy, and Hayden Christensen as hotheaded Jedi-in-training Anakin (Darth Vader's inside me somewhere) Skywalker. Clones is crammed with action, grand digital design and a dark side Lucas hasn't flaunted since 1980's The Empire Strikes Back. Death, dismemberment, lost mommies, demon daddies and Freudian subtext are a huge improvement over the Jar Jar juvenilia that blighted 1999's Phantom Menace — a prequel that everyone saw and no one wants to remember.
The big problem, aside from the fact that The Matrix and The Lord of the Rings outclassed Lucas at his own game, is talk, talk, talk. Even with script help from Jonathan Hales, Lucas still can't write dialogue that doesn't induce projectile vomiting. And the film's visual snap (it was all shot digitally) leaves emotions at a chilly remove. What helps are the cool gadgets and cooler villains, notably the great Christopher Lee as Count Dooku and New Zealander Temuera Morrison as bounty hunter Jango Fett, daddy to clone son Boba (Daniel Logan). Even Ewan McGregor has stopped playing Jedi master Obi-wan Kenobi with a stick up his ass.
The plot? Don't tell me you want to hear that there's unrest in the galactic Senate, that Count Dooku's separatist movement is a threat to the limited number of Jedi knights, that... help, my eyes are glazing over.
The point is: It's war, and Lucas pulls out all the stops when the separatists and their battle droids take on the Republic and its clone army. It's a treat to see that old troll Yoda stop overstating the obvious ("Begun, this Clone War has") and start kicking separatist ass. The climactic duel between Yoda (no longer a puppet but a digital warrior) and Count Dooku is a rouser. As is the arena faceoff that pits Anakin, Padme and Obi-wan against three digital monsters, a mere warmup to the big battle led by Jedi master Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson). Lucas delivers the fireworks, from asteroid showers to air speeders and swoop bikes, but it's overkill. Much more should have been made of the relationship between Jango, the template for the clone army, and Boba, the young son he loves and corrupts. Much less should have been made of the insufferably coy banter between Anakin and Padme. It's only when tragedy intrudes that Portman (the Lolita-ish star of The Professional) and Christensen (best known as the teen who earned drug money by letting middle-age men blow him in Life As a House) strike harsher, truer notes. Clones ends with a wedding for the future parents of Luke and Princess Leia. But it's the glimpse of Darth Vader that Lucas gives us in Anakin — traumatized by the murder of his mother and capable of killing innocents — that reminds us of the dark power Star Wars exerted before it became a franchise. It's about time.
Star Wars Best to Worst
With five episodes down and one to go, here's how the Lucas saga stands so far:
1 The Empire Strikes Back (Episode V), 1980: The best of the bunch, the one with the most satisfying emotional payoff, was directed by Irvin Kershner (not Lucas) and written expertly by Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett (not Lucas). Hint, hint.
2 A New Hope (Episode IV), 1977: The first and freshest shows Lucas as a visionary to rank with Walt Disney.
3 Attack of the Clones (Episode II), 2002: The dark fantasist in Lucas makes a comeback after years of once-over-lightly.
4 Return of the Jedi (Episode VI), 1983: Those damn Ewoks reveal a drift toward cuteness that takes Lucas nearly twenty years to overcome.
5 The Phantom Menace (Episode I), 1999: A lifeless, infantile mess that dented audience good will.