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Wednesday, July 10, 2002

Send in the clones

'Begun, the clone war has." Thus spoke Yoda -- in that Muppety curdled meow of his -- summing up the latest "Star Wars" installment in a mere five words. It's easy to imagine, though, that he's talking about Hollywood, not the Galactic Republic. It seems like every studio in the biz is battling to outdo each other in cloning their hit films, with look-alike sequels galore and even whole new franchises cloned off the cinematic DNA of old ones (e.g., "The Scorpion King" from "The Mummy" from "Indiana Jones").

Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones
Rating: * * *
Director: George Lucas
Running time: 142 minutes
Opens July 13

A long time ago in a digitally rendered galaxy far, far away. Queen Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman) is serving as a Senator of the Republic, on the city-world of Coruscant. Someone wants her dead, so the Jedi Council appoints Obi Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and his teenage apprentice Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) to protect her. They thwart an assassination attempt and trace the killer, who is connected to bounty hunter Jango Fett (Temuera Morrison) and shadowy forces who want to break up the Republic. Jedi customs prohibit Anakin from falling in love, but the Force proves to be less irresistible than the beauty of Padme. While Anakin is busying making moves on the queen back on her home planet of Naboo, Obi Wan is off on the mysterious ocean-planet Kamino, where ostrich-necked aliens have been secretly creating an army of clone warriors, cloned from . . . you guessed it, Jango Fett. The plot thickens . . .

Men in Black II
Rating: * *
Director: Barry Sonnenfeld
Running time: 85 minutes
Now showing

A tiny spacecraft lands in Central Park, NYC. An alien worm emerges, grows in size and transforms into the first human image it sees -- a model from a magazine lingerie ad (Lara Flynn Boyle). The alien, Selena, proceeds to wander the city terrorizing other aliens in search of the Light of Zartha, which is essential to the survival of some distant galaxy or something like that. On her tail is Agent J (Will Smith) of the mysterious super-secret alien police, the Men in Black, along with Agent Frank, a talking pug dog. When Selena takes over MiB headquarters, J has to track down his former partner Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones), who's had his memory wiped out by a Neuralyzer. Together with a group of loud-mouthed alien worms and an arsenal of shiny ray-guns, K and J seek to defeat their evil nemeses and hopefully leave enough plot holes intact for another sequel. All this and a Will Smith rap tune in under 90 minutes.

Good sequels do emerge from time to time -- films as diverse as "The Godfather Part II" and "T2" -- when there's logical room to develop the story and the creative urge to do so. But all too often the goal with franchise flicks -- echoing the model of standardization and bland efficiency epitomized by McDonald's -- is to find a formula that works and stick with it.

Just take a look at this summer's most-hyped franchise flicks, "Star Wars: Episode II -- Attack of the Clones" and "Men in Black II." Aside from the obvious synergy between fast-food and Hollywood (get your "MIIB" action figures at Wendy's . . .), note that it's the exact same business model at work: high-tech wizardry -- whether in identically cut fries from genetically modified potatoes or the sleek, gleaming virtual sets of Industrial Light & Magic -- combined with soulless, robotic human employees.

McDonald's has made its kitchens idiot-proof, automated wonders that practically tell the workers what to do, all button-pushing and flashing lights. Now consider poor Hayden Christensen playing Anakin Skywalker in "Episode II": performing rigidly in a blue-screen environment -- a slave to digital post-production -- he's fed Lucas-penned lines as utilitarian and lifeless as any McEmployee's. You almost expect him -- with his sullen, pissed-off teen-boy expression -- to ask the Jedi Council, "Would you like fries with that?"

Pug ugly

"Men in Black II" is probably the nadir of this phenomenon. Judging from the recycled jokes and stale ideas on the screen, it seems like this film's only reason to exist is as the centerpiece of an elaborately designed marketing plan, encompassing everything from burgers to sunglasses, hyped everywhere from Family Marts to taxicabs. The film itself almost seems like an afterthought.

Director Barry Sonnenfeld must be suffering from an acute case of sequelitis: He simply takes everything from the first film and does it again. The problem is that jokes that came out of the blue the first time around -- the memory-erasing Neuralyser, the aliens residing unnoticed in NYC, the discrepancies in size and scale between alien worlds and our own -- are all trotted out again, and don't seem half as fresh.

Any film that has to rely on a talking dog for most of its laughs is obviously scraping the bottom. But when the best they can come up with is lines like these -- Will Smith: "I'm supposed to take advice on love from a guy that chases his own ass?" Pug Dog: "Hey, that's canine profiling! I resent that!" -- you know they're hurting. Even the Michael Jackson-is-an-alien joke gets an encore. When I saw the first film, the audience roared with delight; when Whacko Jacko makes a cameo in "MIIB," it was greeted with stone-cold silence.

News photo
Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones in "Men in Black II"

The party-hearty alien worms, a decent one-off joke in the original, get major screen-time in the new one, and do they ever get old fast. Like the dog, they don't have any real jokes per se: The idea is to just let them talk using ultra-current U.S. slang and catch-phrases and act like they're in a beer commercial, and that in itself will be funny. Like, dude! Totally not!

Actually, "Men in Black" was in many ways cloned from "Ghostbusters," an earlier ground-breaking SFX comedy. Does anyone still remember "Ghostbusters 2"? My point exactly.

Lucas strikes back

"Buy more, be happy." That was the chilling mantra of the consumerist-totalitarian society depicted in George Lucas' first film, "THX-1138." It's ironic, then, that Lucas himself ended up establishing the mother of all franchise films. But let's be fair: "Star Wars" was loved before it was sold; from the outset it has responded to demand, rather than cynically trying to create it.

News photo
Ewan McGregor and Hayden Christensen in "Star Wars: Episode II -- Attack of the Clones"

Which may be why Lucas' fifth "Star Wars" remains a cut above most franchise efforts. (Though cynics might note that after "The Phantom Menace," the only direction left to go was up.) Sure, you know the drill: high-speed spacecraft chases, beautifully detailed alien worlds, a massive battle or two and a climactic lightsaber duel. Formulaic, yes, but the difference here is that Lucas and ILM still care, and they've made giant leaps in the realm of digital effects and animation -- they keep upping the ante, and "Episode II" may be the most visually stunning "Star Wars" of the lot.

Take the opening chase scene in Coruscant: After a failed attempt to assassinate Queen Padme, Obi-Wan Kenobi leaps out a window onto an escaping robot drone. Dangling by his arms, he soars through the mile-high traffic of a towering city. Once you get past Obi-Wan's free fall, you'll want to see where all that traffic is going and marvel at the literally hundreds of individually designed buildings. These are shots you can literally sink into, packed with enough detail and depth to reward 100 viewings. Ditto for a brilliant sequence in which Obi-Wan pilots a spacecraft through an asteroid field in pursuit of Jango Fett; explosive charges send swarms of shrapnel flying, as the ships twist and dodge at dizzying speeds.

The "look" of "Star Wars" has always been its main selling point, with bold, iconic designs that have grabbed the public imagination, everything from Vader's helmet to Leia's braids, Imperial T.I.E. fighters and, of course, those super-cool lightsabers. Whether it's the Stalinist architecture of the clone chamber, where an army of white-armored warriors assemble with eerie precision, or the glint of starlight off a falcon-like destroyer, the attention to detail in "Episode II" is staggering. This may be a sequel, but it's certainly not one done on auto-pilot. Lucas & Co. love this world and revel in bringing it to life.

Too bad it's not a silent movie, with the dialogue on title cards, because it's clear Lucas still hasn't figured out how to direct or write for his human actors. (As an exasperated Harrison Ford once remarked on set, "You can type this s**t, George, but I sure can't say it!")

At least, McGregor seems to have found his footing and takes a tongue-in-cheek, swashbuckling approach that serves him well. The kvetching droid C3PO also brings some welcome comic relief. But the forbidden romance between Anakin and Padme -- the emotional heart of the entire series -- just falls flat on its face. Christensen's way of portraying romantic ardor often makes him look like he's undressing Padme with his eyes, while the banter between the two is flatter than yesterday's beer. With the notable exception of Ben Affleck and Kate Beckinsale in "Pearl Harbor," this has got to be cinema's most passionless romance.

Actually, it says a lot about both the filmmakers that this movie focuses so much on the high-tech, infinitely controllable science of cloning, while recoiling from the messy, impulsive idea of human coupling. Cloning may be more precise and perfectable, but the latter is a lot more fun.

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