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Conflicts Of Interest

Star Wars rebounds with Attack of the Clones.

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"Star Wars was the film that ate the heart and the soul of Hollywood. It created the big-budget comic book mentality."

-- Paul Schrader

"What happened with Star Wars was like when McDonald's got a foothold, the taste for good food just disappeared. Now we're in a period of devolution. Everything has gone backward toward a big sucking hole."

-- William Friedkin

"It's just become one big amusement park. It's the death of film." -- Robert Altman

How hard it must be for less-successful members of the film-brat generation to watch former comrade-in-arms George Lucas accumulate obscene amounts of wealth and power from his home at Skywalker Ranch while their own careers ebb. Taxi Driver scribe Schrader couldn't even get distribution for his last film (the critically lauded Forever Mine), The French Connection director Friedkin has been relegated to director-for-hire projects such as Blue Chips and The Rules of Engagement, and Altman's career, despite the success of Gosford Park, has been in precarious shape for two decades now. Meanwhile, Lucas, who has made his fortune with a series of effects-generated muppet movies, is about to garner yet more adulation and profit for Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, the latest installment in his billion-dollar fantasy saga.

But amid the sour grapes is at least a kernel of truth: At the time of its 1977 release, Star Wars was seen by some of Lucas' coterie -- the raging bulls and easy riders of the American new wave -- as an allegory for their newly triumphant film movement, a tale of rebel film fighters infiltrating and destroying the Hollywood Death Star (Han Solo was reportedly modeled after Francis Ford Coppola, while Luke Skywalker was a stand-in for Lucas himself). Twenty-five years later, Lucas seems more Anakin than Luke, having gone over to the dark side, helping (along with his pal Steven Spielberg, whose Jaws actually instigated the blockbuster era) transform the fertile Republic of American cinema into an Empire of impersonal popcorn movies. And it was Star Wars, not Jaws, that created the new world in which a movie is often merely the center of a larger marketing and merchandising campaign, with the gaggle of ancillary products as important as the film itself (Clones' official Web site actually contains a "collecting" section).

Lucas' nostalgia-generating, live-action toy catalogs are such cultural behemoths that they are not only critic-proof but audience-resistant. After all, Lucas' initial return to the series, 1999's The Phantom Menace, was a case study in everything wrong with American film culture in the present climate of corporate blitzkrieg marketing. The film was ubiquitous in the media weeks before its release and a massive financial success despite the unavoidable fact that virtually no one liked it. The hype for the film was so suffocating that, as The Village Voice's J. Hoberman wrote at the time, it would have taken a consumer equivalent of the Russian Revolution to keep it from the top of the box-office charts. Since the overwhelming hype was so out of whack with the dispiriting movie that followed, The Phantom Menace ended up being a film that climaxed the moment the opening credits rolled. And in the interim between Lucas' bitterly disappointing return to his beloved series and this noticeably less anticipated second episode, there have been some rather daunting developments on the "event movie" front: The likes of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring have proven that epic, escapist fantasies can also be first-rate filmmaking. Both films caused The Phantom Menace to look a little chintzy by comparison. And the last few years have also seen other, more cartoonish spectacles -- The Matrix, X-Men, Spider-Man -- end up better than expected. Arriving amid this landscape, Attack of the Clones is a pleasant surprise, its hype decreasing inversely to the quality of the product Lucas and his army of techies have marshaled to the screen. On its own terms -- as a Star Wars movie -- Attack of the Clones rises to the occasion: It's a dramatically more satisfying film than The Phantom Menace, and diehard Star Wars fans, I think, will be very pleased.

In terms of both action pyrotechnics and narrative involvement, Attack of the Clones is also a more absorbing film than its biggest summer box-office competitor, Spider-Man, even if Lucas' impersonal epic can't match Sam Raimi's uncommonly decent blockbuster in the human-interest department. Compared to the sweet, nuanced interaction of Spider-Man's Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst, Clones' teen-dream leads Natalie Portman (Padmé Amidala) and Hayden Christensen (Anakin Skywalker) might as well be cardboard. Quality acting has never been a hallmark of the Star Wars series, and the two new films' vast use of computer animation -- and subsequent need for actors to perform in front of blue screens, speaking to often nonexistent co-stars -- only exacerbates the problem. And as far as recognizable depictions of intelligent life (human or otherwise), the prequel series desperately misses the outlaw-hero bonhomie that Harrison Ford's Han Solo brought to the first series, not to mention the physicality of Chewbacca and other non-digital creatures.

The Phantom Menace was a kids' movie and a pretty mediocre one. (Lucas has said from the very beginning that the whole Star Wars concept was geared toward preadolescents, that he was making a "Disney movie." Who knows if he intended to ensure continued success by infantilizing his audience and the American film industry.) Attack of the Clones moves the series into the teen years both in the age of its protagonist and in the content of the film -- which is more sexed-up and violent (though still kid-friendly) than the first.

The much reviled Jar Jar Binks from The Phantom Menace has been banished to a glorified cameo (though the few moments he appears on screen are so grating it makes one wish he'd been left dead on the battlefields of Naboo in the previous film) and cherubic Jake Lloyd has been replaced by Christensen, who, as a teenaged Anakin Skywalker/future Darth Vader, does a fine job of brooding, which seems to have been the primary job requirement. And as a love interest this time rather than a big sis figure, Portman's Padmé gets to loosen up with back-baring, navel-revealing costumes.

Set 10 years after The Phantom Menace, the familiar opening scroll tells us that there's still "unrest in the Galactic Senate," but rather than obscure talk of trade disputes, the political intrigue in Attack of the Clones is actually relatively intriguing. And this is where Lucas finally dives into the character arc of Anakin, resulting in a narrative drive more compelling than any in the series. Clones also has better action scenes -- including a bravura early sequence in which Anakin and his mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), chase a would-be assassin through the galactic capital Coruscant and an asteroid-field sequence that has Obi-Wan pursuing mysterious hired gun Jango Fett (Temuera Morrison). Along the way, in moments sure to thrill Star Wars fanatics, several characters and elements from the original three episodes are introduced.

Lucas may have done irrevocable damage to American film culture with Star Wars, but, much like the oft-imitated and highly influential Pulp Fiction a couple of decades later, his films rise above the culture they've created.

The Star Wars series endures and provokes pleasure even among audiences consciously wary of it for two basic reasons -- visual imagination and narrative depth. Viewers are understandably fascinated by the vastness of the imaginary galaxy Lucas has created -- its self-contained bevy of planets, creatures, and gadgets. And while Lucas' space opera is certainly no Citizen Kane, the saga is still predicated on its epic story line, with reams of back story and acknowledged off-screen action. Star Wars may be pretty silly when you distance yourself from it, but, by contrast, most of the bubble-gum blockbusters that followed it could be mapped out on a matchbook cover.

Of course, Lucas' galaxy is a melting pot of preexisting cultural myths -- mixing and matching Joseph Campbell and Carlos Castaneda, B-movie westerns and Samurai flicks, Disney and DeMille, World War II combat films and earlier sci-fi spectacles. And in Attack of the Clones, this style of wholesale appropriation gets a modern update. The film's first action sequence begins on a crowded, skyscraper-laden air highway a la The Fifth Element before concluding on steamy city streets that could have come from Blade Runner. And the film's penultimate action set piece, a coliseum battle replete with grotesque, cheering digital masses and baddies in the booth gleefully watching our heroes in peril, seems a conscious nod to Gladiator.

The series' status as big-scale homage to and conscious evocation of the B-movie serials and DeMille spectacles of the Hollywood golden age is confirmed by Lucas' insistence on using irises and wipes to segue between scenes and by the epic crosscutting between the parallel adventures of Anakin and Obi-Wan. With this in mind, elements that might otherwise be seen as flaws -- the heavy-handed foreshadowing, the color-coded costumes (Obi-Wan wears white, while young Anakin is already the man in black), and dialogue so purple and clunky that it reminds us of silent-movie intertitles -- actually conform to the matinee-style charm that Lucas is trying to duplicate and improve on.

But one disconcerting aspect of having the prequel series appear 20 years after the first series yet be set 30 years earlier (got all that?) is a certain disconnect from moving forward and backward at the same time. Obviously in response to complaints about The Phantom Menace's rampant ethnic stereotyping, Attack of the Clones contains some calculated multicultural casting, leading the viewer to wonder if all the non-white humans (save Billy Dee Williams' Lando Calrissian) get wiped out in the Clone Wars, not to mention the android armies, sleek spaceships, and other contraptions that seem more advanced than those in the later episodes.

If it isn't already obvious, I should acknowledge that, unlike apparently every other straight white male of my generation, I never drank the Star Wars Kool-Aid. I like the movies (Episode I excepted) just fine, even though I regret what they've done to film culture in this country. But I could draw up a list of my 500 favorite films without finding a space for Star Wars (or, more likely, The Empire Strikes Back) on it. Attack of the Clones tapped into my inner kid, whereas The Phantom Menace just put me to sleep. I enjoyed the trip, but I have no desire to live there.

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