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'Phantom': Lost in Hyperspace

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 13, 1999

There's a disturbance in the Force called hype, and "Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace" doesn't begin to live up to its advance press. Even die-hard fans of the heretofore awe-inspiring saga are bound to be disappointed with this joyless, overly reverential and impenetrably plotted prequel, which opens Wednesday.

The light sabers hum and the heavens glitter, but the movie misses the ingenuity, humor and simplicity of the original rocket ride. When Han Solo fired up the Millennium Falcon in 1977, he, not Captain Kirk, took us where none had gone before: a dazzling, critter-filled cosmos where good was easily distinguished from evil.

"Phantom Menace," which begins with the familiar expositional scroll, deals with murkier fare--tariffs, taxes and political skulduggery. For some reason, the powerful Trade Federation, which is secretly in league with the evil Sith, attacks the paradisiacal planet of Naboo (never mind that the Naboopians are a peace-loving people). Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson), a somber Jedi knight, and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), his earnest apprentice, come to the aid of Naboo's elaborately garbed young Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) and her ladies in waiting.

After escaping from the planet aboard the queen's ship, the entourage is forced to land on the scabrous planet Tatooine, where they encounter the scum of the known universe as well as Anakin Skywalker (pathologically adorable Jake Lloyd), a 9-year-old slave boy destined to become Darth Vader.

At this point, Anakin proves an able and enthusiastic ally when the little band returns to Naboo to engage the formidable, robotic army assembled by the Trade Federation. Qui-Gon senses a strong Force in the boy and wants to make him an apprentice despite the Jedi Council's misgivings. Yoda (voiced by Frank Oz), who intuitively realizes that the boy is crippled by anxiety, prophesies: "Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering." To say nothing of asthma.

Remember Vader's sinister inhalations, his echoing rasp, his forbidding mask? Now there was a phantom menace. But Episode I's Darth Maul (Ray Park), in his satanic makeup, red contact lenses and horns, looks more like a trick-or-treater than the embodiment of cosmic evil itself. Since there's no history between Maul and Qui-Gon, their duels are more obligatory than gripping. So what if they're acrobatic?

"Phantom Menace" has more of everything, except compelling characters. None possesses the spunk of Princess Leia, the swagger of Han Solo, the pluck of Luke Skywalker. And none is as fuzzy as Chewbacca. They're holograms. They feel as computer-generated as many of the special effects.

George Lucas has forgotten how to direct humans, assuming he ever knew how. Not that actors are called upon to do more here than hit their marks and say their lines as woodenly as possible. Poor, dull Neeson must also play the foil for an infantile alien sidekick named Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best of "Stomp"). He's one of Naboo's primitive Gungans--a floppy-eared, Roger Rabbity fish creature who speaks, for some unknown but insulting reason, in an undecipherable Caribbean accent.

Of course, the art direction, costumes and cinematography are spectacular, although some of the computer-generated effects are flat and many of the backdrops hokey. It's probably unfair, but when it comes to movie magic, we expect perfection from Lucas and his gifted team. Perhaps the wizard is out of practice.

True, he is his own toughest competition. But where is passion? Where is desire?

The "Star Wars" movies had all the right stuff, but "Phantom Menace" just has a lot of stuff . . . especially action figures, video games, cookbooks, not to mention the inflatable Darth Maul chairs and ever-popular Jar Jar underwear.

Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace (130 minutes, at area theaters beginning May 19) is rated PG.

© 1999 The Washington Post Company