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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.