My coverage of reviews for Star Wars, Episode Two was originally published in the Film Forum column at Christianity Today in May 2002.

The previous Star Wars film, 1999’s Episode One: The Phantom Menace, has become the most successful of the entire series. Ironically, it is also considered one of the most disappointing — and even despised — adventure movies of all time. Three years have passed, and we now have Star Wars, Episode Two: Attack of the Clones. In this chapter, young Anakin Skywalker starts giving in to his foolish impulses, rejects the counsel of his teachers, and responds to the temptations that lead him on the path of the Dark Side. His primary weakness is his infatuation with the beautiful Senator Padme Amidala.

Most critics are thankfully saying Attack is not a clone of Episode One. But does that mean Lucas has found his “space legs” again? That’s a matter of heated debate.

Those religious press critics who have spoken reflect the same spectrum of opinions that the series has generated since 1977. Most are thrilled with the action and effects. Some express reservations about the quality of the writing and the acting. And a few are worried that the messages about belief in the Force are not sufficiently Christian.

Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) joins the chorus lamenting the film’s weak dialogue and acting. But he has much more to say: “If [Clones] doesn’t quite recapture the charm of the original trilogy, it does combine more enjoyable characterizations and dialogue and better paced storytelling with even more dazzling imagery. [Lucas] may have the tone-deaf ear for dialogue of a dime-store pulp novelist, but he’s still got the visionary eye of a technological Tolkien, and the worlds he creates are pure magic. When Lucas creates visuals like these, he’s doing something quite simply unmatched by anything anyone else in Hollywood is doing, or has ever done.”

Greydanus also highlights ethical lessons of the film: “While Lucas’s story doesn’t touch upon the underlying moral issues of human dignity and the sacredness of human life in its origins, the progression it shows from the optimistic promises of cloning technology to the dehumanizing reality that actually follows remains an evocative metaphor for the false hopes of human cloning experimentation. Whatever Lucas’s intentions, his story resonates with the prophetic warning of John Paul II that ‘man must be the master, not the product, of his technology.'”

He goes on to praise the film’s recognition of celibacy and marriage both as valid, honorable institutions, while the pursuit of dangerous liaisons is portrayed as “living a lie.”

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, “I don’t think I was alone in wondering if perhaps the steam had gone out of the Star Wars franchise. Nor do I think I’ll be alone in celebrating George Lucas’s return to form in the highly exhilarating and enjoyable Episode II.” He explains, “Clones … has more of a psychological depth to it as it begins to lay out the course of a good man who turns bad. We see the bad seed planted as Anakin Skywalker receives some ‘advice’ from a false counselor. ‘Trust your emotions,’ he is told. This … opens Anakin’s heart to the temptation of disobedience as he rejects his understood moral code to act out of passion rather than reason.”

Lisa Rice and Tom Snyder (Movieguide) caution readers that they should beware of false messages: “Star Wars IIseems to have abandoned the positive, theistic orientation that the first episode seemed to be moving toward at times. Apparently, George Lucas has decided to slightly reinforce the Buddhist leanings of the saga, where the heroes (and villains) engage an impersonal, illogical, spiritual, and transcendent ‘Force’ in a mystical, partially occult way.”

Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) offers a few cautionary words about the “theological hodgepodge … reflected in The Force.” He also calls Clones “a wild, satisfying adventure” that lacks “the carefree, organic quality of the earlier films. You wish the young actors would just relax, have fun and stop treating the material as sacred.”

The mainstream press avoids discussion of the film’s “theological hodgepodge,” focusing instead on issues of craftsmanship. Those who enjoy Lucas’s imaginative environments and who value Lucas’s effective, efficient visual storytelling give the film rave reviews, even as they note its familiarly mundane script and wooden performances. But others are unmoved by the sights and sounds, condemning the film for Lucas’s failings as a writer and for his work with the cast.

Many scorn the film’s romance plot as derivative and dumb. Kirk Honeycutt (Hollywood Reporter) declares, “These two fall in love not because romance sparks but to suit the needs of subsequent movies.” Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times) adds: “Padme and Anakin [are] incapable of uttering anything other than the most basic and weary romantic clichés, while regarding each other as if love was something to be endured rather than cherished.”

Ed Gonzalez (Slant) faults the flat conversations: “Lucas’ toys always look better when keeping mum and waving their sticks around.” Roger Friedman (Fox News) says that Yoda “literally saves Episode II from quicksand,” but then complains, “What’s completely missing … is any jauntiness or sense of fun, camaraderie or purpose. This second generation of Star Wars characters all sound like Keanu Reeves delivering a soliloquy from Hamlet.”

“Mr. Lucas seems to have lost his boyish glee,” agrees A.O. Scott (New York Times). “[Lucas] … has lost either the will or the ability to connect with actors, and his crowded, noisy cosmos is psychologically and emotionally barren.”

And Lisa Schwarzbaum (Entertainment Weekly) says, “Here we are again: not entertained, not nearly enough, by an installment … that exhibits a chill, conservative grimness of purpose, rather than an excited thrill at the possibilities of cinematic storytelling.”

But when Schwarzbaum says we, she’s not speaking for a large portion of her peers. Some of Episode One‘s strongest naysayers come away impressed this time.

Chris Gore, editor of Film Threat magazine, writes, “I have been one of Episode I‘s most outspoken critics for the last three years. [It’s] … one of the greatest disappointments in movie history.” He agrees that Clones’dialogue is “cringe-inducing.” But in spite of this, he’s full of praise. “Clones is epic, entertaining, romantic and funny—it is a true Star Wars film. When I walked out of the screening, all I could think of is that I want to get right back in line to see Clones again.”

Todd McCarthy (Variety) turns in an rave: “Virtually everything that went wrong in Menace has been fixed, or at least improved upon … The exposition and sense of storytelling are clearer and more economical, all the main characters have significant roles to play, the detailing of the diverse settings is far richer, the multitudinous action set-pieces are genuinely exciting, there is now the dramatic through-line provided by a love story, some of the acting is actually decent, and even the score is better.”

Clones is much better,” agrees David Denby (The New Yorker). “Digital invention is becoming grander, wilder, more free-spirited. Lucas and his computer artists have a ball with the climactic scene … The mayhem is delirious fun.”

Two weeks ago, David Poland (The Hot Button) wrote, “George Lucas takes a movie world obsessed with CG and big images and tops every single film ever made going away. The story moves in surprising and clever ways as well as in obvious and expected ones.” This week, he insists, “No film has ever come close to [Clones‘] visual complexity and beauty.”

What do the film’s fans have to say about the weaknesses? “If it can be easily faulted for cardboard characters and clunky dialogue,” writes Michael Wilmington (Chicago Tribune), “then it should be recalled that these are defects of the entire series—which takes most of its cues from the old Flash Gordon serials, as clunky and cardboard as they come. This is visual storytelling of a high order, and though we’ve heard and seen it all before, it has never been with quite this childlike awe and incredible elaboration. The movie keeps topping itself, not dramatically, but with one pure, explosively delivered, ripely detailed action set-piece after another. This is a landmark film, for technological bravura … if nothing else. Clones celebrates a certain youthful spirit in both moviemaking and movie watching; because it’s as much phenomenon as movie, audiences will either ride with or reject it. I was happy to take the ride.”

After I stay up for the late-night showing on Thursday, I’ll post my opinion of the film at Looking Closer.

Admittedly, Episode One suffered from bad acting and poor writing. Then again, so did 1993’s Return of the Jedi. But I have to wonder—isn’t griping about bad dialogue in a Star Warsfilm a little like pointing to artificial butter flavoring on movie popcorn? You can state the obvious, but why belabor the point? Lucas’s work in screenwriting and directing actors has always been substandard, and critics should indeed acknowledge that. But shouldn’t they give more credit to his grasp of visual storytelling and his vision for harnessing technology and using it to free his imagination? These talents seem sorely undervalued and even ignored. Further, it is a rare wonder, the way that moral and spiritual truths are powerfully illustrated and communicated by the Star Wars stories. Like the Arthurian legends he so clearly reveres, Lucas is giving us an alternate history rich with parables.