Is George Lucas the world’s worst filmmaker? His last two Star Wars entries display all the ineptitude of an Ed Wood but none of the innocence, and the latest, the long-awaited Episode II Attack of the Clones, falls to new depths of narrative incoherence, torturous banality, and acting incompetence. Why, then, will it make about $40 million by tomorrow morning? Because, though a lousy director and writer, Lucas is nonetheless an evil genius, able to tap into, if not the Dark Side, then the Dumb Side, clouding weak or at least willing minds to his product’s fraudulence.
And give him credit, he knows how to tap into the zeitgeist as well. The opening sequence culminates in the explosion of a terrorist bomb intended to kill former queen and current senator Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman, swapping the regal kabuki carapace for a Britney Spears navel-baring look). Separatists — remember that riveting backstory about taxes and trade routes from Episode I? — want to break up the republic, and Supreme Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), the John Ashcroft of his day, secretly hopes to turn the emergency to his advantage, raising an army of the republic for homeland security. Miffed by this is disgruntled former Jedi master Count Dooku (Christopher Lee). In perhaps the film’s only attempt at depth and ambiguity, neither Palpatine nor Dooku is as good or evil as he seems.
And so on. It all appears a ruse to get the future Darth Vader, Anakin Skywalker (dud Hayden Christensen), away from Jedi mentor and wet blanket Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and alone with the lovely Padmé. He’s sent to her home planet, Naboo, to be her bodyguard while Obi-Wan checks out a lead on the assassination attempt. Jedis, of course, are not permitted to love (no human emotions are allowed in a Lucas film, only their simulation), but on what look like sets from The Student Prince Anakin woos Padmé in cinema’s most embarrassing courtship since Ben Affleck played with animal crackers on Liv Tyler’s tummy in Armageddon.
Fortunately, Lucas has no notion of dramatic structure or narrative coherence, so this mushy stuff ceases abruptly when Anakin decides he must visit Shmi (poor Pernilla August), the mother he left behind on Tatooine, since he hasn’t seen her in 10 years. He meets for the first time his stepbrother, his stepbrother’s girlfriend, and her mother’s new husband. Shmi has been captured by the Comanche-like Tuskens; stepdad has recently lost a leg. "We’ve got to talk," he says.
Indeed. So much for character development and graceful exposition, though the detour allows to Lucas indulge in a belabored allusion to The Searchers that underscores how far, far away we are from the galaxy of John Ford. Meanwhile, Obi-Wan has discovered that some 10 years back, a now-deceased Jedi master ordered, without the council’s knowledge, a million-man clone army. Now delivery is about due. Did someone steal his credit card?
Okay, nobody said this had to make immediate sense — maybe we should just have faith that everything will fall into place with Episode III, in a resolution that Lucas himself modestly describes as "symphonic." On the plus side, too, there’s not much of Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best) or any of the other puerile alien/racial stereotypes from The Phantom Menace. But there’s also nothing that gets your attention the way those annoyances did. And as for the special effects, with a few exceptions they’re pyrotechnical wallpaper backing some of the worst dialogue written by human or machine.
Any actor would be stymied by this crap. Harrison Ford took the right approach with his sardonic seriousness; his presence is missed. But Portman, McGregor, Lee, and Samuel L. Jackson as Jedi cipher Mace Windu haven’t got a chance. The only performer who does credit to the script is Yoda (voiced by Frank Oz), and he’s a special effect. He puts in a hell of a show when he dukes it up with Dooku, bouncing off the walls like a superball (round two in the wizard wars for Lee, who went mano-a-mano in The Lord of the Rings as Saruman versus Ian McKellen’s Gandalf), his lightsaber flashing. And he brings true menace to his rebuke of an over-optimistic Obi-Wan Kenobi near the end. "Victory? Victory? Begun this Clone War has!" I have a bad feeling about who’s going to win.