Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer A Tremor in the Force

'The Phantom Menace' swings between exhilaration and embarrassment.

By Debbie Gilbert

MAY 24, 1999:  George Lucas, you are the most exasperating man in the universe. As a technical filmmaker, you are brilliant -- but how can you be so clueless about what the audience really wants? Good movies are about people, George. People.

I desperately wanted to like Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, but I was afraid of being let down again. Understand: My friends and I spent the years between The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983) speculating on how the cliffhanger would be resolved. Was Vader really Luke's father? How would Han be freed from the carbonite? And who was this "other hope" Yoda spoke of?

But Jedi disappointed us with its too-tidy, implausible ending, and while it contained some of the original trilogy's finest moments (i.e., the struggle of wills between Luke and the Emperor), excessive screen time was wasted on Jabba the Hutt and the obnoxious Ewoks.

The Phantom Menace -- part one of the prequel trilogy -- suffers from the same schizophrenia. Visually, it's an unprecedented achievement, but the story is weak and unfocused. Writer/director/producer Lucas teases us with flashes of greatness, then immediately reverts to playing with his toys. He uses outlandish computer-generated aliens to appeal to kids, but then he throws in a lot of stilted dialogue about politics and bureaucracy that's boring even to adult viewers. In trying to please everyone, he satisfies no one.

But oh, he comes so close. By creating most of the movie with computers, he's able to show us exotic worlds that could never be depicted through traditional sets and cinematography. Menace is a feast for the eyes, as one vast panorama after another unfolds, filled with interesting things to see. It's almost enough to make you forget that the plot sucks.

Let's face it: This episode is mainly a get-acquainted party for the new characters. The Rebel Alliance doesn't exist yet, nor does the adult Darth Vader, so there's no clear good-versus-evil conflict. The element that made the first trilogy so likeable -- the bonding between characters -- is vexingly absent. Who are these people? Where did they come from? What motivates them?

Lucas doesn't tell us. Instead, he fills space with what have become the saga's cliches. For example, there's a sort of aerial NASCAR race, similar to Jedi's speeder-bike chase, only in a canyon instead of a forest. This lengthy sequence is energetic and crowd-pleasing, yet does little to advance the story.

And the movie is overloaded with bizarre and grotesque aliens, many of whom are thinly disguised racial stereotypes. Worst of the lot, and unfortunately ubiquitous, is Jar Jar Binks, with the lanky body of a man, the face of a fish, and the ears of a basset hound. His pidgin English is barely intelligible, and when it is, it's not funny -- nor are his numerous pratfalls. Lucas uses him for comic relief, ostensibly to recapture kids' attention between scenes of government officials standing around making grave pronouncements. Instead of using animated aliens for cheap laughs, why not give the human actors something funny to say? They're all stone-faced and dead serious, as if Lucas is afraid of allowing them to show genuine emotion.

The teenage Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) is the biggest cipher; most droids have more personality than she does. Jake Lloyd, whose performance has been criticized by some, fares slightly better as 9-year-old Anakin Skywalker, the future Darth. He's a sweet little boy, eager to help, never meaning anyone harm. The poor kid has no idea he'll grow up to be a monster. But the Jedi Council -- including a less-wizened Yoda -- senses something ominous about him and doesn't want him trained in the Force.

Jedi knight Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) disagrees, believing the boy is "the chosen one." (The notion of a messianic prophecy is reinforced by Anakin's apparently virgin birth.) Qui-Gon is the film's emotional center, an oasis of warmth and kindness. You would trust this guy with your life; he's wise and calm and utterly competent, and Neeson is perfect for the role. He saves The Phantom Menace from being a phantom movie.

Ewan McGregor, as Qui-Gon's apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi, also does well, given what little he has to work with. McGregor reportedly studied Alec Guinness' early movies so he could replicate the actor's voice and mannerisms, and he nails it. You'll fully accept that the elderly Obi-Wan of the first trilogy was once this vigorous twentysomething Jedi seeking his own path.

Watching the two work together, you get a glimpse of what the galaxy must have been like when the Jedi were in charge. Most thrilling of all is the scene in which the pair fight with Darth Maul, a Dark Lord of the Sith. This is one bad dude -- he uses a double-bladed lightsaber, easily sparring with two Jedi at once. This alone is worth the price of admission.

But Lucas typically gives you triple bang for your buck. As was the case in Jedi, while this swordplay is going on there's simultaneously a complicated space battle, plus a land war between aliens and robot soldiers that looks like a twisted, high-tech version of Braveheart. Lucas is the master at pulling off a finale like this, and it makes you forgive him for all the tedium that has preceded it.

Note to George: Please hire a real screenwriter next time. This movie's Achilles' heel is its script. Better dialogue and character development could have elevated a decent film into the realm of extraordinary.

Lucas does throw in a few tidbits for the fans. We learn, for instance, that the Force is actually generated by the mitochondria within our cells. So it's not a religion, after all -- it's biology! And it means we all have the Force. Don't you feel empowered?

Still, we don't get what the first trilogy gave us: a good story. The Phantom Menace will be remembered as a series of astonishing scenes: the bustling, planetwide city of Coruscant; the underwater bubble city; the skeletal attack robots that unfold like roly-polies. But if asked what happens in the movie, you'd be hard-pressed to give a summary.

I wanted to see someone I could care about. I wanted scenes like the one in Empire where Luke is stranded beneath Cloud City, near death, and he calls out to Leia. Far away, she hears him in her mind and says, despite the danger, "We've got to go back."

That's love. That's what I wanted. Instead, I got goofiness and self-importance.

But will I pay to see episodes II and III? You betcha. Lucas has got me -- and most of the rest of the planet -- roped into this saga. I've got to know how it turns out. How and when does Anakin turn to the dark side? Is it before or after he fathers Luke and Leia? And when does he have the epic confrontation with Obi-Wan that leads to his disfigurement? I'm still interested in these people, even if Lucas isn't.

Come 2002, I'll be standing in line to buy tickets for the next installment. Because the Force, despite the hype, despite everything, is still with me.

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