Universal themes

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).

In Attack of the Clones, Lucas dares to delay separating the good guys from the bad guys. Yet one thing is clear: The saga is fervently pro-democracy and anti-Fascist. Many critics, including myself, chided Lucas for the Triumph of the Will meets Wizard of Oz pageantry at the conclusion of the first Star Wars movie. But all along, Lucas intended to create a series that would demonstrate the seductiveness of Fascism to boys like Anakin, who are disgusted with the compromises of a weak, degraded democracy, as well as depict the formation of a totalitarian style. And in its own way, this movie is anti-militaristic: Amidala proselytizes for solving the rift with the Separatists without force.

When negotiation is not possible, action is required, and McGregor is up to the task with his revitalized portrayal of Obi-Wan Kenobe. McGregor knows that a swashbuckler needs as bold and fluent an attack as the headliner in a musical comedy; he manages to make Obi-Wan's wariness and tested patience dynamic, stirring, even funny. It would be touching enough if McGregor were just a believable predecessor to the Alec Guinness Obi-Wan of Star Wars. But he also evokes what Guinness might have done if he'd performed the role in the years when he played extroverted showstoppers in films like Tunes of Glory. McGregor matches up memorably with Lee's towering Count Dooku. Lee brings over half a century of acting authority to Count Dooku and delivers one of his suavest, most commanding impersonations of moral slipperiness.

Samuel L. Jackson has a slashing incisiveness that keeps you wanting more of his Jedi Master, Mace Windu. And then there's the all-new, all-computerized Yoda, who hasn't lost any of his green-skinned Chinese-Crested handsomeness and rises to new Zen-warrior heights. Yoda is the key to the storybook allure at the center of the saga; there's a magical, lyrically humorous scene of him instructing 4- to 8-year-old students in Jedi disciplines. Yoda gives off his own special glow wherever he goes, as if he'd stepped out of an illuminated storybook; he represents the attraction of the whole movie writ small. You can gauge the welcome return of composer John Williams to the realm of musical enchantment in the airy notes he wrote for that Jedi-kid instruction scene and the melancholy love theme he composed for Anakin and Amidala. The score is one of Williams' finest achievements - he interweaves motifs from past movies with heart-throbbing intuition.

And that's what Lucas does imagistically while topping himself in design and flow. The array of gadgets and vehicles and creatures here is thrillingly organic - except when Lucas superbly showcases the anti-organic, as he does on the stormy Kamino planet system where Obi-Wan witnesses the molding of a clone army. Lucas' endless array of landscapes and space-scapes gives you the feeling of falling inside an encyclopedic atlas of the universe.

Even when the movie is at its most diagrammatic, supernal sprays of color ignite vivid emotion, whether in the salmon sunsets on Naboo or the scarlet meeting-room of Count Dooku and his partners. The action reaches its titanic climax as Obi-Wan, Anakin and Amidala fight for their lives while a sell-out crowd of human-sized insects clatter in the seats of a gladiatorial arena. As the sequence builds, it accretes so many heroic and nightmarish associations it plays like a prelude to apocalypse, which of course will come in Episode III. Attack of the Clones is part soda pop, part witches' brew - and all visual ambrosia.