Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones

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The Independent Culture

It's not the clones that frighten me, it's the people. For example, what happens to an actor with the exuberance and the old-fashioned gaiety of Ewan McGregor that, as soon as he's sucked into the black hole of Lucasfilm Ltd, he becomes numb and funereal?

Still, McGregor can't help but take pretty good pictures. The worst case of all is Natalie Portman as Amidala, the teen queen of Naboo in Episode I who has now become a senator! No, I don't mean to be that harsh. Ms Portman is just a plain-faced stooge lucky or unlucky enough to get into pictures. It's not her fault she was cast. The fault is not in our stars but the drab mind of Mr Lucas himself.

So what's the verdict? Well, I go back to a few days ago to a playing field where some parents were watching their 12-year-olds play lacrosse. I reported I was set to see the new Stars Wars and the general reckoning was, "Hope it's not as bad as the last one."

I mention those parents in that, with an average age of 40, they are the teenagers who made the original Star Wars a hit in 1977, twenty-five years ago in what is the longest and slowest-running Saturday-morning serial ever offered (with reels in the wrong order).

They might be the loyalists for the new film, just as their kids ought to be the fresh army desperate to see it but, out there in the sunshine, I felt suspicion. Episode I is said to have grossed over $431m (£290m) at the North American box office but it surely left a sour taste with those who endured it.

The characters in that film were so leaden, the story so confused and the special effects so streamlined and supercilious. Why use that word?

Because there's a difference, I think, in how effects feel: in Gladiator, for instance, the effects feel inspired, hard-won and triumphant – somehow you identify them with the heroism of Russell Crowe's Maximus. But in this new Star Wars era, the effects are so glossy as to be cold and superior: the film has the technology, but no heart or mind. You can feel how rapidly the film maker is grasping the connection between the screen's callous masquerade and the bounty of merchandising that will go with it.

What's missing? A movie, characters, a story. Just those antique elements.

No, it's not quite as barren as Episode I. There is an attempt at a love story, and in the adolescent Anakin (reasonably well played by Hayden Christensen) there are occasional hints of the dark wilfullness that will become Darth Vader. But the scenario and the dialogue are ponderous – the talk of love is marginally less embarrassing than the platitudes about democracy. And there is now no feeling in the series for some profound struggle between good and evil. The ethics are like cartoon thought bubbles.

There are some action scenes to remind you of the first three films, though the climactic arena fight seems painfully derived from Gladiator. And there is a pleasing final showdown between the villain (Christopher Lee) and – well, let's just say a short fellow with weird sentence construction.

Lee is an asset. His grave face comes from a lifetime of taking horror seriously. He speaks beautifully and you feel him reaching out for evil to gather beneath his hooded eyes. But there are glum moments when he has to wait and pretend he's looking at special effects – a glassy look comes over his Dracula face as if he were wondering whether there is honey still for tea.

Will it work at the box office? The habit we have may be as massive as the promotion. But sooner or later Mr Lucas has to face the fact you can't keep disappointing the faithful.