Wish upon a Star

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.  

Lucas fills in more of the gaps with The Phantom Menace (C-3P0, it turns out, was built by Anakin to help his mother around the hut), but he doesn't answer many of the questions that surfaced in his previous films. Those, presumably, will be addressed in the two as-yet-untitled sequels due sometime in the next decade. What he does is take you deeper inside his world, showing off his beautiful computer-generated sets (the planet-sized city of Coruscant; the lush, forested Naboo) and all the other ships, droids, and random alien extras that make his fantasy more real than most. He gives the film a sense of history that was found in the others only in the battle-scarred X-Wing Fighters, a glimpse of how the world looked before civil war erupted, and at times, it's breathtaking.

But Lucas doesn't take himself or The Phantom Menace too seriously, reminding all the fanatics that, at heart, the films in the Star Wars saga are just movies. For example, Jabba the Hutt (who turns up in a brief cameo) is listed in the credits as being portrayed by "himself." And Lucas also pokes fun at the mysticism of the Jedi Knights. While on Tatooine, Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) tries to sway a junk-shop dealer with the calm hand-waving technique Alec Guinness made famous in Star Wars when he convinces Imperial stormtroopers that those weren't in fact the droids they were looking for. Qui-Gon tries the trick several times before giving up, exasperated. It's a sly, self-referential wink, both an homage to the first film and a spoof of it.

More than anything, The Phantom Menace sets the stage for the next two installments, teasing the impending romance between young Anakin and Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman), as well as Anakin's imminent turn to the Dark Side of The Force and ultimate transformation into Darth Vader. The interplay between Anakin and Amidala is very subtle, as is the threat of evil that lurks within Anakin. Sometimes, it's almost too subtle: The plant is going to grow eventually, but it's hard to tell how many seeds have been sown. You get the feeling that a few expository scenes were left on the cutting-room floor, or at least on some Industrial Light & Magic engineer's hard drive.

The most glaring example of this is in the case of the Trade Federation, a mysterious organization that remains a mystery at the film's end. It's obvious the Federation is sinister: The film opens with a thrilling confrontation between Federation Battle Droids and Jedi Knights Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor). However, other than a brief mention in the film's opening text crawl, it's never fully explained what the conflict is about, only implied. For a while, it just seems as if the bully looking for extra lunch money has gone to dangerous extremes. Even the appearance of Darth Sidious (looking more than a little like Emperor Palpatine from the original trilogy) and his apprentice Darth Maul (Ray Park) fails to shed any light on the Trade Federation.

It wasn't hard to understand the Rebellion's battle against the Empire. The Imperial forces were ruling the galaxy with an iron fist and developed a weapon to destroy any planet that opposed it. It was the classic good-vs.-evil morality play. The Trade Federation, however, is reminiscent of the villains that appeared in the James Bond series after the Cold War was over and Bond was left without a superpower to fight. Even though the Trade Federation controls scores of Battle Droids that have the ability to swiftly invade and conquer a planet, such as Queen Amidala's pastoral Naboo, it still feels inconsequential. Darth Maul and Darth Sidious are links to the Empire we know and hate from the original trilogy, but this is most certainly not the same enemy. Both characters appear far too infrequently anyway.

Darth Maul is particularly underused, appearing in only a handful of scenes. It's unfortunate, because with a head covered with sharp horns and red and black paint, Darth Maul is the most ominous villain Lucas has ever concocted, a red devil wielding a double-bladed lightsaber. In fact, he's the most exciting character Lucas has imagined since the nefarious bounty hunter Boba Fett--a calm, quiet killer. When he makes his first appearance in the film--seemingly out of nowhere--it jumpstarts the action; the vision of him just standing there is every bit as terrifying as if he were crushing an opponent in battle.  

His lack of screen time may be frustrating, but at least Darth Maul makes the most of his time on camera. His abbreviated skirmish with Qui-Gon Jinn on Tatooine energizes the film, and his later duel with Obi-Wan Kenobi and Qui-Gon Jinn is astonishing, an intense and beautiful mix of swordplay and acrobatics. It far surpasses any of the previous films' climactic confrontations, with the possible exception of Luke Skywalker's final meeting with Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi. Darth Maul brings an athleticism to the fight that was absent from all the others, most notably the creaky dust-up between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader in Star Wars. It was almost worth waiting 16 years just to see that scene. And it was definitely worth waiting that long to see The Phantom Menace.

Star Wars: Episode I The Phanton Menace.
Written and directed by George Lucas. Starring Liam Neeson, Jake Lloyd, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Ian McDiarmid, Pernilla August, Ahmed Best, and Samuel L. Jackson. Now playing.

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