Rated PG - Running time: 2:11 - Released 5/19/99

"A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away . . ."

I have to tell you, when I saw those blue-green words again, followed by that familiar opening crash of John Williams's famous title theme, I was suddenly back in 1977, a teenager sitting in the front row, getting my athletic socks blown off by the film that would be imprinted in my consciousness for . . . well, ever.

That feeling, by itself, was worth it.

It is inevitable, especially considering all the press it's getting, that George Lucas's Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace will be compared to the original Star Wars. This is unfair, because there's no way this film could ever have the kind of impact Star Wars brought on in 1977. It's Lucas's own fault, of course. Star Wars changed the world of special effects forever, revolutionizing the industry, but nowadays, thanks to that revolution, films with amazing special effects come a dime a dozen. Now the challenge is to craft a film that is not only technically superlative, but also excellent on the human side. The Phantom Menace must be judged in its own right, without the shadow of its big brother looming; even by that standard it falls a bit short, but that's not to say it isn't a good film. Technically and visually it is a masterpiece, of course, and the acting by the small cast of human characters is generally adequate, but the film does lack one important factor: humor. Lucas's screenplay is surprisingly dry and sterile, and its political ramifications staggeringly complex.

Jedi knight Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his pupil, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) are sent as goodwill ambassadors to the planet of Naboo, which is currently under seige by the evil Trade Federation. The opening scroll says something about taxation of trade routes, but the point is, Naboo's young Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman, Mars Attacks!) is being pressured to sign a treaty that will allow Darth Sidious (Ian McDiarmid) much more power than anyone ought to have. She refuses, so he launches an all-out war on her innocent people. Determined to end the suffering, she leaves with Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan to visit the Congress of Republics and appeal for legislation on the matter. Also along as a guide is Jar Jar Binks (voice of Ahmed Best), a friendly, clumsy, amphibious creature who sounds like Elmo speaking in some sort of Gullah derivative.

Qui-Gon's ship (much sexier than Han Solo's Millenium Falcon, but with much less heart) develops engine trouble and must land on the forsaken desert planet of Tatooine. While there, our gang meets up with a young slave boy named Anakin Skywalker (10-year-old Jake Lloyd, Jingle All The Way). Anakin is owned by a creature called Watto, a sort of winged version of Yertle the Turtle with an attitude. Sensing that the lad is rich with the force, Qui-Gon wins Anakin's freedom in a wager with the beast. After they repair the ship and move out, Queen Amidala gets her moment with the senate, but it appears that the current leader has little power. As she plans to return home to face Darth Sidious alone, Anakin is taken before the Jedi round table where Yoda (voice of Frank Oz), Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson), and several others will decide his fate. Meanwhile, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan prepare for a fateful duel with Sidious's henchman, Darth Maul (Ray Park), a powerfully bad dude with stripes, horns, and a black cloak.

Great moments of this film include the original introduction of R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) to C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), the Ben-Hur-style pod race, and the spectacular array of "droids" and "life forms." There is very little violence; nearly all the battle casualties are robots, who fight with the same skill and acuity as the stormtroopers of old. Among the unfortunate chinks in Lucas's armor are the lack of humanity in the dialogue, the mirthless demeanor of the characters (Jar Jar is supposed to provide comic relief, but he's less than a laugh riot), and the fact that Portman speaks as if she's afraid of mussing her kabuki getup. Lloyd is not bad for a young actor with such a large part; he isn't perfectly consistent, but gets the point across and makes up for any shortcomings with sheer cuteness. Lucas hasn't actually directed a film since 1977, and it shows in his failure to get the characters to truly interact. He is scheduled to direct the upcoming two sequels in 2002 and 2005; perhaps he can work on his people skills between now and then.

Look, I don't want any death threats or anything; I enjoyed the film and feel that it established the foundation for many story elements that were curiously unexplained in the previous trilogy. There's no shortage of amazing action and eye-popping visuals. Settings, costumes, ship and droid designs, animal creations — all fascinating and impeccably rendered. But the dialogue lacks the wit and panache of the earlier films, an element desperately needed nowadays to take any special effects movie beyond the realm of technical excellence into the level of greatness Lucas has achieved before. ****½

Copyright 1999 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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