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Sunday, May 19, 2002

The only bad thing about "Star Wars: Episode Two - Attack Of The Clones" (PG, Lucasfilm/Twentieth Century Fox)? Simply that the much-anticipated teaser trailer for "The Matrix Reloaded" isn't in front of it - You'll have to make do with first looks at the next OO7 flick, "Die Another Day" and the Spielberg/Tom Cruise SF thriller, "Minority Report", instead. Not a great hardship, frankly.

If you didn't spend most of Thursday queuing for vague and elusive "Episode Two" tickets, you might want to know whether you should bother going to check this film out - Particularly if you found "The Phantom Menace" a disappointment and a reaffirmation that the "SW" saga had been refocussed away from its original, universal audience to pay attention, instead, to a new generation of kids with lots of disposable cash to spend on Lucasfilm-approved spin-off merchandise.

Put your worries aside - "Attack Of The Clones" is a step-up from the exposition-heavy "...Menace" and, on an initial viewing, ranks a very close second to "The Empire Strikes Back" in terms of thrills per minute, surprises and sheer popular filmmaking bravado. Though you seem to read it about any film with a half-decent effects sequence these days, the oft-expressed opinion still holds true - There are moments in this film that you've never seen before. We're talking astonishing, breath-robbing imagery and action sequences to stir the sense of possibility in any half-awake modern storyteller - "...Clones" is proof positive that if you can dream it, you can do it....

This isn't an overwhelmingly original film experience, true - We're ultimately watching a two hour-plus "Flash Gordon" update with an FX budget to die for - but to see this film in a properly-equipped cinema with THX sound, is to be transported to a galaxy far, far away and become absolutely involved in the kind of absorbing treat for the soul and imagination which comes along far too infrequently.

Bad points? Well, the much-discussed romance between Amidala and Anakin is fairly broad and doesn't quite ascend to the heights that you hope it will do - Lucas and co-writer Jonathan Hale really should have had a word with "Buffy" genius Joss Whedon about how to pull this slightly hokey stuff off - and the decision to utilise CG animation to bring Yoda to life isn't always successful. It's odd that the limited movements of the original Yoda puppet actually worked for the filmmakers in the original trilogy, and that this virtual Yoda isn't ever terribly convincing in his scenes with the wonderful Samuel L.Jackson and a firing-on-all-cylinders Ewan McGregor (Best Alec Guinness impersonator, EVER!). Still, we're talking minor stuff, here - "Episode Two" is a thrill-ride in which you give thanks for the occasional pastoral lulls which actually give you a chance to get your breath back.

Highlights? We could be here all day, frankly. There's almost too much to take in on a first viewing and you'll definately want to go back and see this again, if only to establish that your eyes didn't deceive you first time around.

BIG FAT SPOILERS AHEAD!!!

How about Yoda leading hordes of Jedi Knights into battle against a massed force of robotic bad guys - Think thirty guys, gals and alien heroes ripping into the population of London and you get an idea of the scale of the final confrontation? Pretty damned cool.
And then there's the chase through an asteroid field which achieves the difficult feat of making that sequence in "Empire" look truly uninspired and passe. The sound design in this movie's asteroid interlude is truly stunning, too - Kudos to Skywalker Sound overlords, Gary Rydstrom and Ben Burtt, for mixing the loudest darned scene that I've ever seen in a movie. I only hope that they don't quibble when I send them the doctor's bill for getting my hearing back.

The performances are also surprisingly nuanced and affecting - Natalie Portman is freed of Kabuki drag in this installment, and gets a chance to play an older, wiser and more cynical Amidala, whose ties to duty won't allow her to fall for a humble Jedi warrior. When she eventually does admit her feelings and commit to Hayden Christensen's conflicted, tortured Anakin Skywalker, her subtlety and ability to express her emotions purely through her beautifully expressive eyes more than makes up for some of sub-"Titanic" dialogue that Lucas' screenplay foists upon her.

Christensen is also a find - He's much better than most of the published reviews would have you believe, and plays Anakin's descent into fearful, all-encompassing darkness with a skill which he hasn't been praised enough for. He's an actor to keep an eye on, and somebody who should enjoy a wider career outside the potential confines of the biggest movie series in the world. Take a look at the scene where he confesses the bloody revenge that he wrought on the Tusken Raiders who kidnapped, tortured and killed his mother - There's acting here which is of award calibre, and it should be acknowledged. But, of course, it won't be.

Go for the eye-candy, by all means. Appreciate the huge, seamless CG-created planetary vistas and characters. Be knocked into the middle of next week by the invention and breathless pace of the thrilling action set-pieces. But try and appreciate just what an achievement "Attack Of The Clones" is - If you have an imagination, prepare to have it mercilessly overstimultated by a master storyteller at the very top of his powers.


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