I hope you won't think I'm damning the movie with faint praise if I call Star Wars: Episode II ' Attack of the Clones the biggest chunk of eye candy in the history of cinema. Story and character development have never been George Lucas' strong suit, and the script to the series' last episode, The Phantom Menace, read like the minutes from a United Nations summit on international trade. But never before has Lucas so overwhelmed us with what he put on the screen ' the sense of not one world but an infinite variety of worlds, each with its own flora and fauna ' that we have to pick our jaws up off the floor just to ask what's going on. As a work of visual imagination, Attack of the Clones isn't just a phenomenon, it's perhaps the greatest height reached by the art of illustration since our forebears drew on the walls of the caves at Lascaux. N.C. Wyeth, eat your heart out.
Alas, Lucas insists on trying to tell a story, something about the Republic (still) giving way to the Empire as Chancellor Palpatine manipulates a separatist movement toward his own political ends. And there's something that passes for character development as Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen, a boy-actor sent to do a man-actor's job) slowly but surely turns to the dark side. Anakin and Natalie Portman's PadmÃ Amidala sniff at each other's pheromones a little bit, but you get the impression their hearts aren't really in it. Neither is Lucas', I suspect. The man who once said "I think graphically, not linearly" would rather be back at his workstation, twisting the knobs on the most sophisticated Etch A Sketch of all time.
It was Jurassic Park that sent Lucas back to that galaxy far, far away; one look at those CGI dinosaurs and he knew that digitalization had arrived. And with Attack of the Clones, he's made the same quantum leap with computers that he once made with miniatures. He's stretched the new medium ' less photography than painting, as he's pointed out ' as far as it will go. The early chase scene, where Anakin and Obi-Wan Kenobi race through the three-dimensional streets of Coruscant in an intergalactic hotrod, is an instant classic. And so is the movie's climactic sequence, set in an arena well beyond Thunderdome. If the former reminds us of Blade Runner, the latter of Gladiator, Lucas at least has the moxie and skill to leave his rivals in the dust. As an image-slinger, he's no longer the fastest gun in the West; one of his disciples would probably grab that honor. But he always hits his mark with an elegantly clean shot.
As Attack of the Clones passed the two-hour point, I started wishing there was somebody to get behind. Christensen's Anakin is just too petulant; besides, he's the bad guy. And Ewan McGregor's Obi-Wan, though around a lot, seems too committed to the Jedi philosophy to engage our emotions. Why couldn't these two have been allowed to exploit the dissolution of their teacher-student relationship for a few laughs? The closest the movie gets is when Obi-Wan says to Anakin, "You'll be the death of me." Lines like that used to have tremendous resonance in Star Wars. But I'm not sure the series is adding new resonance these days, just feeding off the old resonance. When C-3PO shows up, late in the movie, it's like running into an old friend, but where are our new friends? The movie's final shootout between the droids and the clones is so spectacular that I couldn't figure out what was missing at first. Then it hit me: "Oh, the humanity."