Star Wars: The Phantom Movie

Twenty-two years ago "Star Wars" came out of nowhere, and changed the world. "Star Wars: Episode I, The Phantom Menace" comes out amid a cacophony of media hype, carrying on its shoulders the wildest hopes of several generations of worshipful moviegoers. It's been 16 years since "Return of the Jedi," the last installment of George Lucas's trilogy. In a country with a notoriously short attention span, it's nothing less than miraculous that the passage of time made no dent in our appetite for this intergalactic adventure. It's not hype to say that "Phantom Menace" is the most eagerly awaited movie ever made. (Pilgrims started camping out in front of theaters a month before its May 19 opening.) You'll be hard pressed to find anyone who doubts for a moment that it will recoup its $115 million budget.

I will beat around the bush no longer. The movie is a disappointment. A big one. Will you take my word for it? Of course not. This massively marketed movie is virtually critic-proof. Everyone feels he must find out for himself.

The oddest thing about "Episode I"--which takes us back to the childhood of Anakin Skywalker, who as we know will later become Darth Vader, father of Luke Skywalker--is that it's a tale that didn't need to be told. Or that should have been told in 20 minutes, so that we could get on to the good stuff. What we want to know is how Anakin Skywalker, Jedi knight, turned to the Dark Side. You won't find that out in "The Phantom Menace." Lucas presents us with a cute, towheaded 9-year-old (Jake Lloyd), a slave on the outlaw planet Tatooine (everyone's favorite sci-fi funkytown), who is discovered by the Jedi warriors Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor). The two Jedi are trying, and failing, to prevent a war between the powerful Trade Federation and the peaceful planet of Naboo, and they have stopped off on Tatooine to find a hyperdrive generator for their battle-damaged spacecraft. The war seems to be about commerce, but Qui-Gon Jinn intuits a darker purpose behind it (just what that is also awaits in "Episode II"). Traveling with our Jedi heroes is Naboo's young Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman), who apparently is destined to marry Anakin (also in the next movie).

This boy, the Jedi instantly see, is special. It's even heavily hinted that he's been immaculately conceived. Knowing what we know about his future, we want to see hints in this sweet child of his future monstrosity. Astonishingly, Lucas plants no seeds of evil. Instead, we are just told (by our old friend Yoda, in his pre-hermit days) that he senses a danger in him. What a rudimentary failure of storytelling. What was Lucas thinking when he turned Anakin into a banal youngster who, upon hearing he's going to leave home to train as a Jedi, proclaims, "Can I go, Mom? Yipee!" There is nothing strange, special or particularly interesting about the future Darth Vader here, and the casting of the conventionally adorable Lloyd, who looks like he should be hawking cereal on TV commercials, is no help. Neither is his good old-fashioned bad acting.

There's no shortage of action in "Phantom Menace"--lightsaber fights, attacking armies, exploding spacecraft--but there's a curious lack of urgency. Our emotions are rarely engaged. It's been 22 years since Lucas directed a movie, and he's gotten rusty. His rhythm is off. Many of the scenes feel shapeless and flat--they're not ended, but abandoned. He doesn't seem to care about building a character. Ewan McGregor, one of the most vital and versatile young actors around, is completely wasted: Obi-Wan is given nothing interesting to do or say. Liam Neeson brings a grave, slightly weary dignity to Qui-Gon, but he's a rather somber character to carry what is meant to be a slam-bang adventure fantasy. There is no equivalent here to the irreverent, wisecracking Han Solo, and his light touch is missed. For comic relief, we get the computer-generated Jar Jar Binks, a goofy, floppy-eared, vest-wearing toy serpent with a clumsy two-legged lope and an incomprehensible Caribbean accent. (He's a kind of extraterrestrial Stepin Fetchit.) Funny not he is, as Yoda would say. A more successful debut is made by the devilish Darth Maul, a horned, painted Sith lord who works for shrouded Evil Genius Darth Sidious. There's fresh menace in his mien.

The genuine magic in "Episode I" is all in its design. Conceptual artist Doug Chiang and production designer Gavin Bocquet give us breathtaking vistas, fabulous imaginary cities that range from the Florentine splendor of Queen Amidala's domain to the teeming metropolis of Coruscan. The vaultlike Galactic Senate, whose box seats float through the air, is a triumph of baroque futurism. The sunset-drenched, open-air Jedi council chambers (shades of "Blade Runner") glow like a remembered childhood picture book. (The art nouveau, glass-bubble undersea city, however, looks like a floating Lamps Plus showroom to me). The massive, tree-crunching tanks of the droid armies have a brutal beauty; there's visual wit in the insectlike robot soldiers who do the Trade Federation's dirty work. Indeed, there's often so much to take in you wish Lucas would hold his shots longer, and let us feast on the details.

This is the impressive fruit of what Lucas calls his "digital backlot." "Phantom Menace" uses more computer-generated shots than any movie in history (95 percent of the frames employ some digital work). The technical significance can't be denied--Lucas is blurring the line between live action and animation. When it works--in the spectacular pod-racing sequence on Tatooine, in which Anakin and his repulsive rival Sebulba fly like the wind through jagged desert canyons--the movie re-creates the buoyant adrenaline rush the original "Star Wars" so lightheartedly and consistently generated.

Lucas even uses digital techniques to tinker with the performances--seamlessly merging, for example, an actor's frown in take three upon his face in take six. This may be the first step toward a cinematic future in which virtual actors replace flesh-and-blood ones--and unfortunately it sometimes seems as if he's drained the flesh and blood from his own cast. The usually vibrant Portman is decked out in wonderful Kabuki-like makeup and dressed in beautifully bejeweled costumes, but most of the time she looks lost in space, stranded without a character to play. All the state-of-the-art technology in the world is no help to an actor saddled with Lucas's tinny dialogue. The original had its share of cheesy, B-movie performances: it was part of its retro "Buck Rogers" charm. But in these more extravagant settings, the lapses seem puzzling.

The arc of Anakin's story--a boy leaving home to become a Jedi and a hero, saving the day in battle--recapitulates Luke's story in "Star Wars." You can understand why Lucas would want to carbon-copy his golden oldies--why tamper with the most successful formula in movie history? But you can't go home again. Lucas's sensibility, which was never particularly sophisticated to begin with, hasn't evolved in two decades. "The Phantom Menace" is more of the same, without the innocence and without the juice. And in the year of "The Matrix," which offers a new style of special effects and a dystopian fantasy that hits closer to home, Lucas's childlike vision is beginning to look merely childish.

The interesting question is whether any of this will matter. Is the hunger for "Star Wars" so insatiable that the audience won't notice that this epochal event is actually a little... dull? If "The Phantom Menace" surpasses "Titanic" as the most successful movie of all time, it may stand as the ultimate example of cultural auto-intoxication.