When we last left our young hero, Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), in Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace (1999), he was returning the gaze of fair, young Queen Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman) with a dark stare and a crooked smirk. That smoldering look betrayed a suggestion of lusty menace far beyond his years. Now, a decade later, her mere presence fans adolescent Anakin’s (Hayden Christensen, Life as a House) brooding gaze into a murky glow. Anakin, the chosen prodigy of the Force (the mystical energy that creates and animates his universe), becomes a shadowy Romeo to Padmé’s reluctant Juliet.
As fate — or the Force — would have it, Anakin finds himself assigned as more than a shadow to Padmé. A prodigy as well — but in the powers of galactic politics, not the Force — she now represents her home world, Naboo, in the Galactic Senate, having reached her term limit in the elected office of queen. Sen. Amidala is fiercely steadfast in her loyalty to her people, her ethics and her morality. These qualities prove to be as politically rare — and dangerous — in the increasingly corrupt Galactic Republic as they are in our time and on our world. Ruthlessly targeted for assassination, she can only be effectively protected by Jedi knights. Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and his padawan (or Jedi apprentice), Anakin Skywalker, are entrusted with her safety. But when Obi-Wan is called away to investigate a massive cloning operation, Anakin insinuates his way into a position more intimate than bodyguard.
AOTC (the movie’s official acronym) wraps director George Lucas’ gorgeous digital imagery around his mythic story. In each frame, countless new life forms and machinery bustle and zoom through their worlds. Lucas’ work once again pictorially explodes from the fertile germ of “Star Trek.” But in some ways he seems to tend toward dazzling quantity rather than the quality of detail director Peter Jackson demonstrated in his more classic fantasy, Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Lucas does subtly convey his story and its underlying issues through even the look of architecture and wardrobe. The Renaissance-influenced cityscape, interiors and garments of Sen. Amidala’s Naboo suggest a period and place of royal rule that she sheds for the more democratic art deco megapolis of Coruscant (the seat of the Galactic Republic) and bodysuits. Her ship — a torpedo of polished chrome impossibly supported by landing gear as delicate as a butterfly’s limbs — is a perfect metaphor of her ironic blend of strength and vulnerability.
Though Padmé may have ruled a world and now takes part in governing the galaxy, she can’t deny her feeling for the boy she first knew as “Little Ani.” Beneath Lucas’ cautionary allegory on the evils of technocracy and politics, Anakin’s story lies at the heart of AOTC. You could think of it as techno-Shakespeare for we 21st century groundlings. The Romeo and Juliet love subplot aside, this is a tragedy of teenaged arrogance played out in costume with light sabers in place of swords.
Hayden Christensen plays his role as an adolescent rebel who loses his cause in a fatal mixture of that arrogance and psychological trauma. His eyes gleaming with lust for Padmé and complaining of the restraints of his father figure, Obi-Wan, he’s more a real teenager than his future son, the ideal Luke Skywalker, would ever be.
After the prologue of The Phantom Menace — that made a poor substitution of brilliant effects and video game-friendly set pieces for drama — Lucas seems to be back on track. Our exposure to Jar Jar Binks, now a Galactic Representative, is limited to a few scenes. Yoda’s Japanese-influenced pidgin seems to demonstrate more grammatical logic — and he drops his cane to show why he’s the master of the Jedis in the movie’s climax.
Once again, in a cineplex near you, Lucas has laden his version of the Buck Rodgers serials with everything from classic adventure to mythic profundities.
James Keith La Croix writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.