Rated PG - Running Time: 2:22 - Released 5/16/02

Wouldn't it be great to be George Lucas? You write a good story, hire some really good effects guys and try some new things, and all of a sudden, 25 years later, you've got people lining up around the block on opening day to buy tickets to the 5th (that is, the 2nd) episode of your story, which despite the fact that it has far outgrown its original intention and become an overly complex, bloated gas giant of its former self, still attracts people who weren't even born yet when the first (or rather, the 4th) episode arrived, people who are all perfectly willing not only to stand in line for advance tickets to a show that starts after midnight and doesn't get out until 2:30 a.m., but to spend the whole movie devoutly endeavoring to reconcile its plot line with the previous (that is to say, subsequent) episodes so that it all makes sense in the grand scheme of things. Damn, that guy's got it goin' on.

As we would expect from the penultimate installment in the great, grand Star Wars saga, we are treated to nearly 2½ hours of beautiful scenery, awe-inspiring effects work, both conventional and computer-generated, a vast, colorful array of characters (some new, some familiar) of different species and from different parts of the galaxy, and another step toward grasping how the story all works out. My God, how wonderful it would be if it just even pretended to not be so commercialized.

Okay, okay. I liked the movie. I think it's better than Phantom Menace. But I can't help feeling just a little overwhelmed by what an obscene amount of money it's making. And dammit, why couldn't they find a better actor for the lead role. Hayden Christensen, who stunk up the screen in Life As A House, has unfortunately been chosen to play the grown-up Anakin Skywalker, the brash but gifted Jedi knight who will eventually beget twins Luke and Leia and become the hated Darth Vader (presumably in the next and final episode). I'll tell you folks, I don't know if he's trying to match the lackluster performance of Jake Lloyd, who played young Anakin in Menace, but he's as wooden as they come and he pulls the whole production down. Fortunately, we again have the delightful Natalie Portman as Amidala, Anakin's romantic opposite, and although she's forced to deliver some stomach-churning Lucasinine dialogue, her spirited performance does a lot to counteract Christensen's ill effects. Since Queen Amidala has now stepped down to become Senator Amidala (apparently on her home planet of Naboo, queens have term limits), Portman's dropped the monotone vocal style and thick makeup and given her character a richly deserved life. And she's hot as hell.

Of course, we have the ever-reliable Ewan McGregor returning as Obi-Wan Kenobi, Anakin's teacher and mentor who is beginning to lose control over his ambitious student. I look at McGregor altogether differently since I saw his astounding performance in Moulin Rouge; he can't possibly approach that level with this part, but he's certainly admirable, and, sporting longer hair and a new beard, grows closer in appearance to the man Obi-Wan will become, played so exquisitely by Alec Guiness. Also on hand is the aging but elegant Christopher Lee (the famous Dracula of old who's suddenly a hot commodity again, between this and his contract to play the evil wizard Saruman in the Lord Of The Rings series), and Frank Oz as the voice of Yoda, who seems to be more animation than foam rubber these days, and Samuel L. Jackson and Jimmy Smits, both underused as other members of the Jedi order. And of course, I would be remiss if I didn't mention good old Kenny Baker and Anthony Daniels as R2-D2 and C-3PO, whose characterizations have not changed one iota since 1977 (although I must admit I don't really know what Baker does).

As we learn in the traditional and ever-more-annoying opening text crawl, the story of this episode involves the mounting tension in the interplanetary senate caused by the secession of many "solar systems" (this is a misnomer, but I'll leave it alone) from the governing body, about 10 years after the events of The Phantom Menace. Senator Amidala's life is threatened because of her efforts to hold the union together, so it becomes necessary for Anakin and Obi-Wan to act as her bodyguards while she's on the planet-city of Coruscant, where the senate and the Jedi are based. What she doesn't know is that her trusted friend, Supreme Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), the leader of the senate, is also the evil Darth Sidious, who, along with the unfortunately named Count Dooku, a.k.a. Darth Tyranus (Lee), controls the dark side of the force and plans to convert the democratic government into a dictatorship. Since it is too dangerous for Amidala to appear herself at the senate, she appoints Jar Jar Binks (voice of Ahmed Best, just as irritating but thankfully afforded much less screen time) to negotiate. Meanwhile she and Anakin fly around the galaxy and make goo-goo eyes at each other in places like her beautiful home planet, Naboo, his ugly home planet, Tattooine, and an even uglier place where Obi-Wan has been taken prisoner while trying to spy on Dooku and his soldier droid factory. Meanwhile, an immense army of men has been created to serve some dark, undisclosed purpose, all of them cloned from a sinister assassin named Jango Fett (Temuera Morrison), whose son Boba (Daniel Logan) is keen on following in his dad's footsteps. In the meantime we are treated to numerous chase scenes, light-saber battles (including one where Yoda finally gets to show his stuff), and a spectacular gladiator-style setpiece involving several truly ghastly creatures to which our heroes are thrown for dinner.

This movie not only furthers the Skywalker saga and paves the way for the final chapter, which will presumably tie up all the myriad loose ends into various neat and aesthetically pleasing bows, but it introduces yet more interesting creatures, languages, and legends. Although I can't recommend it for small children (some of those beasties are really bad), the violence is generally kept to a bloodless and cartoonish minimum, as is in line with Lucas's intent to re-create the feel of an old-time serial. I wish I could say that I liked the leading actor more, but I can say that I like just about everyone else, especially Portman, who I expect to see giving birth to twins in the final episode. I'm glad that Lucas and his co-writer, Jonathan Hales, have chosen to add a little more levity to the dialogue, as was the spirit of the first three films but sorely lacking in Menace. As for Episode III, which is scheduled for release in 2005, I say bring it on—but figure out a way to cut down on the shameless commercialism. I mean, would it kill Lucas to donate the net profit to Save The Whales or something? ****½

Copyright 2002 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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