Maybe I’m subject to a Jedi mind spell, but for me, Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones is the most satisfying Star Wars movie since The Empire Strikes Back (1980). The story of 1999’s Episode I was inevitably exposition; this one has all the pay-offs.

Here’s a rundown of the major plot points and fans’ criticisms of the movie.

Jar Jar Binks. Episode I‘s much-reviled comic relief has basically been relegated to a desk job and is on-screen for only a short time. So Star Wars fans, quit’cher bellyaching already!

The romance between Anakin Skywalker (a/k/a Darth Vader-to-be) and Princess (now Senator) Amidala. Much has already been made of this couple’s pedestrian dialogue, but it’s at least as convincing as Empire‘s budding romance between Han Solo and Princess Leia. In any case, Natalie Portman (Amidala) is as shimmeringly beautiful as ever, and Hayden Christensen evokes the Vader-to-be far more convincingly than did Jake “Yippee!” Lloyd in Episode I.

Conflict. There’s a lot of it here, most of it quite convincing and intriguing. Anakin chafing under the tutelage of Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), some evil politicians who want to take over Amidala’s territory, Anakin’s search for his long-separated mother–it all adds a welcome layer of depth to what is often perceived as a comic-book fairy tale.

Visuals. As always with the Star Wars series, this movie’s visual palette delivers the goods, with otherworldly settings and rich, vivid atmosphere.

In-jokes. There are some extremely sly references here, not just to the other SW movies but to A.I. and Gladiator. And the action sequence with Anakin and Amidala trapped in the clone factory plays like a nightmare version of Charlie Chaplin’s trip through the conveyor belt in Modern Times.

Yoda. The old Jedi master — computer-generated this time, but still voiced by Frank Oz — is the most thrilling surprise here. For an old, short guy, he wields a mean light saber.

Bad acting? Tell that to such pros as McGregor, Samuel L. Jackson, and Christopher Lee.

As with any of the Star Wars flicks, it helps if you’ve seen the others. But on its own, Episode II is as lavish a movie treat as you’re likely to find in this movie series.

THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980) – An empire of movie riches


IMHO, in the Star Wars universe, The Empire Strikes Back is the one that sticks. Twenty-five years after its first release, I re-viewed it with my then-8-year-old son as part of our “prep” course for the final Star Wars entry Revenge of the Sith. And everything that originally was emotionally satisfying to me remains intact.

Until I saw Empire, I hadn’t fallen for Star Wars the way millions of moviegoers had. It seemed passable as a “Flash Gordon”-type time-killer, but not worth falling all over. But Empire is the real deal. Right from the opening scenes, it has a different tone that its chipper predecessor. The “Rebels,” far from cheering over their initial victory in the first movie, are now hunkered in an endless snowland, trying to continue their battle and stay alive at the same time. Then our hero, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), gets womped by the love child of the Abominable Snowman, and suddenly we realize that the good guys are going to have to deal with some real issues.

This movie has it all: eye-popping scenery, fully developed characters who feel both joy and pain (who can forget Chewbacca’s wail every time his friends have a major setback?), and most memorably, believable romantic dialogue between prissy Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and roguish Han Solo (Harrison Ford). SW creator George Lucas has been roundly criticized for the stilted romantic talk in “Episodes II and III”; he would have done well to go back and study the simple yet effective repartee in this movie.

This is also the movie that introduced sage Yoda, who at this point was not the animatronic whiz of the “prequel” trilogy but was initially a senior-citizen Muppet with Frank Oz’s hand up his behind. But even with that drawback, Yoda was as believable and powerful as his later, more youthful CGI version. (That scene where he pulls the spaceship out of the pond is still goose-bump-inspiring.)

Of course, this “galaxy far, far away” is nothing without uber-villain Darth Vader (voice by James Earl Jones, body by David Prowse), and Empire makes the most of the good- and badwill built up by the Man in Black in his first outing. He finally gets his own theme song (“The Imperial Theme”), and it only does him justice. And if, by some miracle of ignorance, you don’t know the major plot twist in this movie, it will blow you away as quickly as Luke loses a major appendage.

The best element of this movie is that it takes time for the “little” moments, such as when Han Solo can’t get the Millenium Falcon running until he hits the “dashboard,” or that great moment where Han’s carbonited body slams into the frame with hands up, as though he’s trying to break out of his enforced prison. (Funny thing is, before he got frozen, his hands were bound behind his back. But when that body slams onto the screen with such urgency, logic takes wing.)

Any box-office smash that can leave so many major plot points hanging at movie’s end has to be some kind of triumph. Until Anakin Skywalker devolved into Darth Vader at the end of SithThe Empire Strikes Back was truly the gold standard for this series.