Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

In case you hadn’t noticed, it’s here. After 16 years of anticipation, and at least six months of airhorn hype, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace has actually descended to Earth in physical form, lightly touching the faithful fans on their fevered foreheads …. Oh, and how is it as a movie? Bad. Very bad. Terrible, juvenile, tedious, empty. In that order. Does that matter? No. It’s a new Star Wars movie, and it’s there, and people will have to see it if only to be able to say they’ve seen it. Whether they’ll be able to say they enjoyed it is another story.

After 22 years away from the director’s chair, George Lucas has returned to it, in his first full-time gig behind the camera since the original Star Wars. He has also penned his first all-by-himself screenplay in 22 years. Taken together, the script and the direction are proof positive that Lucas should never again be allowed behind a camera or a keyboard. The dialogue is a medley of flat, cringe-inducing platitudes or lame stabs at humor. The action scenes go by in a hectic blur; the people scenes drag on into infinity. The most memorable performances are by computer-animated aliens — one of whom, the clumsy Jar Jar Binks, may entertain very small children but will send anyone over 12 into exasperated fits of eye-rolling.

The “story,” such as it is, involves Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman), Luke Skywalker’s future mother, who wears Noh-flavored gowns and kabuki make-up; her chalky face is brightened with a crimson dot on each cheek and a dainty blood-red smear bisecting her bottom lip, as if the actress bit it to stay awake and bore down too hard. Queen Amidala refuses to sign a corrupt trade treaty, so the Trade Federation wants to persuade her. Enter Darth Maul (Ray Park), Mr. Persuasion. A horned, red-faced Sith assassin, Darth Maul has very little to do in the movie except look fierce and sell action figures and T-shirts.

The Queen’s only hope is two Jedi Knights — the veteran Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan MacGregor). They take her to Tatooine, where they encounter the nine-year-old prodigy Anakin Skywalker (amateurish Jake Lloyd), the future Darth Vader. There is a pod race, there are lightsaber duels, there is a computer-generated battle between computer-generated aliens and computer-generated battle droids. If you are easily impressed by special-effects whiz-bang, Phantom Menace may be your cup of adrenaline. But the consequence of the restless editing and the ceaseless CGI is an overall thinness. The movie has no heft, no weight — it’s a giant PS2 version of itself.

The actors get lost in the design. Lucas makes a fatal error in placing the bland Jake Lloyd and the annoying Jar Jar Binks so centrally, while keeping fine actors Neeson, MacGregor, and Portman under his thumb. These actors look demoralized and bored, as if they knew that the thin air they’re emoting with will be filled by the CGI critters Lucas really cares about. Meanwhile, Lucas gives the crowd-pleasing Darth Maul a bare minimum of screen time and resorts to a lot of cheap jokes. What was he thinking? If Phantom Menace is meant to be the start of a fresh trilogy, and the genesis of the entire six-part Star Wars saga, it’s an awfully shaky start.

George Lucas had the money and power to do exactly what he wanted to do in Phantom Menace, and that’s the most depressing part: you stare at it and say, “This is what he wanted to do?” You’d hate to see a movie he didn’t want to do. Or perhaps this is actually a movie he didn’t want to do. Perhaps Lucas feels trapped in the universe he created — perhaps he resents having to go back to this well three more times. If so, he has no one to blame but himself.

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Explore posts in the same categories: action/adventure, fantasy, one of the year's worst, prequel, science fiction, star war

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