"The Phantom Menace" officially opens Wednesday, but The Times is publishing its review today, in advance of widespread midnight screenings.
Over the 20-plus years since its release, George Lucas' "Star Wars" has influenced so many lives that the writer-director's friend Francis Ford Coppola suggested, more or less seriously, that he turn its philosophy into an organized religion.
Whatever its virtues, and it certainly has them, "Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace" is not going to change anyone's life or method of worship. It's only a movie, and, like the unmasked Wizard at the end of Oz's Yellow Brick Road, a much less impressive one than all the accompanying genuflection would have you believe.
That excessive hype has to be a factor in the perhaps inevitable disappointment we feel. Unlike its illustrious predecessor, this film was not able to sneak into America's consciousness on tiny intergalactic feet. Instead, it had its arrival trumpeted, it's been truthfully said, on the cover of just about every magazine except the New England Journal of Medicine.
But even without the pre-release hoopla, "The Phantom Menace" would be a considerable letdown, as Lucas and company either misjudged or did not care to re-create key aspects of what made "Star Wars" a phenomenon. While the new film is certainly serviceable, it's noticeably lacking in warmth and humor, and though its visual strengths are real and considerable, from a dramatic point of view it's ponderous and plodding.
Seeing "Phantom Menace" not only makes us miss "Star Wars," it also puts that film's success into sharper perspective. The original may have been on the primitive side technically by today's standards, but it was light on its feet, it had an esprit and it wasn't self-consciously aware, as this one invariably is, of being the successor to the most popular series of films ever made.
"Phantom Menace" also unintentionally underlines how much of "Star Wars' " success was due to the sassy elan of stars Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher. No one in this film steps up and takes their place, no one delivers anything like the irresistible pleasure evident in Ford's self-mocking reading of lines like "Do you think a princess and me . . . ?"
Part of the reason for this lack of wit is that 'Phantom Menace' is intentionally skewed quite young. One of its key protagonists, as anyone who cares knows by now, is9-year-old Anakin Skywalker, the future Darth Vader, and many of the film's characters and situations are set up to please tender minds. "We're doing it for the wide-eyed 13-year-old," one of the film's key technicians told Premier magazine, not necessarily a pleasant thought for the rest of us.
Premier also quotes creator Lucas saying that he's "never enjoyed writing that much, to me it's like doing a term paper." While that attitude didn't cripple "Star Wars"--and, in fact, Lucas brought in Lawrence Kasdan to work on the "Empire Strikes Back" and "Return of the Jedi" scripts--its effects, in combination with the grim persona of star Liam Neeson, weigh heavily on the current film.
As Qui-Gon Jinn, the senior of the pair of Jedi Knights who are called upon to deal with a ticklish interplanetary situation, Neeson is saddled with a seemingly interminable series of dull, expository lines. "There is something else behind this," "There is something about this boy," "Be wary, I sense a disturbance in the force." Each line is unobjectionable by itself, but the cumulative effect of them, especially filtered through Neeson's somber, funereal reading, is deadening.
Ironically, in Ewan McGregor, who plays Obi-Wan Kenobi in his youthful apprentice years, "The Phantom Menace" does have an actor with the zest and twinkle this film desperately needs. But though he will figure prominently in the next two episodes, McGregor's presence is no more than nominal here, his lively light hidden under a basket and the film unhesitatingly given over to Neeson's glum philosophizing.
Like "Star Wars," "The Phantom Menace" begins with moving type on the screen setting the interplanetary scene, letting us know that "turmoil has engulfed the galactic empire." The greedy ogres of the Trade Federation are blockading the peaceful, we're-just-plain-folks-down-here planet of Naboo, ruled by youthful but feisty Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman in a weird Brillo-pad hairdo).
While the windy Congress of Republics debates the issue, those previously mentioned Jedi Knights, "guardians of peace and justice in the galaxy," arrive in the neighborhood, precipitating an out-and-out attack on Naboo by an army of battle droids controlled by the Federation. The Jedi spirit the queen off the planet so she can personally plead her case before the congress, but before that can happen there's an emergency stop on the sandy planet of Tatooine (where Luke Skywalker will grow up) for rest and repairs.
On Tatooine, the Jedi and the queen come across young Anakin (Jake Lloyd), a strong-minded boy slave who, the knights discover, has an uncommonly potent amount of the Force within him. How to free Anakin from his nasty master Watto, save the threatened queen and her planet and avoid the two Dark Lords of the Sith, the nasty Darth Maul (effectively played by martial-arts-adept Ray Park) as well as the nastier and more shadowy Darth Sidious, is what the rest of "Phantom Menace" reveals.
It's on Tatooine that the film's most involving sequence, an eye-catching and invigorating introduction to a form of motorized chariot competition (think "Ben-Hur" with jet engines) called "podracing," takes place. Young Anakin turns out to be better at this than any non-alien has a right to be, and watching him race is easily this film's biggest thrill.
It's in this kind of visual creation of other worlds that "Phantom Menace" lives up to expectations and reveals its very real strengths. Not only in expected areas like spaceships and hardware but in the lovely imaginings of very diverse urban settings--the fabulous cityscapes of Coruscant, the elegant Nabooan capital of Theed (filmed in part at the Caserta Royal Palace near Naples) and Naboo's hidden underwater dwellings--this film evokes the sense of wonder that is lacking on its dramatic side. This is not the first epic to have considerably more feeling for alien worlds than human interaction.
"The Phantom Menace" also showcases the initial appearance of the all-wise Yoda, the helpful droids R2-D2 and C-3PO, as well as a youthful Jabba the Hutt. But unfortunately for a film that has three times more computer-generated shots than any previous effort, its biggest miscalculation is a computer-generated sidekick.
That would be Jar Jar Binks, one of a race of Naboo underwater residents known as the Gungan. Looking like a large and ungainly sea horse, Jar Jar, who inexplicably speaks in a kind of Caribbean patois, is a major miscue, a comic-relief character who's frankly not funny. The Gungan as a whole prove very difficult to understand, and when you can make out what they're saying ("You're in big do-do this time") you wish you hadn't.
Despite its many shortcomings, "The Phantom Menace" is certainly adequate, and given the story's strong core idea and the residual power lurking in the Force, it's not necessary to dismiss it out of hand. It's just that the tale it tells isn't all that interesting; in fact, if Lucas wasn't partial to the idea of trilogies, "Phantom" could have been condensed down to a brief prologue tacked on the beginning of the next installment.
To put the best possible face on things, maybe the Force's creator, like a canny strikeout artist, was willing to waste his first pitch before dazzling us with his best stuff next time around.
* MPAA rating: PG, for sci-fi action/violence. Times guidelines: plenty of laser swordplay but nothing too scary for all but the youngest viewers.
'Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace'
Liam Neeson: Qui-Gon Jinn
Ewan McGregor: Obi-Wan Kenobi
Natalie Portman: Queen Amidala
Jake Lloyd: Anakin Skywalker
Pernilla August: Shmi Skywalker
Ian McDiarmid: Senator Palpatine
Ray Park: Darth Maul
A Lucasfilm Ltd. Production, released by 20th Century Fox. Writer-director-executive producer George Lucas. Producer Rick McCallum. Cinematographer David Tattersall. Editor Paul Martin Smith. Costume designer Trisha Biggar. Music John Williams. Production designer Gavin Bocquet. Stunt coordinator Nick Gillard. Visual effects and animation by Industrial Light & Magic. Running time: 2 hours, 12 minutes.
In general release.