The actors are wallpaper, the jokes are juvenile, there's no romance, and the dialogue lands with the thud of a computer-instruction manual. But it's useless to criticize the visual astonishment that is Star Wars – Episode I: The Phantom Menace. With this epic and the trilogy that preceded it, George Lucas has built a pop-culture monument that packs all of history – war, religion, myth, art, science and those old reliables, good and evil – into a mystical grab bag that plays like a kiddie cartoon. There's a less fancy explanation for why Phantom Menace will inspire fetishistic worship: It's loaded with cool stuff. And reasonable facsimiles thereof are on sale at your local Force emporium.
Episode I is set thirty years earlier than the original saga, Episode IV: A New Hope, but some things never change. A royal babe is in trouble. Not Princess Leia; this time it's Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman). The Trade Federation sends battleships to her planet, Naboo, to persuade her to sign a dodgy treaty. To her rescue come two Jedi knights: old pro Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his apprentice, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor). You'll recall that Alec Guinness played Obi-Wan the first time, and McGregor does a deft job of matching up with him vocally. ^Vhen Federation types send in droids for the kill, the Jedis link up with Anakin Sky walker (Jake Lloyd), a nine-year-old slave who will grow up to marry the queen, father the twins Luke and Leia, and turn from the Jedi cause to the dark side as Darth Vader. Got that?
Good; here's what else you should know: Phantom Menace, which cost $115 million, lacks the crude freshness that Lucas lavished on the low-budget ($10 million) original in 1977 and the fluid storytelling that director Irvin Kershner brought to The Empire Strikes Back in 1980 – still the best in the series. But Menace is light-years ahead of the uneasy mix of furry Ewoks and Freudian psychology in Richard Marquand's 1983 Return of the Jedi. As for Lucas' directing skills, his work with actors still belongs to the "Don't emote, just stand there" school. But in terms of visual sophistication, already discernible in 1973's American Graffiti, Lucas ranks with the masters. He has always been more articulate with images than with words. Harrison Ford, who played Han Solo in the original, has famously chided Lucas, "You can type this shit, George, but you sure can't say it."
McGregor is saddled with lines like, "I have a bad feeling about this." And Neeson must answer, "Be mindful of the living Force, my young Padawan." Ouch! Is it a coincidence that Phantom Menace and James Cameron's Titanic – whose box-office record ($1.8 billion worldwide) Lucas is chasing – were made by men with a poet's eyes and tin ears?
Comic relief – and, boy, does this movie need it – arrives with scene-stealer Jar Jar Binks, a gangly, floppy-eared Gungan, voiced hilariously by Ahmed Best but otherwise a fully digital creation. Jar Jar is an alien amphibian who lives in an underwater city and speaks in a pidgin English that still gets the point across. "Mesa in bombad troubles," says Jar Jar as he nabs food off plates with his long tongue and guides the Jedis in a submarine that gets chewed by a killer fish. Digital marvels abound, along with appearances by old favorites such as Jabba the Hutt and Yoda, who leads the Jedi Council on the planet Cor-uscant, along with Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson). Lucas surpasses himself in the creature department. Jar Jar's nemesis, Boss Nass, is a wonderfully odious menace. And Watto, the slave driver, is a fat-slob fly who manages to levitate on tiny hummingbird wings.
The human element is hard put to keep up. Neeson has a natural warmth but too few opportunities for humor. Portman, a beauty and a gifted actress at eighteen, is stuck with an underwritten character – at least Carrie Fisher was allowed to bring her verbal snap to Princess Leia. And McGregor, a live wire in Trainspotting and Velvet Goldmine, spends the film's first half trailing Qui-Gon like a lap dog. Happily, McGregor comes into his own in the final scenes, suggesting that the next two episodes, due in 2002 and 2005, will let him cut loose.
For now, the human focus is on Anakin, and the demands of the role – a messiah and an anti-Christ – put undue pressure on Lloyd, who was eight at the time of filming. You will search Lloyd's face in vain for the Darth Vader to come or for the agony of a boy forced to leave behind his slave mother, Shmi (Pernilla August), to begin his Jedi training. Lloyd shines in the lighter scenes, especially when Anakin enters a Podrace so perilous that ordinary humans can't tolerate the speed. The race is pure exhilaration. "Whoopee!" yells Anakin. Indeed. In this virtual universe – the video game supreme – Lucas is the king.
The Phantom Menace remains a mystery. He's Darth Sidious, the Sith lord who appears cloaked or as a hologram. This baddie leaves his battles to Darth Maul (Ray Park), a horn-sprouting apprectice who wears makeup that suggests the unholy union of Marilyn Manson and Kiss. It's Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan who take on Darth Maul and his double-edged light saber, in a battle royal that will spawn spinoffs and more accusations against Lucas for crass commercialism.
Your reaction to Phantom Menace will depend on what level you're watching it on, just like playing a video game. Beginners will log on, enjoy the surface thrills and shut down. Intermediates will play again to see what they missed. Experts will study plot details like they're cosmic tea leaves. In short, Lucas has changed the way we look at movies by making multiple viewings a part of the game. No wonder he's cashing in. This is not to doubt Lucas' sincerity in building a dream world – even a digital heart wants what it wants. Me, I'll take The Godfather when it comes to film franchises, but it's Lucas – still pushing the creative envelope at the dawn Èf the new millennium – who knows how to make audiences an offer they can't refuse.