The Moviehunter

Pulp Culture
'The Phantom Menace'
Exciting things happening to boring people

May 20, 1999
By Franklin Harris

The wait is finally over.

The best way to see any "Star Wars" film is at midnight, on opening day, in a jam-packed theater, after hours of standing in a ticket line. You can't beat the audiences.

It's the same with George Lucas' latest installment in his space saga, "Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace."

But this time, the audience reaction after the movie was a bit more restrained than usual. The applause, always enthusiastic in the past, was polite at best at the screening I attended.

In "The Phantom Menace," as in the original 1977 film, Lucas elevates special effects to a new standard. What the first movie did for model spaceships and precision photography, "The Phantom Menace" does for computer-generated images, or CGI.

The characters in "The Phantom Menace" literally inhabit another world, one built in a computer and designed from the ground up by the technical wizards at Industrial Light and Magic.

Even the computer-created characters, Jar Jar Binks (the film's comic relief), Boss Nass (voiced with bombastic gusto by British actor Brian Blessed) and Watto blend in almost seamlessly.

"The Phantom Menace" is filled with spectacular cityscapes, including the ornate, vaguely Eastern buildings of Naboo, the embattled home world of Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman), and Coruscant, the planet-sized city that is the Republic's capital.

There is no doubt that "The Phantom Menace" is a pretty film to look at, but is it a fun film to watch?

What's right?

First, let me start with what is not wrong with "The Phantom Menace," since early reviews have already caused some fans to sense a disturbance in the Force.

Contrary to most fears, Lucas did not succumb to his weakness for inserting overly cute characters into his films.

"The Phantom Menace" contains nothing so saccharine or out-of-place as an Ewok, and there are no musical routines to be found.

Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best) is a bit annoying at times, especially in the climatic battle, where he detracts from the seriousness of the situation. But none of his antics compare to the "Return of the Jedi'" conceit that a band of teddy bears can defeat an entire legion of the Emperor's best troops.

The only place where Lucas' sense of humor goes wildly awry is with the two-headed announcer during the pod-race sequence. His mannerisms are simply too Earthly to belong long ago in a galaxy far, far away.

The problem with the film also isn't that it's not exciting. Except for a few scenes midway through, the action advances at, if anything, too rapid a pace. The film jumps from scene to scene and from planet to planet in less time than it takes to rush to the concession stand for a refill.

While the space combat is minimal in this installment, the two lightsaber duels make the ones from the original trilogy seem positively lethargic.

No. The problem with "The Phantom Menace" is that lots of exciting things happen to people about whom we care precious little.

Events move so quickly that we have no chance to linger on any of the characters except for Anakin Skywalker. Unfortunately, Anakin isn't very interesting even with all the attention paid him. It doesn't help that Jake Lloyd's performance as the future Darth Vader is the weakest characterization in the film.

Anakin is obviously a nice young boy, but he has no personality. In an effort to make him likable, Lucas has made Anakin bland. It makes you miss Luke Skywalker's constant whining.

A solid Neeson

Liam Neeson is solid as the Jedi master, Qui-Gon Jinn, and Ewan McGregor is excellent as the young Obi-Wan Kenobi. Portman's performance is a bit stiff, but that seems appropriate for royalty (even elected royalty). And Ian McDiarmid puts in a wonderfully restrained turn as the scheming Senator Palpatine -- a direct contrast to his over-the-top performance in "Jedi."

While it isn't as good as the three previous installments -- no, not even as good as "Jedi" -- "The Phantom Menace" is certainly something Lucas can build on for his next two films.

Lucas seems to have the technology down pat. Now, if he'll just allow his characters to breathe -- and allow us to care about them -- he'll have something capable of topping the first three movies.

Lucas' recently said that Episode II will be a love story at its core. That gives me quite a bit of hope.

Now, the waiting begins again.

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