After a recent screening of "Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace," a 14-year-old was overheard to say, "The blue-screen was amazing. I wonder how much it will make?"
The "blue screen" refers to how special effects are done these days: Live-action actors do their thing against a blue screen, which is later replaced with digital backgrounds and effects. When the first "Star Wars" became a sleeper hit over the summer, 22 years ago, few if any 14-year-olds would have known what a blue screen was.
The wonks have won. Those niggling concerns of movies past -- things like story, character and meaning -- have finally been vanquished by Lucas' megalo-merchandising machine.
Will "The Phantom Menace" reward the fanatics who have been counting down the days to its arrival since 1983, when "The Return of the Jedi" was released? On its surface, yes, because it simply exists. What it doesn't have is enough enchantment, humor and thrills to keep them coming back. As for non-geeks, they can safely ignore "The Phantom Menace," remain culturally literate and -- finally -- go on with their lives.
Part of the problem with "The Phantom Menace" is structural. Having started his serial adventure series in the middle ("Star Wars" was Part IV), Lucas' challenge is to inject the story's familiar characters and plot with enough pizazz to make them seem new.
He rarely succeeds. As cute as it is to see two robots named C3PO and R2D2 meet for the first time, presumably embarking on a beautiful friendship, "The Phantom Menace" makes plodding work of introducing characters who presumably will go on to have really big adventures in later movies.
In "The Phantom Menace," Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) is a young Jedi knight finishing up his apprenticeship with Jedi master Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson). During a mission to defend the planet Naboo and its Queen Amidala from a vicious blockade by the Trade Federation, they meet young Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), a slave whose virgin birth and extraordinary powers of perception lead Qui-Gon to think he has found the Chosen One, the Jedi knight who will finally bring balance to the Force.
Lucas has always been a gearhead who wants us to think he's a yogi, deploying his fetishes -- cars, guns, ritualized aggression -- with a comforting overlay of New Age sermonizing.
Those elements are still at play in "The Phantom Menace," but the heart of "Star Wars" -- its magic, human warmth and rollicking sense of fun -- has been digitally removed, the better for its audience to focus on effects and box-office returns.
Neeson and McGregor seem so focused on hitting their marks for the blue screen, that they barely make eye contact, let alone generate any genuine emotion. And Lucas made an unfortunate decision in casting little Anakin. Not only can 10-year-old Jake Lloyd not act, he scowls his way through a decidedly unappealing performance, foreshadowing the character he is destined to become (some guy named Vader), but rendering him too unsympathetic to root for. A computer-generated creature called Jar-Jar Binks is supposed to be comic relief. It's neither.
As for the real stars of "The Phantom Menace," the blue screen and its progeny, they're fine, but they're not enough. Without an emotionally involving story, or characters the audience can relate to, they are static, lifeless and -- OK, here goes -- boring!
An early underwater sequence is cleverly staged, but it is so monochromatic and murky as to be virtually unreadable; the other two set pieces -- an interminable pod race and an equally long battle scene -- are instantly forgettable.
Lucas, who hasn't directed a movie since "Star Wars," goes through the motions in "The Phantom Menace" but the movie's real purpose is obvious: to capture a new, younger audience for the franchise and to set them up for the next installment (presumably titled "Episode II: The Anakin Skywalker Story -- When Good Jedis Go Bad"), due in 2002.
Well, Mr. Lucas, they've been set up. Let the countdown begin.
'The Phantom Menace'
Starring Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd
Directed by George Lucas
Rated PG (sci-fi action/violence)
Released by 20th Century Fox
Running time 132 minutes
Sun score **
Pub Date: 05/18/99