Dark Victory

16 minute read
Richard Corliss and Jess Cagle

Maybe George Lucas ought to get out more. For the past three years, as he ruled his multimedia empire from the palatial redoubt of Skywalker Ranch in Marin County, Calif., Lucas has dwelt in the lovely dream that his 1999 Star Wars movie, Episode I–The Phantom Menace, was universally loved. Lately, though, inquiring journalists have slapped him awake. “I’m getting my education now from the press,” he says. “They come in and say, ‘Wow. People hated your movie. What do you think about that?'”

That’s what happens when the Wizard of Oz gives interviews. But Lucas’ first Star Wars film in 16 years was the victim of its own mammoth hype, stoked by a quillion cover stories, including TIME’s, before anyone had seen the completed work–and by the worldwide audience’s communal memory of Star Wars (1977) and its sequels, The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983). If the Odyssey had enjoyed–or suffered–as much anticipatory fluffing as Phantom Menace did, some ancient Greeks would surely have muttered, “Homer’s lost it.” And the poet would have wearily defended himself, as Lucas does today.

He probably thinks it odd to be asked to justify a picture that earned $431 million at the North American box office, behind only Titanic, the original Star Wars and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial as an all-time top grosser. But the writer-producer-director-megamind–who in his spare time runs a film conglomerate that includes the Lucasfilm production outfit, the ILM visual-effects house and Skywalker Sound–says he was always aware of at least one Phantom risk: that Anakin Skywalker, the Jedi knight in training who would evolve into the sinister Darth Vader, was a kid. “I said, ‘They’re gonna hate this. They’re gonna get really upset that I have a 9-year-old as the hero.’ But what can I do? That’s the story. I can’t make him 15. The whole story is about where he came from, who is he? You had to start in the beginning.”

Now, with Star Wars: Episode II–Attack of the Clones opening May 16, the Anakin fable gets to the middle, the meat, the real story. The past was prologue, a modest prequel, like Tolkien’s The Hobbit to his epic Lord of the Rings saga. In Clones, Anakin (Canadian dish Hayden Christensen) is 20, a young man of superior skills and even higher ambitions, chafing under the stern tutelage of his mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), and daring to risk his status in the Jedi Order, which forbids romantic attachments, by pursuing a reckless passion for Senator Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman). They parry with oily, possibly insidious Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) and battle the Jedi rebel Dooku (Christopher Lee) and his droids with an army cloned from scurvy bounty hunter Jango Fett (Maori actor Temuera Morrison).

Lucas, who will turn 58 two days before the movie opens, is given to fretting; he even worried that Phantom Menace would tank at the b.o. “There’s only one issue for a filmmaker,” he says. “Will this make its money back so I can make the next one? With Phantom Menace, we didn’t know. It didn’t have Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher. It was not a slam dunk.” Well, maybe, but even so, the new picture looks like Shaquille O’Neal standing three feet from the basket. Though it faces sticky competition from Spider-Man two weeks before–and, in weeks to come, from Men in Black II, Austin Powers in Goldmember and Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report with Tom Cruise–Clones is the surest bet of the summer. Just in terms of mass appeal, the movie extends the franchise’s target audience from 12-year-old boys (the action stuff) to 15-year-old girls (the smoochy scenes). If it works, Lucas has the Star Wars and Titanic markets in one package.

After seeing a rough cut of the film and reading the script, we can say that Clones seems poised to get the series back on track–and provide an exhilarating two hours of serious fun. It should easily ace the last movie in chills (when two icky centipedal creatures called “kouhuns” crawl into the sleeping Padme’s bed) and thrills (when Anakin and Obi-Wan drag-race the changeling Zam Wessel across Coruscant’s wonderfully varied urban nightscape).

Clones is populated with hundreds of computer-generated creatures, from new digital stars like the four-armed diner chef Dexter Jettster to familiars like Yoda, Watto the Junkman–and that vexing critter Jar Jar Binks, around whom the disappointment in Phantom Menace crystallized. Lucas blames the anti-Jar Jar sentiment on “37-year-old guys who spend all their time on the Internet. But you have to remember that when we did The Empire Strikes Back, some people hated C-3PO. When we did Jedi, they just loathed the Ewoks. There was no Internet to jazz it up, but there was the same conversation. Fans are very opinionated, and that’s good. But I can’t make a movie for fans.” Nonetheless, Jar Jar has a far less prominent role this time. In movie theaters you will hear a cheer from Binks-ophobes when, as he launches into an anecdote, Padme cursorily cuts him off.

Yoda might also catch some criticism here, since he is no longer the endearing puppet manipulated by Frank Oz. Now he is fully computer-animated. But thanks to ILM animation supervisor Rob Coleman and his staff, Yoda is both more supple and more thoughtful than his earlier self, as when he flicks a skeptical glance at a remark by Senator Palpatine. And who would have thought our sedentary sage was such a deft martial artist, with lightsaber maneuvers as quick as his speech is circuitous? A Gandhi turned Rambo, Yoda is the real action hero of the film.

But can we even say film? Lucas seems to want to make that word obsolete: Clones is by far the most ambitious movie to be shot and, in certain theaters, exhibited with digital technology. For a movie industry that has been slow to embrace digital filmmaking, Clones heralds a breakthrough that Lucas compares with the advent of sound and the arrival of color. The whizzes at Lucasfilm, Panavision and Sony blended their expertise to devise sophisticated lenses and cameras that enable digital images to replace traditional 35-mm film. The result is an astoundingly clear image that lends a hyperreal glamour to the gritty city of Coruscant and the pastoral reaches of Padme’s home planet, Naboo.

Lucas may be obsessed with all things digital, but in this film he and co-writer Jonathan Hales also appear fully engaged with his flesh-and-blood characters. Obi-Wan, in the form of McGregor’s bearded visage, is growing into the moral authority and gruff wit exuded by Alec Guinness as the fogie Kenobi in Star Wars. His exasperation with Anakin has a paternal tint. In that Coruscant night chase, Anakin is the car-crazy teenager of many Lucas films, and Obi-wan is the speed demon’s nervous dad who regrets giving his son the keys to the family sedan.

As for Padme and Anakin, they could be the first plausible love duo in the Lucas oeuvre. Theirs is a coming-of-age story: Padme’s slow realization that the 9-year-old she left behind has grown up. At first she deflects his ardor by calling him by his old diminutive, Annie–a girl’s nickname, a gentle emasculator–and telling him, “You’ll always be that little boy I knew on Tatooine.” He doesn’t help his case by plighting his troth at every opportunity. (Is there anything less sexy than declared devotion?) But gradually, Padme, beguiled by Anakin’s quick wit and impressed by his martial skills, comes to realize that they are destined to be together. And not just because the audience knows they will be the parents of Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia. As the galaxy careers toward catastrophe, the imminence of total war unites them, gives emotional weight to their puppy love, makes their romance more urgent.

The Anakin of Clones is an attractive fellow, full of a young man’s roiling contradictions. He respects the Jedi ethic while squirming to elude its strictures; he loves both his faraway mother and the royal temptation at his side; he does engage in a revenge massacre but feels remorse for it; he is disarming and, finally, literally disarmed. By the end of Clones, Anakin is still a decent, stalwart gent, light-years removed from the malefic Vader.

So how will Lucas, who once created an angelic Luke, morph his new hero into Lucifer? “He turns into Darth Vader because he gets attached to things,” says Lucas. “He can’t let go of his mother; he can’t let go of his girlfriend. He can’t let go of things. It makes you greedy. And when you’re greedy, you are on the path to the dark side, because you fear you’re going to lose things, that you’re not going to have the power you need.”

Underlying the three strains of action, romance and character is a sense of political drama, prefigured in Phantom Menace. If that movie had a message, it was: Take a meeting. The film often went logy from all its earnest senatorial harrumphing, which was every bit as compelling as a lazy committee hearing on C-SPAN. Politics is important in Clones too, but as a running three-cornered debate: Padme’s idealism colliding with Obi-Wan’s cynicism and Anakin’s budding realpolitik.

Obi-Wan echoes John McCain on campaign-finance reform: “It is my experience that Senators focus only on pleasing those who fund their campaigns…and they are by no means scared of forgetting the niceties of democracies in order to get those funds.” Padme, in a scene cut from the film, sounds like Kofi Annan pleading for Palestinians when she tells the Senate, “If you offer the separatists violence, they can only show us violence in return! Many will lose their lives. All will lose their freedom.” Anakin, like Brutus just before the Ides of March, says if the Senate cannot resolve its differences, “then they should be made to.” By whom? “Someone wise,” he says. Padme muses, “That sounds an awful lot like a dictatorship to me.”

So where does Lucas stand in this political polemic? “I’m more on the liberal side of things,” he says. “I grew up in San Francisco in the ’60s, and my positions are sort of shaped by that…If you look back 30 years ago, there were certain issues with the Kennedys, with Richard Nixon, that focused my interest.” Lucas’ own geopolitics can sound pretty bleak: “All democracies turn into dictatorships–but not by coup. The people give their democracy to a dictator, whether it’s Julius Caesar or Napoleon or Adolf Hitler. Ultimately, the general population goes along with the idea…What kinds of things push people and institutions into this direction?”

In Clones, Lucas goes a way toward answering that question. “That’s the issue that I’ve been exploring: How did the Republic turn into the Empire? That’s paralleled with: How did Anakin turn into Darth Vader? How does a good person go bad, and how does a democracy become a dictatorship? It isn’t that the Empire conquered the Republic, it’s that the Empire is the Republic.” Lucas’ comments clarify the connection between the Anakin trilogy and the Luke trilogy: that the Empire was created out of the corruption of the Republic, and that somebody had to fight it. “One day Princess Leia and her friends woke up and said, ‘This isn’t the Republic anymore, it’s the Empire. We are the bad guys. Well, we don’t agree with this. This democracy is a sham, it’s all wrong.'”

Lucas describes the Empire as if it were the oppressive, white-on-white Formica fascism of his first feature, the boldly bleak THX 1138. Back in 1970, Lucas and his mentor, Francis Ford Coppola, were in the vanguard of the Film Generation. They were film-school grads who hoped to remake the movie business into the art of film. Surely these kid revolutionaries would create an adult, audacious post-Hollywood cinema.

Yet it is a truism about American directors: you become who you were. Coppola, the former theater director and son of a classical musician, took the arty road, making operatic, actor-centric films that sometimes (The Godfather, Apocalypse Now) found large audiences. Lucas, who had written a third-grade theme that began, “Once upon a time in the land of Zoom…” and loved to tinker with cars, replayed his Modesto, Calif., adolescence in American Graffiti. Then he reworked the beloved comic books and B-movie serials of his youth into Star Wars, a film as stylized and sterile as a piece of abstract animation, yet an adventure potent enough to please mass audiences.

Kids watching the new Star Wars films may think movies were always like this, because so many are like them now. But Lucas’ first Jedi epic was, in its way, revolutionary. It established sci-fi as a hot genre and teen boys as an audience that made hits by buying tickets early and often. It spurred the toy industry with its synoptic range of characters. “Star Wars was so ‘toyetic,'” says Brad Globe, merchandising executive at DreamWorks. “It wasn’t just one character or one vehicle; it was a whole world that was created, then extended through each movie and beyond.”

Thanks to Lucas and his brilliant team, special effects became the prettiest new tool in the movie paint box. “Star Wars convinced filmmakers that you can do anything bigger and better to enhance the shot,” says Jason Barlow, lead CG animator for the effects company RIOT. “Now, with digital technology, real magic can happen.” The movie even changed the way films are financed. Notes cultural critic John Seabrook: “Because of its huge box office, it interested Wall Street people who had previously seen Hollywood as small potatoes. The Star Wars numbers brought a new variety of investor and financial manager into movies.”

Now Lucas was Hollywood’s wonder boy. He could direct anything he wanted, at a time when directors were being canonized as artists-auteurs. Instead, Lucas passed the directorial reins of The Empire Strikes Back to middle-aged, small-drama helmer Irvin Kershner. Why did he do it?

Granted, the man had his hands full. “Here I find myself having to do a lot of design work on Empire and get the script done while I’m also starting a bunch of companies–ILM, Skywalker Sound and Lucasfilm. I was starting a video-game company. I was developing digital film editing. At the same time I was starting Pixar”–yes, he was the original owner of that pioneer computer-animation studio, then sold it to Steve Jobs in 1985–“and launching digital animation and digital filmmaking. I was working on Raiders of the Lost Ark,” which he executive-produced and co-wrote. “And I was self-financing a movie.” After Star Wars, Lucas determined to be his own boss, own his own films. With the booty from his hit movie and its even more profitable merchandise, he paid for Empire himself, then leased it to 20th Century Fox.

When he worked for Hollywood studios, Lucas had felt burned by their recutting of THX and Graffiti. After Star Wars he had the clout and the daring to insist that from then on, Hollywood would work for him. “Basically, Empire was my saying, ‘I’m not gonna have to submit stuff to people anymore. I’m not gonna have them tell me how to cut it or about market studies. I’m not gonna live in that world.’ I had this amazing opportunity to become completely independent, and I took it.”

In 1983 Lucas also had to cope with the end of his 14-year marriage to Marcia Griffin Lucas, his editor on Graffiti and the three Star Wars films. They shared the parenting of their adopted daughter Amanda. Lucas spent the next dozen years tending to Amanda and two other children he adopted on his own, Kate and Jett. He put aside the Star Wars saga and, he says, “decided to do something different with my life. I produced a lot of TV; I produced movies. I did other things that were more conducive to raising kids.

“I thought very hard,” Lucas says of single fatherhood with Kate and Jett. “‘Can I do this? Should I do it?’ Kids grow up without mothers, kids grow up without fathers, but it’s better for them to have two parents. I kind of agonized over it, but I’ve never questioned it since. Once you’re a family, those concerns are insignificant. My kids don’t have a perfect life. Their dad is more famous than he should be, and they don’t have a mother, and they just have to get over it. But I’m not sure that in a perfect world it would have been any different. And there is no perfect world.”

For all his film interests–not just the companies but the extension of Raiders’ Indiana Jones character into two more features and a TV series–he was, and remains, a doting, full-time dad. But he had a neglected child, the Star Wars saga, that needed his help in growing up. Lucas began writing the new trilogy, starting with Phantom Menace, in 1994. This time, he would direct.

After he delivers Clones, Lucas will devote his non-dad time to the final episode in the series, in which Anakin surrenders–or ascends–to the Darth Side. “The next film is really dark,” he says. “The issue is, Will people stand for it? But I’ve got to tell the story. And when I finish it, I’ll be 60. I’ve got a lot of things I want to do with my life other than more of this. I’ve got a bunch of TV shows that I want to do. I’ve got a half-dozen movies that have stayed in my brain the past 30 years. Some of them are extremely uncommercial; I may not even get them released. I’m in a position now where I can say, I’m gonna make this movie because I wanna see this movie. We’ll have a couple of screenings somewhere and call it a day. Or just put it directly on DVD or on the Independent Film Channel.”

Lucas, the responsible father, the reborn director, now seems eager to rediscover part of his youth: the avant-garde film geek. So maybe it’s not important that the Sage of Skywalker Ranch doesn’t spend much time in the sooty real world. He’s very comfortable living where he does: in that shiny fantasy world–teeming, galactic, still not totally charted–known as George Lucas’ mind.

–With reporting by Jeffrey Ressner/Los Angeles

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com