Star bores

Don't believe the hype -- oh, like it even matters

This, of course, is an exercise in futility. The Force is strong with this film; you've seen the Boba Fetted geeks lined up outside theaters, their freaky, frightening, flashlight-turned-lightsaber-wielding numbers growing every day. Good Lord, Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace could be two hours of static--and it nearly is, only very lush static--and still they'd proclaim it an epic triumph. Yup, like a few foul words about The Phantom Menace will dissuade even the vaguely interested from checking out the latest installation in George Lucas' cash-machine franchise. Never in the history of filmdom has there been a monster so immune to criticism. It may not sink Titanic--no Leo for the ladies in the house--but it might give Jim Cameron worry enough to jump ship. King of the world? How about king of the galaxy far, far away?

So let's just put it this way: The Phantom Menace is no Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope. Or, to be more accurate, that's precisely what it is, a remake of the 1977 original, only with a far more convoluted story line--involving taxation without representation and immaculate conception--and added layers of computer-generated eye candy to distract the cult and the ADD crowd from noticing the rehashed plot points. It's Star Wars Special Edition Special Edition (or Star Wars: The Dance Remix), proof that George Lucas has the neatest toy store on the block; as such, the movie has as much soul as a video game or a two-hour animated feature. This ain't no movie. It's a very long, very tedious infomercial for Phantom Menace action figures, on sale now at a Target or Toys "R" Us near you.

Damned if there's a beating heart anywhere beneath all this gimmickry. This is a phantom movie--the special effects serving to obscure a convoluted plot told with lifeless characters who utter the most obvious, hackneyed dialogue this side of a galaxy far, far away. Consider this the most beautiful and most banal film ever made, proof that George Lucas has finally lost all sense of perspective and gone over to the Dark Side, where greed consumes and tenderness dies a tragic, unmourned death. Musta been the $3 billion worth of merchandising deals that turned him.

The cult will, of course, argue that The Phanton Menace is more deep-think genius from the man who conned the Me Generation into believing there's something more to The Force than Good Versus Evil. They will unearth the few obscured revelations in Phantom and cast them as larger shadows against the wall. They will apologize for the movie's torpid pace and insist that things will pick up in Episodes II and III, as though the casually interested are willing to wait eight more years to find out what we already know: Anakin Skywalker (Jingle All the Way's Jake Lloyd) marries Naboo's Queen Amidala (played here by Natalie Portman, whose makeup does a wonderful acting job), provides the sperm for twins Luke and Leia, then hooks up with Senator Palpatine/Darth Sidious (Ian McDiarmid) and becomes James Earl Jones, or something like that. Oh, sorry--did I give something away?

Not at all, which is precisely the problem with The Phantom Menace: It's a prequel, meaning there exists no suspense, no drama, no sneak attack, nothing save the inevitable rehashing of tales long ago revealed during the original trilogy. (Didn't "Luke, I am your father" or Obi-Wan Kenobi's Return of the Jedi speech pretty much tell the whole story?) The only shock is how utterly dull The Phantom Menace is--a two-hour flashback that could have been told in about a third of the time. Let's get to the good stuff; let's see Anakin show a little of that Dark Side mean streak beneath his precocious, yip-ee! exterior. Sadly, there's none of that.

All we're left with is seemingly hours of talk-talk-talk exposition--how many times can someone warn Jedi Knight Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson, sporting hockey hair) that Anakin's gonna be trouble?--and precious little action. Save for the pod race on Tatooine and one thrilling lightsaber duel at the end (by far the most visceral of the series), pitting Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor) against WWF refugee-cum-Sith-protege Darth Maul (Ray Park), we've been here and done this three times already. I sat through four Star Wars movies, and all I got is this lousy video game?

No doubt, a movie such as this one--hyped beyond all rational limitations, with each glossy magazine cover story controlled by the Jedi Master himself until feature writers become underpaid publicists--almost demands immediate backlash. Nothing this anticipated can withstand close scrutiny; even Lucas has repeatedly insisted the movie is geared toward children in his effort to temper the grown-up crowd's anticipation. But the cynicism stems from Lucas' own inability to offer anything besides a gaudy remake of Episode IV. Never satisfied with the first film (hence, the goofily recast Special Edition), Lucas discovered he now had the technology to rebuild it, make it slicker and sleeker. It's the Steve Austin of Star Wars, meaning instead of running faster, everything moves in slow motion.

In a way, The Phantom Menace is precisely the sort of film Lucas should make. He's never been much good with actors anyway; one viewing of THX-1138, Lucas' Logan's Run, reveals as much...or as little. (Robert Duvall is a blank stare with a bald head.) In Star Wars, the last film he directed, the actors appear to be reading their dialogue off cue cards, and, seriously, at what point did Lucas tell Carrie Fisher to lose the accent? In the new Newsweek, Fisher reveals that Lucas' directorial style consisted of telling the cast only two things: "faster" and "more intense," which perhaps explains why Mark Hamill yells in a high-pitched squeal throughout most of the first film.

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