We'll never see another "Star Wars," no matter how much we want to. And we want to very much.
But like the cherished passions of first love, the fervor called forth by the landmark film is never coming back, and no amount of prequels or sequels is going to change that. Paradoxically, the fact that the latest prequel, "Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones," is a bit better than its predecessor makes it clear how lacking in the things that matter these newcomers are.
Given its huffy 9-year-old protagonist and off-putting characters like Jar Jar Binks and Watto the junk dealer, "Episode I The Phantom Menace" was anything but a tough act to follow. Picking up the adventures of Anakin Skywalker 10 years later, "Clones" (which opens Thursday) has more menace and less Jar Jar, better battles and an impressive parade of eye-catching splendors. But like the Tin Man, "The Wizard of Oz's" C-3PO predecessor, it doesn't have much of a heart. Writer-director George Lucas' gift for animating the inanimate turns out to be paralleled by a tendency to deaden what should be completely alive.
As with "Phantom Menace," it is the pictorial element of "Clones" that makes the biggest impact. Production designer Gavin Bocquet, aided by four visual effects supervisors, three concept design supervisors, an animation director and a previsualization and effects co-supervisor (no, I don't know what that is either), has created some truly involving alternative universes, and costume designer Trisha Biggar has figured out what should be worn in each of them.
Some of the film's action is also well-done, especially a thrilling flying chase through the dizzying nighttime urban caverns of Coruscant, the "Blade Runner"-influenced capital city. But except for a climactic appearance by the venerable Yoda, whose computer-generated lightsaber skills got him on the cover of Time under a "Yoda Strikes Back!" headline, creating emotion is beyond this film's powers.
One reason is a script that feels, well, cloned, something Lucas and co-writer Jonathan Hales (TV's "Young Indiana Jones," story credit on "The Mummy Returns") threw together in their spare time. The plot is standard, and the dialogue, even for something intended for young people, is curiously flat. It ranges from the pious ("The day we stop believing democracy can work is the day we lose it") to the predictive ("Why do I get the feeling you're going to be the death of me," Obi-Wan Kenobi jokes to Anakin) to the pathetic, as when Anakin grumbles about Padme Amidala, "I've thought about her every day since we parted--and she's forgotten me completely."
These stiff lines are matched by line readings so uniformly impassive that even such lively performers as Ewan McGregor (Obi-Wan) and Natalie Portman (Padme) can't animate them. Only the veteran Christopher Lee, with experience of doing things on his own during his long career, gives a worthwhile performance as the villainous Count Dooku. For what Lucas gets out of his cast, the actors might as well be digital too, as is the rest of the film.
This dramatic stolidity underlines yet again how fortunate Lucas--and the world--was in the Harrison Ford-Carrie Fisher-Mark Hamill troika that animated the original "Star Wars." Ford especially brought the kind of wickedly nonchalant sense of humor to the proceedings that has gone missing this time around.
To be fair to the current "Clones" team, there's perhaps something more at work here. When that first film was being made, it meant less than zero to say you were part of "Star Wars"; the eyes of the world were not on the production, to say the least.
Now, everything has been close to sanctified, and those currently involved seem weighted down by the knowledge that they're part of a phenomenon. There's an unshakable self-consciousness about "Clones" that does not work to its advantage.
Still, the picture does start promisingly, with Senator (and former Queen) Amidala coming to Coruscant to try and preserve the Republic against a secessionist movement. She's quickly the target of multiple assassination plots, and the Jedi knight Obi-Wan and his Padawan learner-apprentice Anakin are called in to protect her.
Judging by his performance here (perhaps not a wise thing to do), young Canadian actor Hayden Christensen was picked for Anakin strictly on his ability to radiate sullen teen rebellion, something he does a lot. Anakin chafes like a grounded adolescent at the restrictions Obi-Wan places on him, grousing that the master is "overly critical. He never listens. He just doesn't understand. It's not fair."
This High School Confidential in Outer Space tone is continued in the forbidden romance (Jedis aren't allowed to fall in love) that develops between Anakin and the senator. As the young people hide from danger in an elegant Naboo retreat, they're burdened by a formidable lack of chemistry. (Where are Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst when we really need them?) And they're saddled with dialogue that might have been ransacked from old Harlequin novels: "I'm haunted by the kiss you never should have given me."
Everything inevitably ends in a climactic battle, where the senator gets to fight bad guys while showing off a Britney Spears-like bare midriff. Impressive though the computer work is, it soon descends into video game overkill. Only a teenage boy could find this kind of stuff continually diverting, and only a teenage boy would not notice flimsy emotions and underdeveloped acting. It seems George Lucas, like Peter Pan, has never really grown up.
MPAA rating: PG for sustained sequences of sci-fi action/violence. Times guidelines: Some of the action is more intense and frightening than the rating would indicate, including a decapitation scene.
'Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones'
Ewan McGregor...Obi-Wan Kenobi
Natalie Portman...Padme Amidala
Hayden Christensen...Anakin Skywalker
Samuel L. Jackson...Mace Windu
Christopher Lee ...Count Dooku
A Lucasfilm Ltd. production, released by Twentieth Century Fox. Director George Lucas. Producer Rick McCallum. Executive producer George Lucas. Screenplay George Lucas and Jonathan Hales. Story George Lucas. Cinematographer David Tattersall. Editor Ben Burtt. Costumes Trisha Biggar. Music John Williams. Production design Gavin Bocquet. Supervising art director Peter Russell. Set decorator Peter Walpole. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.
Opens Thursday in general release.