Back then, the ideas were better than the execution, hamstrung as Lucas was by that darned early technology. Although the special effects may have been primitive by modern standards, the first three Star Wars movies (or last three, as we now know them) all had a beating heart: the Force, the mythology of Luke and Leia, the menace of Darth Vader, the questions about good and evil. While most audiences were content to collect the action figures and see the blockbusters time and time again, through the years, the movie's hard-core fans longed for a more complete history of this complicated world. That was always part of George Lucas' master plan.
And so, all those years after Luke made his final peace with Vader and Vader made his final peace with the Force, Lucas took us all back to the beginning. Phantom Menace showed us the roots of the Empire and introduced us to a young Anakin Skywalker, the man who would grow into Darth Vader's mask. The technology was spiffier than anything we had seen before, but let's face it -- Phantom Menace was boring and pretty forgettable. Episode One was a turn-off-the-brain summer blockbuster that exploited Star Wars popularity far more than it advanced it. Fans tried to like this first prequel installment out of a lifetime of brand loyalty, but came up short. There was little magic, less mythology, hardly any fun -- and that dreadful Jar Jar Binks.
Thankfully, and just in the nick of time, Lucas has remembered that Star Wars should be the stuff of legend. Attack of the Clones is everything Phantom Menace wasn't, visually stunning and dizzyingly complex, a bona fide blockbuster in the Star Wars tradition. If you think watching Hardball is confusing, try following the politics of the early Republic; on second thought, don't even try. Just revel in the fact that Star Wars is a reasonably complicated story again with characters to care about and story lines that weave together.
Script, always Lucas' weakest suit, is at least on solid ground. Episode Two's greatest strengths are derived from the development of back story for those people and places we already know by heart. Where Phantom Menace seemed so divorced from the world of Star Wars, Attack of the Clones is all about connections. Half the fun is in recognizing characters and themes, reaching back into our memories for their ultimate resolutions. Here we begin to see the brooding darkness of Anakin in contrast with his enormous Jedi talent. Newcomer Hayden Christensen plays the war between righteousness and pride with perfect pitch; his banter with strong-willed Padme (Natalie Portman) foreshadows that of the impatient Luke and the feisty Leia, his fury at the loss of a loved one foresages Vader's vengeance. Jedi mentor Obi Wan Kenobi (Ewan MacGregor) and the oleaginous Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) begin to move into position as the guardians of good and evil.
The pace and emphasis on action-adventure is mercifully back. After a bit of a slow start, Lucas jumps headlong into a harrowing chase scene and never looks back. There are princesses -- or female senators, in this case -- to protect, and big bads to battle. The warm humor of R2 and Threepio is back, lightening the mood with their blips and badinage. The lightsaber fights are invigorating; Anakin's doublefisted fight doesn't last nearly long enough. There isn't time to care, however, as the sequence is immediately followed by perhaps the greatest moment of Star Wars lore to date: a newly digitized Yoda momentarily puts down his walking stick long enough to whip a little fledgling-Empire ass. True fans of the Lucas tradition will recognize the joy of this moment, the puppet breaking free of his strings and sticking it but good to the bad guys.
The cherry on top of Attack of the Clones is the fact that technology and computer-generated imagery has finally caught up with Lucas' genius; there's almost too much to look at in Attack of the Clones and all of it is dazzling. Given the free rein that only computer RAM can give, Lucas creates worlds of wonder, which he carefully populates with faces old and new. For every dazzling new creature he introduces, a familiar face (or at least breed) makes an appearance. Same goes for ships and planets. Dusty Tatooine returns like an old friend; stormy water planet Kamino and its mesmerizing inhabitants are phenomenal additions.
Trilogy aficionados have rightfully suggested that Phantom Menace need not be part of the core Star Wars canon. Now that the fun is back in the Force, fans finally have a true prequel to embrace in Attack of the Clones.