The ‘Phantom’ crix

Many are naysayers, but some stick up for pic

With his film already breaking box office records in its first day of release, “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace” creator George Lucas can laugh in the face of critical detractors who have dampened the pre-show mood with their finger-wagging.

While critics have not been unanimous in their attacks, there have certainly been more naysayers this time around, tempering release-week climate with more than a grain of saltiness.

“Star Wars,” which opened almost 22 years to the day before “Phantom” did, rocked the critics’ collective world. The juicy space fantasy epic, with its throwback sensibility and homage to comic books and old Westerns, practically knocked critics off their screening-room seats.

Crix’ new hope

Daily Variety’s own review said Lucas “has succeeded brilliantly.” The Los Angeles Times called “Star Wars” “the year’s most razzle-dazzling family movie, an exuberant and technically astonishing space adventure.” Time called it “a grand and glorious film that … is the best movie of the year so far.” Newsweek called it “pure sweet fun all the way.”

Sentiment over “Phantom” has run the gamut from unforgiving backlash to sheer delight, with critics generally finding Lucas’ strengths still formidable but much less willing to excuse other cinematic weaknesses.

Almost unanimous in what they deem the film’s high points — riveting action sequences and sprawling effects-laden alien vistas — critics also agree on its weaknesses: wooden actors, murky plotlines and lack of emotional pull.

CGI overpopulation

Daily Variety’s Todd McCarthy called the new CGI characters “notably lacking in charm or interest other than on the design level; they bring nothing new or special to Lucas’ universe, and in a sense overpopulate it.” Moreover, he wrote, “While the film hardly lacks for visual creativity, it lacks resonance, freshness and a sense of wonder.”

“In the end, Phantom needed more human and less digital scale,” commented Jack Mathews of the New York Daily News. “With ‘Phantom’ he has brought the series to the brink of total artificiality, the future as a videogame.”

It gets worse. In her Washington Post review, Rita Kempley warned that “even die-hard fans of the heretofore awe-inspiring saga are bound to be disappointed with this joyless, overly reverential, and impenetrably plotted prequel.”

‘A considerable letdown’

The L.A. Times’ Kenneth Turan declared, “Even without the pre-release hoopla, ‘The Phantom Menace’ would be a considerable letdown,” and while he called the film “serviceable,” he said it’s “noticeably lacking in warmth and humor.”

But others felt that these issues were merely potholes in an otherwise flawless road.

“Stripped of hype and breathless expectations, Mr. Lucas’ first installment offers a happy surprise: It’s up to snuff. It sustains the gee-whiz spirit of the series and offers a swashbuckling extragalactic getaway, creating illusions that are even more plausible than the kitchen-raiding raptors of ‘Jurassic Park,’ ” read Janet Maslin’s New York Times review. She concluded her review by saying, “There’s no better tour guide for a trip to other worlds. Bon voyage.”

Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times called the film an “astonishing achievement in imaginative filmmaking” and perhaps offered the best perspective on the enduring water-cooler debate on the “Phantom Menace” issue:

“As for the bad rap about the characters — hey, I’ve seen space operas that put their emphasis on human personalities and relationships. They’re called “Star Trek” movies. Give me transparent underwater cities and vast hollow senatorial spheres any day.”