[Deep Focus]
THE PHANTOM MENACE
GRADE: B-
Star Wars in the age
of Mortal Kombat

I have to admit that I considered not reviewing the latest installment in the Star Wars series at all. After all, nobody's going to make a decision about whether or not to go based on what I have to say about it. Star Wars fans aren't going to care if I don't like it, and non-fans won't care if I do.

Further, there's something attractive about the idea of proceeding apace with the task of writing about movies, while completely ignoring the one film event of the year that had been hyped to such an extent that the movie itself was only a trifling part of the overarching cultural phenomenon. In shopping malls, on television news programs, and at fast food drive-up windows, the entire world of commerce and mass communication has stepped forward to shill for a $115 million SF flick and they're all happy to do it. Movie theaters have ceded tremendous amounts of control to the Lucas empire, fans have given up weeks of their lives to camp out on theater sidewalks, and scalpers reportedly cleared $90 a ticket on opening night in New York City. It seems de rigueur for anyone who loves movies to at least take a crack at expressing an opinion, despite the fact that more people especially all of you good folks who read about movies on the Internet are likely to have strong opinions about The Phantom Menace than about any other movie in history.

Now, I don't begrudge anyone their enthusiasm for the film, although I do consider its widespread adulation among people in my age group (the legendary Generation X) in large part a rather transparent, if subconscious, endorsement of the notion that the world was somehow a better place when we were 7-year-old kids stuffing our mouths full of popcorn while George Lucas knocked our socks off from his godlike perch atop a golden director's chair in a galaxy far, far away. Like the resurgence of disco music and bad 70s fashions, the Star Wars fad is pure nostalgia. Rather than expecting the new movies to once again reveal a previously unseen world of possibilities, it seems audiences are now begging Lucas to take them back to the same reassuring place.

So instead of offering a challenge to the faithful, the new movie plays it utterly safe. The milieu here is stubbornly derivative of the earlier films in the series, strangely sterile and largely passion-free. The biggest appeal of the first Star Wars movies may have been their utter lack of pretension, but Lucas is so self-conscious about this film's contrived politics and lifeless philosophizing that you have to figure he's spent the 16 years since the last one just sitting around his pad and thinking way too hard about the universe he's made a business out of creating. Unlike the first trilogy, which traded in simple concepts and eye-popping visuals, this one is swamped from the get-go by a ponderous backstory (wait a sec -- isn't this "Episode One" we're talking about?).

At least the first 15 minutes are promising, once again recalling the rhythm of old cliffhanger serials by opening in medias res, with Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn and young apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi (Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor) on a diplomatic mission about to turn sour. The crux of the movie's conflict is the encroachment of the Trade Federation on the rights of the peace-loving dwellers of planet Naboo. The two Jedi hook up with Jar Jar Binks, a computer-generated inhabitant (voiced by Ahmed Best) of the planet's giant underwater city, and Naboo's young ruler Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman), both of whom they spirit away as the Federation's attack forces (hordes of CGI droids) invade.

Most everyone winds up on Tatooine, the desert planet immortalized in the opening third of the original Star Wars. Qui-Gon's attention is drawn to little Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), a slave boy with unusual talents that suggest an affinity with the Force, the mystical power that can be used for great acts of good or evil. Mindful of Anakin's potential, Qui-Gon negotiates for his freedom as a condition of the boy's winning a wild "pod race" that serves as the film's action centerpiece.

It seems to take forever to get there, however, and The Phantom Menace contains the most sleep-inducing segments of the whole Star Wars series. Where Star Wars introduced us to a troupe of unknown actors, some of whom would become household names, The Phantom Menace trots out some of the brightest lights in international film to wrap their mouths around the kind of banal, expository dialogue you'd expect to see in a PlayStation game that's been translated from the original Japanese. There's so much explanation that Lucas has no time for character development, and that's a big shortcoming.

Meanwhile, the film is top-heavy with history and intrigue, stretching Lucas's trademark appropriation of archetypes from myth and legend to the breaking point. Even in the context of the sometimes loopy Star Wars lore, there are some real miscalculations in this one, like the outrageously earthbound ethnicity of most of the film's alien species, the left-field revelation of a virgin birth, or the half-baked idea that the Jedi Knights should run around taking blood samples to determine whether the Force is with somebody or not. (It's anybody's guess whether any of this stuff will be developed to better effect in the next two films.)

McGregor, by far the film's most appealing star, is relegated to second-or-third banana status. Mostly, he stands around taking phone calls from Liam Neeson, who manages to invest Qui-Gon with a scruffy saintliness. Lloyd plays the part of adorable moppet as written considering that the whole film, indeed the whole Star Wars saga, must be borne on the shoulders of the boy who will father Luke Skywalker and turn to the dark side, his role is both undemanding and uninteresting. And as Amidala, Natalie Portman who I normally think is just terrific seems more interested in keeping her ever-more-precarious headpieces balanced atop her scalp than she is in getting the line readings right. You can hardly blame her those outrageous Japanese fashions she's dolled up in are more than a simple distraction. They're a symptom of the obsessive ornateness that seems to have infected every corner of Lucas's imagination this time out.

Of course, nothing about the film is more remarkable than the obsessive deployment of special effects, in about 2000 separate shots that are said to take up 95 percent of the film's running time. The actors trudge dutifully across the screen pretending to react to fantastic CGI-rendered alien creations, but they're never the main attraction. There's one shot showing Qui-Gon and company wandering around Mos Eisley spaceport that's extended for no other reason, as far as I could tell, than to make sure we notice the computer-animated critter shambling across the screen in the background. Why does Lucas put a digital effect in the background of every scene in the movie? Why, because he can, of course.

As special effects go, sure, it's pretty dazzling. But Lucas is less of a visionary today than he was 22 years ago, when Star Wars really looked unlike anything that had been seen previously. Many of the techniques seen here were first put to stunning use in Luc Besson's The Fifth Element, which offered up similar vistas of sky-scraping, traffic-clogged metropolises and used the same strategy to animate the features on its rubber-masked aliens. I don't think The Phantom Menace necessarily has better effects than any movie that came before it but, boy howdy, it sure does have more of them, appearing at such a frantic rate that you'd have to see the picture two or three times just to drink them all in.

(I don't happen to think this is a good thing, by the way. Too many obvious digital effects give this film a two-dimensional plasticity better suited to a high-end computer game than to a big-budget adventure film. I seem to be in the minority among audiences, so I won't belabor the point.)

So Lucas has made a deal with the devil, trading strong characterization and narrative for visual indulgence and verbal convolution. Within that context, does The Phantom Menace perform? Yep, for whatever it's worth. When this flick starts cranking, it delivers the goods. That pod race sequence is a triumph, edited to perfection with a swooping, swirling sound design (courtesy aural guru Ben Burtt) that adds to the giddy, transporting sensation of speed. And although the triple-threat climax is lifted wholesale from the similarly structured Return of the Jedi, the furious lightsaber battle between the two Jedi and villainous newcomer Darth Maul (Ray Park, who could probably kick Darth Vader's ass) may seem worth the price of admission, if not a few hours standing in line. From a pure action standpoint, it's probably the finest moment in the series so far.

By then, ironically, my complaint was that the 131-minute film was over too quickly. That's right after two hours and ten minutes, something resembling a story seems ready to kick in. The optimist in me thinks Lucas (who took a 22-year sabbatical from film directing before shooting The Phantom Menace) may hit his stride for the next two films, having blasted the cobwebs out in the making of this one. In my wildest dreams, I imagine that he'll cede direction of Episodes 2 and 3 (or at least the screenwriting, which is the weakest aspect of this picture) to someone who can look on his saga with fresh eyes. I certainly hope so. Subsumed (perhaps inevitably and unfairly) by its own hype, The Phantom Menace feels like an aperitif or little more than a costume test, an unfocused rehearsal for the real thing.


Written and directed by George Lucas
Cinematography by David Tattersall
Edited by Ben Burtt and Paul Martin Smith
Sound Design by Burtt
Music by John Williams
Starring Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, and Jake Lloyd

Theatrical aspect ratio: 2.35:1

USA, 1999


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