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Review: 'Clones' a worthy successor

Latest installment benefits from acting, better script

Natalie Portman
Natalie Portman, with R2-D2, returns as Padme Amidala, who is now a senator.  

By Paul Clinton
CNN Reviewer

(CNN) -- It's finally here: "Star Wars: Episode II -- Attack of the Clones." It was worth the wait, and yes, that's because it's a whole lot better than "Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace."

Calling "Episode I" a bomb is deceptive, however, since the movie made more than $900 million worldwide, $400 million-plus of that domestically. Also, in all fairness, that film had the responsibility of setting up the exposition for the following five episodes -- a ponderous task.

On the other hand, many fans -- myself included -- felt the last episode lacked dramatic tension, so it's a great relief that George Lucas seems to be back on track with the latest addition to his epic franchise. Twenty-five years after the first film, the Force is still with him.

Of course, the title "Attack of the Clones" brings to mind a bad episode of "Ricki Lake" or "Outer Limits." Nevertheless, this one works because there's a whole lot more action, a decent love story, a plot and a subplot, and it's much easier to relate to Hayden Christensen's Anakin Skywalker than Jake Lloyd's.

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In addition, this time around the script is much better. The dialogue won't win any literary prizes, but it isn't as stilted and idiotic as in "Episode I." There is no doubt that the overall concept, plot points and structure come from Lucas, but you can tell he had help with the tone of the film and the dialogue. Enter co-writer Jonathan Hales, who worked with Lucas on the TV series "The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles."

Quicker pace and tone

This time -- instead of suffering through a half-hour of what seems like a National Geographic special using painted matte images -- the action begins within minutes of the opening credits, setting the pace and tone for the rest of the film. Little Anakin is all grown up, still in training with Obi-Wan Kenobi, played once again by Ewan McGregor. Samuel L. Jackson is also back as Jedi Master Mace Windu, and this time he actually gets to leave the Senate chambers and kick some butt.

Natalie Portman also returns as Padme Amidala, the former queen of Naboo, now a senator. Thankfully, the job switch includes shedding her hideous Kabuki makeup and stiff costumes from "Episode I." This time around she looks fresh and natural -- appearing dressed by Donna Karan by way of Britney Spears.

And yes, there is a lot less Jar Jar Binks (voiced by Ahmed Best), that annoying creature with the floppy ears and warped Jamaican accent. Believe it or not, Binks is now a general and a senator. Talk about the Peter Principle at work. On the plus side, however, Yoda is mobile in a way never before possible without computer-generated imagery.

We're also back on track with the story we know and love without as much pesky exposition. There is a great deal of foreshadowing and answers to some important questions that relate to later episodes.

Setup for final chapter

With a reported budget of $120 million, this film was shot entirely with digital cameras over 60 days -- an awesome feat. Of course, many months were needed in postproduction to complete the effects.

Other than Binks, the only other jarring moments (no pun intended) are provided by McGregor. In his defense, McGregor, who is a magnificent actor, has the difficult task of trying to dovetail into someone else's performance. Other than Yoda (who is a puppet), Darth Vader (who wears a black helmet) and droids R2-D2 and C-3PO, the only character from Episodes I, II and the upcoming III who carries over into the original series is Obi-Wan, originally played by the late Alec Guinness. So McGregor is the only one who really needs to match another actor.

He's dealt with this by developing a high-class British accent, using stiff body movements and adding gray to his hair. It all comes off as if he's suddenly trying to channel Guinness, and it just doesn't work.

All in all, however, "Star Wars: Episode II -- The Attack of the Clones" delivers. It's dark but has wonderfully funny moments; you care about the characters; and the action and special effects are first-rate. Now, with one episode left to complete his six-part epic, Lucas' vision is taking form. You can begin to see the overall story arc for the completed franchise, and even "Episode I" begins to make sense -- sort of.

"Episode III" now begins to look even better, holding great promise for an awesome final chapter of the "Star Wars" legend.

"Star Wars: Episode II -- The Attack of the Clones" opens nationwide Thursday, May 16.


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