Episode I: What Did You Expect?

While the galaxy is intentionally "far, far away," Lucas has a touch for simple visual and linguistic storytelling that reverberate throughout what we know, our culture and history. The broken-and-dented technology of the original trilogy made the place seem old, real, and used, filled with artifacts from a vaguely familiar past. Here, Lucas and his team of effects 'droids paint the prewar Republic like an elaborate period drama, with touches of Elizabethan grandeur and primitive, Braveheart-like, hand-to-hand battles. The best evidence of Lucas' visual genius is the instant flavor of evil evoked by a mysterious villain, Darth Maul (Ray Park), with his red-and-black face paint and horns and hood. One look and you know: This guy's so bad. The same goes for Lloyd's Anakin, blond and cute as an Ewok, a living statue glorifying youth and goodness. Lloyd may continue the long-held tradition of an uncomfortable actor heading up Star Wars casts, but he's as much a prop as a player, a ready-made special effect.

Beyond the storytelling, The Phantom Menace's technical advances alone make it worthy of all the fuss. With computer-generated creatures rubbing elbows with meat-covered actors in nearly every scene, with planetwide cityscapes teeming with shadows and traffic, and with ground troops marching across swaying, rendered grass, Lucas has announced that this is what movies look like from now on. No detail, no cut, no shadow or wrinkle or brush with death is beyond the filmmaker's control, and every inch of the screen is filled with exactly what Lucas wants it to be filled with. Just as the original Star Wars put a quick end to the jumpsuit-and-flint-tipped-laser sci-fi aesthetic of Logan's Run, Episode I should signal the close of the awkward stage of CGI effects between Terminator 2 and The Matrix, an era of expensive, shiny effects running in the background of mediocre movies. No longer do the effects need to be disguised in darkness and excused as part of the plot, as in Dark City and The Matrix, where the imagined world dissolves away -- Gotcha! -- when revealed to be a fake all along. Every planetary surface in Episode I crawls with creatures and plant life, with anatomically unlikely sentient beings and pack animals, with more and more convincing evidence that you are someplace else entirely. And with his new toys, Lucas still makes the galaxy look older, more medieval, more crumbled and ancient and rebuilt, more shady and unjust. Yes, many breathtaking vistas look a little too computer-dependent, the landscapes have a crispness that defies reality, and some of the aliens look like high-tech balloon animals. So what. Chewbacca looked like Wilt Chamberlain wearing dog pelts.

What's really missing from this new incarnation can be described only as edge. The quietly brooding Chewie had something that Jar Jar does not. Han Solo had it, too, where Qui-Gon doesn't. And if the Millennium Falcon was a custom van airbrushed with eagles and skulls and covered in bumper stickers, then Queen Amidala's sleek mirrored cruise ship is a Lexus borrowed from Mom. It's just not as... cool. The casual abrasiveness that made the original trilogy's heavy-handed mystical voodoo palatable is gone here, replaced by silly whimsy and misplaced irony. Some attempts at humor are inspired, such as the Sand People taking potshots at Podracers like Ozark rednecks; others seem desperate and flat. While the original Star Wars manages to transcend the '70s culture in which it was conceived, a few artifacts survived: the sideburns, the disco cantina, Leia running braless down the halls of the Death Star. In Episode I a few missteps stand out as instant '90s anachronisms, particularly a two-headed sportscaster who belongs nowhere near the sacred homeland of Luke Skywalker.

But every scene teems with energy and speed, and the basic good-evil struggle at the core of the plot deepens and darkens. The "feeling" is there, and those who plan to see it over and over again will have plenty to discuss while spending a month in line for Episode II in 2002: Why is there not nearly enough of Samuel L. Jackson's Mace Windu? (No idea.) Is Jake Lloyd that bad an actor? (Not really.) Is Jar Jar as annoying as the Ewoks from Return of the Jedi? (No. God no.) Who the hell is Darth Maul, and where did he come from? (No idea.) Should anyone even bother reviewing this film? (Not really.)

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

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