The backlash against "Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace" was far out of proportion to the film's actual flaws. Fans who felt personally betrayed by the movie merely demonstrated that, in the 16-year hiatus between chapters, they had built up expectations no trip to the multiplex could satisfy.
"Episode II" shows creator/director/co-writer George Lucas pandering to those drips as best he can, giving the people what he thinks they want and in the process sacrificing a crucial quality -- the thrill of discovery. Yes, this is a handsome-looking film that's loaded with action. The role of the reviled Jar Jar Binks is (yippee!) minimized. But there's nothing new to the picture, no creative chance taken. It's the first entry in the series to bring nothing to the cinema that the cinema didn't already have. Further, what it does bring is often surprisingly shoddy.
Set a decade after the events of "Episode I," the story finds the galactic Republic coming apart at the seams, being torn between loyalist and separatist elements. The friction manifests itself in an assassination attempt against Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman), who has surrendered her crown as queen of the planet Naboo and assumed the post of senator. (Yes, just like Hillary Clinton.) Her need for protection brings Amidala back into contact with Jedi knights Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen, whose swoony androgyny and stupid hair braid make him look as if he's about to bust out in a chorus of "I Want It That Way"). While Anakin keeps watch on Amidala, a simmering infatuation comes to a boil. Meanwhile, Obi-Wan is whisked off to another corner of the stars, where the seeds are being sown of a mass conflict that could affect countless lives.
Lucas peppers the story with high-speed chases, but their clever orchestration is undercut by an abandonment of basic physics. Once you've seen a human being fall what looks like tens of stories and land on a hard object without sustaining a scratch, it's difficult to discern the danger in anything that follows. The dialogue (a joint effort between Lucas and "The Scorpion King" plotter Jonathan Hales) is even lazier: There is no excusable reason for Obi-Wan to meet an adversary's threats with the sub-Eastwood riposte, "I don't think so."
The art direction that made "Episode I" a feast for the eyes is back in effect. Nothing beats a Star Wars movie for the rich detail of its alien vistas and infrastructure. This time, though, technique outpaces actual invention, with Lucas relying heavily on visual takeoffs of Earthly phenomena like rickshaws, sports bars and greasy-spoon diners. Looking for an easy way to connect with audiences, he drops in repeated nods to the original trilogy: a familiar helmet here, an ominous schematic there.
It might work better were the acting of a higher standard. Christensen at least approximates the inner torment that will one day effect Anakin's transformation into the despotic Darth Vader, but Portman is shockingly stiff. Her scenes with Christensen are the worst in the movie: We're supposed to be watching a romance unfold that is the heart of a grand mythology. Instead, we feel as if we've tuned to a teen soap on the WB.
Only McGregor delivers as hoped, investing even the dullest passages with a wise authority that's mitigated by a twinkling playfulness. His late-arriving conflict with a rogue Jedi played by the great Christopher Lee makes us wish the entire movie had been a contest between these two charismatic personalities. But on another level, Lee's presence only reminds us how inferior the film is to his last project, "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring." Lucas may not know it, but he has surrendered the light saber of true magic to a new generation of filmmakers like Rings' Peter Jackson. From the looks of Episode II, he may never be able to snatch it back.