Star Wars Episode II: Attack of The Clones
And it delivered. In spades.
Whereas Episode I began with negotiations over a trade dispute (not a guaranteed crowd pleaser), AOTC opens with not one, but two assassination attempts, in quick succession. We get exploding spacecrafts, poisonous alien slugs and a high octane, high altitude chase through a Blade Runner/Fifth Element-style city skyline - all within the first twenty minutes. It's clear that Uncle George wants to make amends.
While the plot is drawn in broad enough strokes for the younger audiences to follow, it is satisfyingly complex enough to withstand deeper examination: After multiple attempts on her life, Senator Padme Amidala (the former queen, from Episode I) goes into hiding on her home planet of Naboo, under the protection of learner Jedi, Anakin Skywalker. In the meantime, Anakin's master, Obi Wan Kenobi goes in search of the assassins - a search that takes him to the far reaches of the galaxy where he uncovers a plot to build a clone army to, ostensibly, aid the peaceful Republic's defences against outside threats.
Of course, having seen all of the Star Wars films to date, the audience knows that all will not go according to plan - just one look at the Clone Army's similarity to the Storm Troopers of the original trilogy and we can guess what's actually likely to happen in the forthcoming Episode III, which should see the Republic plunged in turmoil, the Jedi almost entirely wiped out and, of course, young Anakin turn to the Dark Side and become Darth Vader.
And that's one of the great successes of Episode II. Whereas 'The Phantom Menace' left many fans cold, this ending of this one, though by no means a 'cliffhanger' actually had me chomping at the bit to see the final installment of the Saga. Pretty much everything that was wrong with 'The Phantom Menace' is put right here - most noticeably Jar Jar Binks' involvement is substantially cut down, although, ironically, he does play a very pivotal role. There is a distinct lack of annoying children in lead roles and there is a far greater action:drama ratio, which makes the two and a quarter hours running time seem far shorter than it actually is.
But that's not to say that it's a complete exoneration. There are still a number of areas where Lucas falls short. His reliance on CGI, for example, is sometimes rather too overbearing, particularly when actors have to interact with non-existent foes. The climactic battle scene did, at times, feel like a 21st century Ray Harryhausen film. In fact, I think I'd have preferred the stop-motion skeletons, from 'The Voyage of Sinbad'! Lucas' direction also doesn't always stand up to close scrutiny. The action scenes are handled well, but when he gets down to having to direct actors, there are some rather dubious moments. The much mooted 'love story' between Anakin and Padme is the worst offender here, with some truly terrible dialogue between the two leads. But then again, I guess you could argue that young love is clunky and awkward, but it does seem a shame when you have two accomplished young stars to lumber them with such poor lines.
Which brings us nicely to the performances. Ewan McGregor shines as Obi Wan, bringing a nice touch of world weariness to the master Jedi. He also has all the best lines (To Anakin - 'Why do I get the feeling you'll be the death of me?') and adds some much appreciated humour to the film. Much like a laconic, intergalactic Mike Hammer, Obi Wan's quest, on the trail of the assassins, in many ways, resembles a 1930's Raymond Chandler detective story. Relative newcomer, Hayden Christiansen does a solid job as Anakin Skywalker, although his attempts to show the flashes of darkness and anger that will eventually lead him to the dark side, sometimes come across as the actions of a spoilt child. That's not say he can't act, let's not forget that he was nominated for a Golden Globe in his last big screen outing, 'Life as a House'. Again, poor scripting and direction seem to hamper his best efforts. And the same fate befalls Natalie Portman, as the other half of the star-crossed lovers. By far the best performance comes from Christopher Lee, who turns up halfway through in a deliciously nasty role as Count Dooku, a former Jedi who has fallen from favour and is intent on wreaking havoc upon his former colleagues.
But the real stars here are the effects, and when not overused, they work brilliantly - too many examples to mention, but my personal favourite was the final lightsabre battle between Anakin and Dooku which is conducted in almost complete darkness, with the young Jedi brandishing TWO sabres against his foe. Actually....that's not the final lightsabre battle, but to say any more would rob the movie of one of it's most wonderful suprises.
I suppose I should close by trundling out a cliché, like 'The Force Is Strong With This One', but instead I shall just say that 2005 can't come soon enough. Lucas has won back the faithful and will undoubtedly attract more followers to the fold (expect DVD sales of 'The Phantom Menace to rise in the weeks ahead). And he still has surprises for us....