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).