Fans call it "that Star Wars feeling," the raw emotional high achieved by watching or even just thinking about the films of George Lucas. It's a sort of gut-swirling, swooning sensation, the effect of tripping on a fantasy world, a wonderland, a place unlike Earth or even the movies. And the thing the junkies need to know about the first of three planned prequels, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, the one thing that will define its success on every level, is: Does it have it? Is that "feeling" there?
Because The Phantom Menace is a Star Wars movie, it is, by definition, loud, fast, overbearing, thrilling, mystical, confusing, occasionally funny, plotted around three fairly predictable action sequences, crawling with strange aliens in bad outfits, and cooler-looking than any movie that has come before it. These things are given, these things are the ingredients of the "feeling," and they apply to Episode I as much as the original. The new film glows with that hard-to-nail Star Wars vibe, the fairy-tale sensation that hooked so many people the first time around, and there's no doubt that this is the real thing, worth the wait, worth the trouble, worth all the noise. But for reasons large and small, the "feeling" is a bit dim and diffused, split through a lens of '90s crispness and detachment, overworked and undernourished, similar to the tinkering Lucas did to the original trilogy as 1997's Special Edition.
Now Episode I is a very strange film. It's nothing close to mainstream action or sci-fi fare, thank God, and neither were the first three installments. It's a hard-core adventure, a complete and total fantasy world with its own religion and legends and landscapes, something few filmmakers have the balls (or money) to put on the screen. But Lucas is so hypercreative and whimsical that many people simply don't get him, and the popularity of his franchise disguises the unorthodox and often uncomfortable intensity of the films, which Episode I takes to a higher, more frantic level.
In covering the complex back-story alluded to throughout the original trilogy, Episode I has the difficult task of explaining history, of making political intrigue exciting, of setting up a peaceful galaxy of order and commerce where democracy works and the Jedi fight for justice. The story revolves around the fate of young Anakin Skywalker, who, as everyone knows, will grow up to become the evil Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker's father. He's nine years old here, played with surprising dexterity by Jake Lloyd (Jingle All the Way), and like it or not, this is his movie. Lucas has recast his now-familiar universe through the eyes of a young boy, building an elaborate playhouse where the fate of the galaxy hangs on the things that a kid might think are cool: fast cars, monsters, robots, video games, adventure. With this young mindset, Lucas has managed to make his galaxy richer, more dangerous, faster-paced, and (sadly) much, much goofier.
Anakin is a slave, along with his mother, traded as a gambling debt between lowlifes on the desert planet of Tatooine. He's also a technical prodigy and spends his free time building a 'droid (C-3P0) and running superfast Podracer cars against dangerous desert dragsters. Across the galaxy the story follows Jedi master Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his apprentice, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor, doing a perfect Alec Guinness impersonation), basically galactic police officers who travel in comfortable brown robes and kick ass with a brand of mystical martial arts we all know as "using the Force." They've been sent to settle a trade dispute involving the teenage Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman), whose planet is being invaded by a federation of traders and its army of scrawny robots. (Ah, but something more must be going on!) Using this tiff as an entry point, Lucas launches the Jedi into a relentless caper across a Republic beginning to unravel amid a rising dark force. Every move they make becomes an excuse for another elaborate action showstopper, an underwater chase or a masterfully staged lightsaber duel. The inertia never eases as Lucas' heroes, whether they're Princess Leia or Indiana Jones, can't even take a piss without running into trouble. By the time the Jedi meet Anakin and "sense" something important about him, they're involved in a high-stakes bet and a frenetic Pod race across the desert, easily the film's best sequence. With speeding cockpits trailing behind giant floating engines, with Harley-like handlebars and dogfight helmets, with lots of switches and controls and an eclectic cast of racers, this sequence comes close to capturing the thrill and mood of a great video game, a clear sign that Lucas truly understands the mind of a nine-year-old boy living on the edge of 21st-century Earth.
One problem with this relentless questing is the overextended fantasy, the attempt to draw in and please everyone, to create a portal for any demographic. Portman's teenage queen gets to wear a great new outfit in every scene, McGregor's twentysomething Obi-Wan throws an awful lot of style into his Jedi arts, slinging his lightsaber and flipping across bridges, and then... there's Jar Jar Binks. Carrying the weight of "comic relief," this wacky biped banished from his underwater kingdom would be bad enough even if his computer-generated head didn't flop around through nearly every scene. Voiced by Ahmed Best (from the stage show Stomp), Jar Jar is more Roger Rabbit than Chewbacca, and his constant, incoherent blathering sounds like a desperate attempt to get kids' attention. But no matter how hard he tries, he can't ruin the movie.
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.
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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.