The Real Menace:

So: I was glumly kicking around outside the theater, feeling a queasy combination of dread and excitement at seeing the latest installment in the Star Wars legacy, Attack of the Clones. Dread because reviewers -- from The New York Times to Salon to The Washington Post -- had nearly run out of adjectives in describing the movie's crappiness. Excitement because, well, it's Star Wars.

Many other fans shared my ambivalence. We had fond memories of the Star Wars movies of our childhood -- a rich stew of heavy-breathing myth, pseudo-Zen leanings, goofy charm, and romance. But 1999's The Phantom Menace, with its hodgepodge of soulless special effects, had nearly supplanted those feelings. Even worse, though, was the creeping sense that Menace was juvenile, filled with annoying comedic characters and madcap hijinks instead of real human interest. Leaving the theater three years ago, I felt old.

So why were jaded fans back? "It's like a soap opera," said 32-year-old Louis Meyer. "If you miss one, you'll wonder what happens." "Because it's been there my entire life, part of my cultural background," said Stephen Okey, a student at Georgetown University. "Because the movies set a precedent in how we think, fantasize," said Will Weems, a multimedia designer. "You're able to allow yourself to be immersed in a whole world." I myself felt all of the above -- plus a twinge of hope, a lingering attachment to the experience of my youth. I wanted the wonder, the thrill of watching that Star Wars world unfold for the first time.

The world of Clones is thrilling indeed. The movie is an orgy of detail. Cities teem with flying spacecraft, silver needles darting in the sky. There are lush meadows, deserts blasting with heat and whirling sand. The film is a towering visual achievement, an obsessive-compulsive Bach fugue -- epic, and yet anal to the tiniest degree.

But director George Lucas seems to have forgotten that people are supposed to inhabit the movie. Instead of the mordant, sexy banter of Han Solo and Princess Leia, or the menace of Darth Vader, we have talented actors chewing their way through piles of exposition. The Republic is in jeopardy, there are armies of clones and droids about, intrigue is afoot, and Senator Padme Amidala, former Queen of Naboo, is in mortal danger. A young Jedi apprentice, Anakin, is assigned to protect her. We know that they are going to fall in love; they will become, after all, the parents of Luke and Leia. But why does the depiction of their relationship have to be so bloodless?

Lucas tries hard to wring emotion out of the romance. As a young Jedi apprentice, Anakin is to avoid attachment, to falling sway to emotion. Padme is a senator fighting for justice in a troubled time. They know their love is forbidden, but instead of doing what normal young people might do in such a situation -- throw caution and their clothes to the wind -- they sit in a field and giggle. Then they roll around on top of each other like puppies. It's either longing glances or marriage for these two -- none of the confusing crush in between, the human heat of lust and desire.

Lucas's chaste sensibility warms up considerably when he's depicting mechanical or cloning reproduction. He lavishes glowing lighting and fawning explanations upon his scenes of cloning. When Anakin and Padme are trapped in a droid factory -- a pulsing, pounding thing of burning liquids and churning machinery -- we feel a tickle of titillation. Will they escape? Or will the factory have its way with them, turning them into some debauched mass of muscle and metal?

So far both of the prequels seem to have this same violently hybridized, Darth Vader-like quality -- a warped humanity sustained by incredible technical resources. Lucas has put so much effort and time into special effects, he's lost the delightful brio of the first movies, and the darkness of them, too. There's only one scene that shows how beautifully human and mechanical sensibilities can mesh -- when tiny, gimpy Yoda takes out his light saber to battle an evil traitor. Suddenly Yoda is whirling through the air, an unlikely but perfect little computer-generated warrior. The humor, the whimsy of it shows us what we've been missing the whole time -- the balance of Lucas's hard work with a sense of play and wonder.

And so I left thinking of that balance. What did it mean that I was looking to George Lucas -- plugging away at his computers like a drone -- to resurrect my sense of childhood awe and fun? After all, it seemed that he had forgotten how to play himself. One part of me wanted to adhere to Anakin's lessons of nonattachment, to the older Star Wars's "If you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha" overtones. Nonattachment even to the master, to George Lucas's tired vision, seemed a good idea. But the other part of me was still hoping. Yeah, a lot of the movie didn't work. And yeah, it made me feel kind of old. But watching the flight of Yoda -- the impossible, funny grace of it -- there was still a little joy left, some of that amazement I felt 15 years ago. Here's hoping that Lucas will remember that feeling, too.

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