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Review: 'Clones' better, but still uneven

Fabulous action sometimes undone by wooden dialogue

McGregor, Christensen
Ewan McGregor and Hayden Christensen in "Star Wars: Episode II -- Attack of the Clones."  

By Paul Tatara
CNN Reviewer

(CNN) -- Now that they've had a couple of years to process its indignities, most people accept that "Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace" stunk like a rotting Bantha carcass. So it's nice to report that "Episode II: Attack of the Clones" is a considerable improvement, even though it features several laughable courtship scenes and lots of wooden expository dialogue. Until he pulls an entertaining, highly unexpected move near the end of the picture, even Yoda seems vaguely uninterested.

Without giving too much away, "Attack of the Clones" is set 10 years after the events depicted in "The Phantom Menace." A separatist movement consisting of hundreds of planets and corporate alliances is stirring up more trouble than Jedi forces can handle.

Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen), who's now an irritable Jedi-in-training, bristles under the tutelage of Obi-wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor, virtually channeling Alec Guinness). When an attempt is made on the life of Senator Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman), Anakin whisks her away to the safer, and more conveniently romantic, planet Naboo.

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For the most part, Lucas cuts between the preordained Anakin-Amidala courtship and Obi-Wan trying to determine why a deceased Jedi allegedly placed an order for thousands of combat-ready clones. This leads, as you might expect, to lots of whizzing around in zippy space vehicles, the occasional light saber battle, and scores of creatures with variously distended craniums.

All those feelings

That's about the gist of it, but Lucas knows that millions of fanatics won't settle for a mere gist, never mind that the first "Star Wars" picture was designed and marketed as a trifle.

Consequently, we're forced to endure endless scenes in which robe-wearing actors -- including Samuel Jackson as Jedi Master Mace Windu -- solemnly intone the basic conflicts and dilemmas. These interludes don't choke the rhythm as much as they did in the last installment, to be sure, but there's no avoiding their seriously inflated importance.

Luckily, a lengthy, digital-rific finale all but guarantees that most viewers will exit the theater in a state of adrenalized forgetfulness.

There are, of course, several technologically dazzling set pieces, including an early one involving careering airborne traffic that's more of an amusement park ride than an actual scene. But much of the second act is spent on Anakin and Amidala coming to terms with their feelings for one another.

Unfortunately, given Lucas' proven knack for lousy dialogue, you can't help but snicker at the two lovebirds. Special mention has to go to Anakin's head-scratching segue between complaining about beach sand and marveling at Amidala's silky-smooth complexion. For a couple of terrifying seconds, it seems like he might start singing.

Mixed bag

Anakin, as embodied by Christensen, is the kind of needlessly moody kid you might see getting punched out in a Dairy Queen parking lot. It's difficult to determine exactly what the more mature Amidala sees in him, except that they have to get it on in time for Luke and Leia to pop up in "Episode IV" (the original "Star Wars").

Lucas also displays a distinct loss of nerve when it comes to illustrating Anakin's swing to the dark side. A pivotal slaughter that he perpetrates against a camp full of semi-innocents is suggested rather than shown, almost certainly because it's hard to sell action figures depicting a guy who butchers people on camera.

So it's a mixed bag, but not as dreadfully mixed as the last one.

The difficulty in trying to critique the "Star Wars" films is that millions of viewers are so convinced beforehand of its glorious achievement, they're wanting to hear that it's a religious experience. "Attack of the Clones" drags in parts, some of it is exciting, and it looks like it cost several trillion dollars to make --- just like "Spider-Man." If you're after anything more than that, it's up to you to find it.

There's violence, lots of noise, and assorted ickiness in "Attack of the Clones," including some nasty-looking space caterpillars. But it shouldn't trouble anyone. Wisest move: Jar Jar Binks, who has yet to be strangled, is only around for a couple of minutes. Coolest addition: Amidala's chrome spaceship. Time to get in line for "Episode III."


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