Shadows of the Empire

With Episode II, George Lucas tries to reclaim his lost glory.

Obi and Ani work on their Jedi driving tricks.
Obi and Ani work on their Jedi driving tricks.
Three years have passed since The Phantom Menace thrilled some and infuriated others, yet the schism in the Church of Lucas remains. Die-hard supporters still refuse to admit that Episode I has some truly awful acting, dialogue, and borderline offensive caricatures; and dyed-in-the-wool detractors won't acknowledge that, despite its faults, the film is still somehow compulsively watchable. After all, a movie doesn't make in excess of $300 million and break DVD sales records without having some sort of repeat-viewing appeal (it's also a better film on DVD, especially when viewed with the Spanish-language audio track).

For Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, the hype may have been turned down, with fewer tie-ins slated, but the spin machine has nonetheless gone into overdrive, with numerous publications such as Time running feature stories that all say the same thing (echoing Johnny Depp in Ed Wood): Episode I sucked, but hey, the next one will be better! George Lucas has never yet admitted that Jar Jar Binks should have had far less screen time, or that his directing failed to draw up-to-snuff performances from Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, and Jake Lloyd (yes, folks, Lloyd can be a good actor -- check out Unhook the Stars and be amazed), though he did send a letter out to merchandising tie-in partners, promising no children or silly characters in this one. Well, what he told them was true . . . from a certain point of view.

Indeed, as has been widely publicized in hopes of winning fans back, the infamous Jar Jar gets scant screen time. What little he does get is actually genuinely amusing this time around, having nothing to do with him falling down or sniffing farts, but rather getting treated like the naive dope that he is.

As for children, there's one who plays a key role, but fans of the first trilogy probably won't mind, as it's their beloved bounty hunter Boba Fett. Relatively minor in the grand scheme of this movie, but impressively acted by a young New Zealander named Daniel Logan, Boba's here to gain motivation for his later evil deeds, under the tutelage of his father, Jango (named, perhaps, after the spaghetti western bounty hunter Django?), played by Temuera Morrison. Grown-up kids long since disappointed that the first Boba Fett action figure didn't fire its missile will be happy to know that they at last get to see some rocket-firing backpack action. And Morrison helps to fill in the villain void left by Darth Maul's untimely demise, though he's still not as scary a baddie as he was playing the drunken husband in Once Were Warriors or the Dog-Boy in The Island of Dr. Moreau.

Episode II is definitely better than the last one, but so are lots of other films. It isn't better than Spider-Man, but it at least delivers the goods, full of the requisite explosions, duels, sci-fi landscapes, and action set pieces that the average moviegoer expects. It isn't at the same level as the original trilogy (though it contains plenty of nods to it) -- but then, a sequel or prequel will almost never be as good as something new and groundbreaking. For a fifth film in a franchise (seventh, if you count the two Ewok movies that saw theatrical release overseas), it holds up far better than one might expect. Best of all, it brings back a sense of danger to its universe, as heads and limbs roll.

The problems with Episode II, big surprise, have to do with plot and characterization. Sure, the plot to a point is obliged to fill in the blanks, but there are more interesting ways to do it and a whole lot more blanks left for part three. As in the last film, Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid, still the saga's best actor) secretly tries to foment civil war in order to gain emergency war powers that will ultimately result in his becoming emperor. (A cynic might try to make an analogy to current events, but Lucas simply isn't a clever enough writer to have done so, save for a couple of ham-handed references to campaign-finance reform.)

Meanwhile, there's a plot to kill Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman) that may or may not have anything to do with the impending conflict, and Jedi knights Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor, more alive this time) and his apprentice, Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen, occasionally wooden), are dispatched to get to the bottom of things. Obi-Wan ends up playing detective with the aid of a mostly useless droid named R4, while Anakin, in the film's most tedious scenes, runs off to romp around in meadows with Padmé, where he inevitably falls, first off the back of a giant mutant pig, then head over heels in love. An obligatory subplot brings young Skywalker back to Tatooine to pick up C-3PO (Anthony Daniels, who sounds like he sucked down some helium since last time), and then everyone reunites for the big final showdown.

About those blanks left to be filled: There's no reference to Anakin's supposed virgin birth or midichlorians or even the long-promised explanation as to why Liam Neeson's dead body didn't vanish, as other Jedis do at death. Several more Jedis die without disappearing, however. There is an explanation as to why the Force-sensitive Jedi can't tell that Palpatine is really the evil Darth Sidious, and it's a stupid one: "The dark side clouds everything." Continuity geeks will of course have a field day arguing about the first wave of stormtroopers created here, as they all have New Zealand accents and kick the asses of enemies far more formidable than the gibbering teddy bears who will one day defeat them. But that's a discussion best left to the Internet.

Co-screenwriter Jonathan Hales (The Scorpion King) seems to have had a good influence on Lucas's dialogue, excising some of the more embarrassing lines that appeared in an early draft of the script widely circulated online, which included Anakin's use of words like "wacky" and "gonzo," and Yoda's revelation that one character must be a villain because his name is Darth. There's still the odd bit of patently obvious exposition ("That's Anakin's signal. It's coming from Tatooine. What in the blazes is he doing there?" says Obi-Wan to his non-English-speaking robot) and silliness (podracer Sebulba, or a look-alike thereof, shows up briefly to say "Jedi poo-doo!"), but some of it is actually witty, like Obi-Wan's reference to the Jedi Temple as the old folks' home. C-3PO's comedy bits, as in all the movies, can be a bit overbearing, but at least he's a familiar nitwit and unlikely to actually offend anyone but prissy Britons.

There is one significant misfire in the script, however, and it undoubtedly has to do with Lucas allowing his kids to come up with character names, as they did for Episode I. Dexter Jettster, Kit Fisto, Poggle the Lesser, and Elan Sleazebaggano can duke it out for dumbest name that remains safely unspoken in full, but the grand champion has to be the name of the film's major adversary: Count Dooku. Yes, it's pronounced exactly as you'd imagine, and yes, it makes any line of dialogue sound stupid -- even Ewan McGregor can't make "I'll never join you, Doo-Koo!" sound properly defiant. Though it helps that Dooku is played by the dignified Christopher Lee in a standout performance and gets a name change at the last minute, it's hard to be too afraid of a man whose moniker sounds like something Jar Jar stepped in.

Lee isn't used anywhere near enough -- he's sort of this movie's Colonel Kurtz, a renegade frequently talked about and eventually found in a dark corner of space with the tribes that are now under his command. Once he does appear, he owns the screen, taunting during lightsaber battles in the manner we wished Darth Maul would have done. And when another master hits the battle -- call it Crouching Yoda, Hidden Saber -- you'll laugh or cheer or most likely both. Some of the CG still looks bad: Yoda's ears, for example, properly bounce like the old puppet's, but his digital facial expressions are often dubious. The film itself follows suit: Sometimes it bounces along; other times it feels forced. Kids and hardcore fans will love it regardless, and those who don't will nonetheless be talking about it for the next three years.