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STAR WARS FANS - to be reckoned with?

By Robert K. Elder

Chicago Tribune

Even Obi-Wan Kenobi said "Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace" wasn't exactly stellar filmmaking.

Earlier this year, Ewan McGregor (Kenobi in "Phantom Menace") told British film company FilmFour: "One of the things about 'Episode I' I was slightly disappointed by was I thought it was kind of flat."

Despite grossing $431 million in the United States, second only to "Titanic" among first-run releases, George Lucas' prequel to his mythmaking "Star Wars" trilogy met with mixed reviews and some downright hostile fan reaction upon its 1999 release.

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But with the darker tone and action of "Star Wars: Episode II -- Attack of the Clones," Lucas has a chance to re-establish the status of his space opera among critics and hard-core fans alike.

Early buzz has been positive, but fans have been burned by buzz before. At stake is not only Lucas' credibility as a filmmaker, but also a vast empire of merchandising and the future of the franchise itself.

"(The series) definitely needs to redeem itself for Generation X fans and people who grew up with it," said David Gray, co-founder of the fan club Chicago Force.

Lucasfilm's vice president of marketing Jim Ward said he's mystified by the talk that "Attack of the Clones" can revive a franchise that, from the Lucasfilm perspective, isn't in need of medical attention.

"Well, I respect fan opinions but I'm not quite sure what 'back on track' might mean," Ward said. "If you take a look at 'Episode I,' it did ($431 million) in the United States. It did a billion dollars worldwide and $1.2 billion in merchandise. We'll take that every time."

Some fans felt a fiscally dominated mindset subtracted from the mythic aesthetic of "Phantom Menace."

"This is a franchise in deep spiritual trouble," wrote Reel.com "Hollywood Confidential" columnist Jeffrey Wells in 1999. "'Episode I' has been sacrificed on the altar of the kiddie market but 'Episode II' and 'III' can still be saved."

Recently, Wells called his earlier hope "optimistic," even though he has not yet viewed "Attack of the Clones."

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Internet icon Harry Knowles, however, has. After being led into a hotel room for a clandestine viewing of an early cut last month, the aint-it-cool-news.com honcho admitted "not liking" Hayden Christensen's Anakin "at all," calling him a "punk spoiled brat." On most other accounts, however, Knowles slathered praise on "Attack of the Clones," writing: "Lucas succeeds with the film beyond my wildest dreams."

Often hampered as a critic by ever-present hyperbole on his site, Knowles is nonetheless the litmus test for the fan community.

"I personally am very encouraged and excited about the buzz we're seeing. I do believe it will put the 'Star Wars' saga back on track," said Philip Wise, staff member of the largest unofficial Star Wars fan destination -- www.TheForce.net. Wise also runs the Star Wars toy collecting site www.RebelScum.com.

Seven-year-old TheForce.net attracts an average of 75,000 unique daily visitors, who check the site for movie news, cast interviews, rumors and fan films. The franchise derailed, Wise said, with "Phantom Menace's" complicated politics, lame slapstick from the alien Jar Jar Binks, and hyper-merchandising campaign.

Knowles went on to report that in "Attack of the Clones," there's a significant reduction of onscreen time for Jar Jar, heightened action sequences and a palatable love story between Anakin and Padme (Natalie Portman).

"I have great hope," said Chicago Force's Gray. "It looks like Lucas paid attention to his fans. This time, it looks like he's listened and it's going to make a better movie."

BOX; Show times

On five screens at Chateau Theatres at North Broadway and 37th Streets in Rochester. First show at 11 a.m., last show begins at 10:30 p.m. There will be midnight showings Friday and Saturday.

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Rating

PG: Science fiction action/violence.

Running time

2 hours, 12 minutes

Inside

'Clones' lacks verve of earlier movies, Ebert says in his review -- Page 6C

BOX; Here's where you can catch "Stars Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones" this weekend.

Chateau, Rochester: Showings every half-hour, from 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.

Cinemagic, Austin: 4 p.m., 7 p.m., 9:40 p.m., plus Saturday and Sunday matinees at 1 p.m.

Winona 7: 1 p.m., 4 p.m., 7 p.m., 10 p.m.

Roger Ebert's review -- Page 6C

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