Wish upon a Star

The Phanton Menace is everything a Jedi could have hoped for

The return of Jesus Christ would have trouble living up to the advance billing of Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace. ("I mean, it's OK, but why isn't he turning water into wine like he used to? And where's Peter? He was, like, my favorite disciple.") That's not an apology or a way to soften the blow--it's a fact. In the past few months, the film and its stars have been in more magazines than staples have, to the point that every newsstand in the country looks like a Star Wars merchandise booth.

George Lucas has appeared on Entertainment Tonight so often, he's the new weekend co-host with Julie Moran. Fans erected tent cities outside of theaters more than a month before tickets were available, and some waited in line a few weeks ago when the first wave of Phantom Menace action figures hit stores. Even the fans waiting in line found themselves receiving more coverage than the conflict in Kosovo, including a Dallas Observer cover story ("The fandom menace," April 15).

The backlash will inevitably be as big as the pile of cash The Phantom Menace will collect on opening weekend. As soon as fans began camping out for tickets, film critics started lining up to knock Lucas off his stack of collector's-edition covers of Premiere and TV Guide and just about every other periodical in print. They've been coming up with clever headlines since a release date was set ("The Empire Strikes Out"), expecting Lucas to fail, and hoping he will. The Phantom Menace is the most popular girl in school, and her bitchy friends can't wait until seventh period so they can gossip about how fat she's gotten.

The critics can--and most likely will--pick apart The Phantom Menace, exposing the flaws and inconsistencies, laughing at Lucas' sophomoric dialogue, harping on the director's reliance on special effects to tell his story. Or they will scoff that the film is little more than a $115 million advertisement for Lucas' lucrative action-figure empire or a demo reel for his post-production facilities in Northern California, Industrial Light & Magic and Skywalker Sound. And, Lord, they will have a field day with the film's floppy-eared, oddly Jamaican sidekick, Jar Jar Binks (voiced by Stomp refugee Ahmed Best). They could do just about the same with Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, or Return of the Jedi as well, but that's missing the point. Some of the sniping is valid, some of it isn't, and none of it matters.

Cynicism doesn't work here. If you don't buy into the mythology that Lucas has created, you might as well not buy a ticket. Like the original trilogy, The Phantom Menace doesn't just ask you to suspend your disbelief; it asks you to believe in something else entirely. That's the only reason a series of prequels that take place more than 30 years in the past is relevant, especially with an almost completely different cast of characters. The Phantom Menace is the beginning of an answer to a question that formed as soon as Darth Vader said, "Luke, I am your father," as well as all of the questions that arose when it was discovered that Luke and Leia were brother and sister. (Some of them didn't even have to do with the lingering kiss the pair shared in The Empire Strikes Back.)

Would it have been more logical to continue the series after the events of Return of the Jedi? Probably. But the past is just as crucial. Star Wars and its sequels dropped you into a world that was both futuristic and ancient at once, and unlike most science-fiction movies, it wasn't part of our timeline. Star Wars wasn't someone's imagined future (like Blade Runner and all of its variants); it was a separate universe with its own history, its own heroes and villains. The original trilogy offered only hints at what happened before, vague allusions to Clone Wars and galactic turmoil. By the end of Return of the Jedi, that history had become almost as interesting as the present. Sure, you know where it will end, but it's still important to see how it got there.

Like Star Wars, The Phantom Menace revolves around a young boy, this time 9-year-old Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd). Anakin dreams of flying away from the sun-baked surface of Tatooine and receives his opportunity when he has a chance encounter with a Jedi Knight and is asked to help save a beautiful royal. Oh, yeah, and he's also very strong with The Force. If it sounds familiar, that's because it's the exact same chain of events that led to Luke Skywalker's departure from Tatooine.

At first, it seems as if Lucas wasn't trying very hard when he penned the script for The Phantom Menace, merely rewriting Star Wars with a few twists here and there. But in relation to the other three movies, it's fitting that Luke's and Anakin's stories would mirror each other. The Phantom Menace and its sequels will deal with the fall of Anakin Skywalker; the original trilogy revolved around his redemption. Luke Skywalker's life represents what could have happened to Anakin if he hadn't succumbed to The Dark Side of the Force. It may be dismissed as lazy scripting, yet it makes sense in terms of the story arcs Lucas has fabricated. It's a bridge between the two trilogies.

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