As the most widely anticipated and heavily hyped film of modern times, “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace” can scarcely help being a letdown on some levels, but it’s too bad that it disappoints on so many. At heart a fanciful and fun movie for young boys, the first installment of George Lucas’ three-part prequel to the original “Star Wars” trilogy is always visually diverting thanks to the technical wizardry with which it creates so many imaginative creatures, spaceships and alien worlds. But it is neither captivating nor transporting, for it lacks any emotional pull, as well as the sense of wonder and awe that marks the best works of sci-fi/fantasy.
Nonetheless, even if the film lacks the magic to endear it to audiences in the manner of the first series entries a generation ago, the Force will still be with the picture at the box office; pic will probably gross in the neighborhood of its $120 million budget in its first week of release beginning May 19, and double that by early June. Thereafter, much will depend upon repeat viewing, which will no doubt be frequent among kids but much less so with adults. In other words, though it’s an automatic blockbuster, it will become neither a classic nor the biggest moneymaker of all time — only one of the biggest.
Those most looking forward to the first new “Star Wars” installment in 16 years are mostly people — now in their 30s — who were kids when episodes four through six were released. If anything, Lucas has tilted “Phantom” away from this audience and aimed it directly at a new crop of children, who are familiar with the originals via video or the recent “Special Edition” hardtop reissues. So while the new picture may not deliver everything the original fans have been fantasizing about for most of their lives, Lucas may again assert his status as the shrewdest marketeer among filmmakers, if he can capture the new generation for his fresh trilogy while still taking the old-time fans along for the ride.
Not that Lucas doesn’t make one feel at home right away. Stylistic unity is adhered to from the outset, as the familiar “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away …” title sets the scene and the famous slanted upward scroll sketches in the narrative background. Action is set a generation prior to the events chronicled in “Star Wars,” a period of weakness and bureaucratic squabbling in the Republic, and initial conflict is triggered by a ruthless decision on the part of the enormous Trade Federation to invade the peaceful planet of Naboo in order to extend its galactic dominance. Naboo is ruled by a teenage queen, Amidala (Natalie Portman), who is in no way inclined to cooperate with the interlopers but hasn’t the military force to stand up to them.
Although the invasion and assorted related maneuvers provide for plenty of early action, the viewer has no stake in it because the characters are just being introduced and so much exposition is being laid out. Critical to Naboo’s chances of survival are the Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his resourceful, if somewhat undisciplined apprentice, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), who was played by Alec Guinness in “Star Wars.” On their way to the queen, the pair pick up a goofy, eager-to-please associate, Jar Jar Binks, a CGI-fashioned creature that may amuse little kids but, with its convoluted and lame comic riffs, comes off like a poor cousin to Eddie Murphy’s dragon in “Mulan.”
Rescuing the queen from the oppressive Federation authorities (ugly creatures with oddly Charlie Chan-like accents), the Jedi warriors shortly become stranded on the desert planet of Tatooine, familiar from “Star Wars,” where they encounter a 9-year-old boy named Anakin Skywalker; a slave to a crass trader and gambler, the kid is also a technological wiz (he is part-way through building the droid C-3PO, who here meets his future pal R2-D2 for the first time) and makes a profound impression upon Qui-Gon Jinn, who begins to suspect that the boy is the Chosen One, who will one day bring balance to the Force.
The extended layover on Tatooine includes, at roughly the film’s halfway point, what is arguably its action/effects highlight, the pod race, which is the sci-fi equivalent of “Ben-Hur’s” chariot race. Launched from an arena carved out of rock, this consists of a bunch of daredevil pilots, who are suspended in virtual buckets connected to giant jet engines, careening their rickety crafts at low altitudes through craggy landscapes, canyons and narrow spaces, anything to create a powerful visual dynamic. Effect is as comparable to a video game as to a movie sequence, but provides the best ride of the picture, even if the outcome is never in doubt.
As the story, in its maze-like way, zigzags through its second hour, even more characters and creatures are introduced, notably a villain, the red-eyed, red-and-black-faced Darth Maul (Ray Park), who doesn’t say much but proves to be a particularly dexterous opponent of the Jedis with his lightsaber dueling technique. After a series of confrontations and battles, a sense of tentative peace prevails at the end, and the young Anakin, despite some misgivings on the part of Jedi Master Yoda, is accepted as a Jedi apprentice. As the Republic’s Senator Palpatine with a wry sense of portentiouness says to the boy, “We will watch your career with great interest.”
There is certainly enough incident to keep the picture and the viewer going, but the bombardment of elements, names, worlds, creatures and dilemmas may prove somewhat daunting to casual observers unsteeped in “Star Wars” lore. Beyond that, the new CGI characters are 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.
And if it weren’t for the connections many will make to the story’s known future — that Anakin will eventually marry Queen Amidala and sire Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia, only then to transform into Darth Vader — there is little here on the writing or performance sides to draw one close to these characters. Neeson’s Jedi Knight is fashioned as a Zen-like samurai who dominates by virtue of his superior knowledge and complete absorption of his code, but he’s a basically stolid guy with only moderate charisma. McGregor’s Obi-Wan will undoubtedly emerge more decisively in subsequent installments, but here is relegated to second-banana status; actor does, however, register some subtle, and entirely appropriate, echoes of Guinness’ vocal inflections. Portman, too, will probably step forward next time out, but here she mostly delivers pained pronouncements while encased in a succession of Trisha Biggar’s fabulously ornate costumes, other than for a few moments in which she is meant to bond with little Anakin, who, as personified by Lloyd, is a pretty standard-issue tyke hero.
A couple of the supporting cast’s more illustrious members are in for little more than cameos: Samuel L. Jackson appears very briefly as one of several members of the Jedi Council, while Terence Stamp is similarly fleeting in his role of the Republic’s ineffectual chancellor.
Lucas has said that the reason he waited so long to commence his second trilogy was that he wanted Industrial Light & Magic to be fully capable of pulling off the technological effects he envisioned for it. In this regard, the film measures up, in the sense that it has far more effects (some 2,000, vs. about 500 for “Titanic”) of various kinds than any film ever made.
This is a truly a world of extraterrestrial diversity gone berserk: There are hundreds of droid warriors, all manner of animal-like creatures, and enough spaceships, fighting machines and vehicles to supply an entire toy store. Except for the desert scenes and a few other landscapes, the world of the movie is virtually entirely artificial, and some of the more obviously fake backdrops remind one that this is just a computer-generated version of the sort of ambiance habitually created some 50 to 60 years ago by most Hollywood pictures.
All the same, the work that went into the design elements is formidable. Most of the flying machines, architecture and props are considerably more ornate and flamboyant than the more functional and industrial items that were the hallmarks of episodes four through six, and they set the tone for the different feel of “Phantom.”
Production designer Gavin Bocquet, creature effects designer Nick Dudman, visual effects supervisors Dennis Muren and Scott Squires, visual effects supervisor John Knoll, animation supervisor, Rob Coleman, cinematographer David Tattersall and the enormous technical support staff all deserve major kudos for their detailed labors.
Lucas places no less importance on the sound elements, and his experts in this field, in particular sound designer Ben Burtt and Skywalker Sound director and mixer Gary Rydstrom, have delivered again. John Williams’ score reprises the very familiar themes of the first trilogy while adding some new and complimentary strains.
But while the film hardly lacks for visual creativity, it lacks resonance, freshness and a sense of wonder. In a way, it suffers from there having been so many knock-offs and sci-fi imitators in the intervening years; no matter what Lucas did, it probably would have been impossible for “Phantom” to have the impact of its “Star Wars” predecessors in terms of its sense of discovery and originality. But beyond that, the much-discussed mythology being advanced by the films is now looking quite hollow and lacking in meaning. The Force keeps being mentioned, but its origins, implications and moral guidelines are never explored, other than in the most simplistic good-vs.-evil terms. At one point, a surprisingly blunt parallel to Christianity is made by Anakin’s mother (Pernilla August) when she confesses to Qui-Gon Jinn that, “There was no father … I can’t explain what happened!” But this raises more questions and suggestions of meaning than the series may ever want to grapple with, and even on the more simplistic pop-cultural level, the saga is beginning to look thinner than ever.
“Phantom” is easily consumable eye candy, but it contains no nutrients for the heart or mind.