For three years, millions of Star Wars fans have prayed that Episode I - The Phantom Menace was a fluke, or maybe a sick joke. It has already become a truism that George Lucas’s obsession with digital technology overwhelmed Menace almost entirely, from the sprawling cityscapes to the crime against cinema that was Jar Jar Binks. Throw in a plodding narrative and robotic performances, and it appeared that the Master of the Star Wars Universe had lost touch with anything that couldn’t be reduced to ones and zeros. Still, maybe once all that Episode I exposition was out of the way—and Lucas had shaken off the rust from 20 years between directing gigs—the mythology would reassert itself.
But now, the awful truth is clear: Lucas has gone over to the Dark Side. Star Wars: Episode II—Attack of the Clones may be an improvement over Menace, but it’s also another piece of damning evidence that Lucas has no clue how to handle the things real humans do, say or feel. From archetypal storyteller, he has turned into yet another purveyor of empty summer spectacle.
Episode II picks up the action 10 years after the end of the last film, with the Republic still facing turmoil. Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman), once queen and now senator, leads a contingent trying to stave off civil war with several breakaway star systems. That makes her a prime candidate for assassination, and an equally prime candidate for Jedi protection. Assigned to the task are Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and his apprentice Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen), the latter now an edgy teen with a long-unrequited crush on Padmé. Eventually, they uncover a secret plot to develop an army for the Republic, which Obi-Wan heads off to investigate while Anakin tries to get his freak on with Padmé.
It’s hard to know how much Lucas was stung by criticisms of Menace, but Clones often feels like his attempt to duplicate the vibe of The Empire Strikes Back. Like Empire, Clones splits into two parallel story lines following its principle characters; like Empire, it comes with a darker, more ominous tone. There’s a chase through an asteroid field, a character who loses a hand in battle, and a prominent role for Yoda. If Menace was Lucas’s attempt to recapture the magic of Star Wars, Clones is his attempt to recapture the gravitas of Empire.
But there’s a price he pays for all the echoes of the earlier films, and not simply through high expectations. With Clones, it becomes evident that this prequel trilogy burdens its audience with too much foreknowledge. There’s no tension in any of the situations, because we already know who’s going to survive, who’s going to fall in love, and who’s going to turn out to be the mastermind behind undermining the Republic (and it’s baffling why Lucas continues to play coy with the latter). Though a couple of references to later events are cleverly handled—Obi-Wan’s comment to future-Darth Vader Anakin, “Why do I get the feeling you’re going to be the death of me?”—far more just lie there waiting for nods of acknowledgement. Lucas just can’t stop reminding us that we know where all this is going to lead.
With no mystery to the plot, he’s left to rely on character and spectacle. Quite predictably, he delivers the latter, once again creating fascinating worlds and more riveting action sequences than those in Menace—notably a ridiculously wonderful battle involving one of the series’ iconic characters. The action often works so well that it’s easy to get caught up in Lucas’s keen sense for kinetic construction.
The character moments, however, are practically unwatchable. Christensen mopes petulantly, C-3P0 launches a barrage of puns that hurt physically, and everyone speaks in dialogue so klunky it reverberates through DTS-equipped theaters. There’s not a single character with enough charisma to give the audience a rooting interest. Clones is an heroic adventure that doesn’t bother to provide a hero.
Every so often, a character will break loose with a meditation about political corruption or the burden of democracy. At those moments you get a glimpse of a George Lucas who cares about the fate of his fellow men and women—at least in the abstract. While Clones sports more than its share of escapist fun, it shows a series absolutely suffocating from a lack of personality. As hands-on as Lucas may be, it would be nice if his films showed traces of his fingerprints, instead of just his digits.