Star bores

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

And Lucas' storytelling skills are almost childlike in their simplicity; the man never met a metaphor or a symbol he didn't beat to death. His appropriation of Eastern religion and Western mythology--the notion of a life force coursing through humans, who can choose to redirect the stream toward compassion or greed--has always been innocuous and rather witless. This is a man who dresses the bad guy in black and the good guy in white. No one could ever accuse Lucas of trying to confuse anyone. Especially not this time around, with the myriad references to Anakin Skywalker as "the chosen one" born of immaculate conception to a woman named Shmi (played by Fanny and Alexander's Pernilla August). Pardon, but Darth Vader is...Jesus Christ? Jesus Christ. And where is Shmi from, anyway? Lithuania?

Lucas is nothing more than a Silicon Valley techie in a filmmaker's disguise; you almost expect his scripts to be written in binary code. Rather than shade his characters in subtle grays, he renders them as absolutes--even Anakin, at least in this episode--which is the film's greatest flaw. Lucas is far more in love with his computer-animated characters--the Battle Droids, Jar Jar Binks (voiced, Peter Tosh-style, by Ahmed Best)and his fellow Gunguns, the shopkeeper Watto--than the humans, who are reduced to props in The Phantom Menace. Indeed, Lucas even treats them as though they were digital creations, going in and pasting facial expressions from one take onto reactions from another. Humans? They're a moot point to the Great and Powerful Oz, nonentities to be repaired and replaced in the editing room like droids missing a few spare parts.

Lucas seems to be completely unaware of what made the first three films entertaining, beguiling. It was never about the special effects or the costumes; for God's sake, 2001: A Space Odyssey or even the original Star Trek television series had better effects. In fact, the first Star Wars looks like the filmed version of the Encino High School drama class' production of something called Space Opera. Never before has a wardrobe and prop department made such good use of terry-cloth robes, Members Only jackets, plastic models, and firecrackers. Yet during The Phantom Menace, there are protracted moments when not a single human character appears on-screen--say, during a Braveheart-esque battle in an open field, pitting the floppy-eared Gungun against the Battle Droids. It's beautiful, yes, so much 70-mm spectacle, and that's precisely when the movie feels most lifeless, soulless.

The first three films succeeded because the characters felt real, tangible, human. And perhaps they were familiar because they were nothing more than archetypes, refugees from a thousand other oft-told tales--the farm boy who saves the universe, the gangster with the heart of gold, the wizened old teacher who sacrifices himself for the good of his student--but at least they weren't just extras playing second fiddle to a blue screen. And granted, they blossomed in The Empire Strikes Back, especially Luke and Han and Darth Vader, but they held our interest from the get-go. Such is the benefit of archetypes in the first place. We relate to them because we already know them, like them, care about them.

But in The Phantom Menace, the characters exist simply to propel the story forward, however lurchingly they accomplish such a thankless task. They tell us what Lucas should be showing us, and even then, it often doesn't make any sense (such as when, at the outset, Obi-Wan tells Qui-Gon he feels something wrong--"something elsewhere, something elusive"--then drops the whole thing). Lucas is too busy filling every shot with some computer-generated contrivance. Indeed, Lucas has boasted repeatedly there's not a single frame of film that doesn't contain some special effect. In interviews, he's more concerned with discussing costumes and computers than characters. It's a shame: The trilogy was never about The Force or how cool everything looked, but about the plight of a farm boy destined to free the universe from his father's tyranny. The Phantom Menace is all about lookin' good--Star Wars' thrift-store togs traded in for a Prada wardrobe.

From top to bottom, the cast is wasted, hung out to dry by an inexplicable story line--just what in the hell is the Trade Federation, and, uh, what happened to the Empire?--and dialogue taken straight from fortune cookies ("Clouded this boy's future is"). Neeson plays Qui-Gon in high do-gooder mode--call it Schindler's listless. The most acting he ever does is when he waves his hand, Jedi-style, to cloud men's minds--that, and he frowns all the time. McGregor's rat's-tail haircut does most of his acting for him. (Who cuts the Jedis' hair? Former NHL players? Vanilla Ice?) And Portman apparently took acting lessons from Carrie Fisher, or maybe that's just the Naboo accent--Masterpiece Theater by way of Dawson's Creek. Too bad for most of the movie she's buried beneath all that kabuki makeup and gaudy kimonos. Funny thing--she's in a race against time to save her home planet, yet Amidala still finds time to change outfits (and enormous headdresses) for every single scene. The real work of wonder is that Portman can remain upright for minutes at a time.

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