By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 21, 1999
THE LURE OF "Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace" cannot be explained without cross-referential flow charts establishing connections among bison stampedes, impulse buying, the power of myth and humankind's pathological willingness to pitch tents at the slightest hint of hot tickets.
Put more simply: The joy of "Star Wars" is going to see "Star Wars." Which is why no one will -- or should -- listen to the early buzz that "Phantom Menace" does not illuminate the heavens, eclipse its predecessors or affect global weather patterns as promised.
Moviegoers need to discover for themselves that the film, starring Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman and about 15 quadrillion computer creations, is anything but the Second Coming. I'm not saying it's "Ishtar Wars," but it is likely to disappoint more people than creator George Lucas would have liked.
The story line -- in which the treacherous Trade Federation's evil agenda becomes increasingly clear -- is too complicated to outline. But the overall purpose of "Phantom" is to foreshadow the life of Darth Vader. The heavy breather, we discover, starts off as a sweet 9-year-old boy called Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), born into slavery on the planet Tatooine.
It is the destiny of Jedi Knights Obi-Wan Kenobi (McGregor) and Qui-Gon Jinn (Neeson), accompanying Queen Amidala (Portman), to discover this space-age Christopher Robin, who will eventually father Luke, Leia and a whole line of armor-plated fashion wear.
Unfortunately, it is also destined that our three wayfarers must be accompanied by Jar Jar Binks, an animatronic, underwater-dwelling, floppy-eared Gungan who functions as official comic relief.
Jar Jar's "funny" business consists of bumping into things and getting caught in the thruster engine of Anakin's air racer.
Picture a computer-created mixture of Dumbo the elephant, an Egyptian Anubis and Calista Flockhart. And imagine a strangled, sputtering patois that sounds goofy and backward.
Lucas has an extremely complex undertaking before him: to show the narrative Big Bang that started Darth Vader, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Luke Skywalker and the whole scary, quippy, fuzzy, Muppety, warp-speeding intergalactic family.
This means much expositional roadwork, as The Creator lays down track for all the themes, plot lines and characters who will appear and reappear throughout his 12-hour symphony.
Lord Lucas has said in press notes for "The Phantom Menace" that he decided to write this movie, the first in the early trilogy, after seeing the computerized possibilities in Steven Spielberg's "Jurassic Park."
That is precisely the problem. Lucas is so busy trying to digitally blow everyone's mind that he forgets about his characters. The sacrifice of humanity for special effects creates an unfortunate disturbance in the Force.
"Phantom Menace" is to the original "Star Wars" trilogy what Roger Moore's Bond films were to the Connery originals: a pale imitation loaded down with cutting-edge bells and whistles. And in this industrial glare, the actors are caught like cosmic deer in the headlights.
Jake Lloyd seems more like a directed kid than a force to reckon with. As Queen Amidala, the whiningly ineffective Portman seems to be mimicking Katharine Hepburn. And McGregor -- who imitates Alec Guinness's accent to match that of the older Obi-Wan Kenobi -- sounds uncomfortably forced and tentative.
As Qui-Gon, Neeson makes a nicely understated mentor, the one who will mistakenly consider Anakin worthy of Jedi training. But "Phantom Menace" gives him little opportunity to do more than interact with computer beings, chase the plot and show off his light saber against a deadly, hooded opponent whose orange-and-black horned face is hard to take seriously.
If there is any magic partnership between Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan -- at least, to rival the later link between Yoda (who makes an appearance here) and Luke in "The Empire Strikes Back" -- it is in a galaxy far, far away.
The overall look and feel of the picture is always powerful. And the sound effects serenade your ears with palpable crispness. The prime scene -- the real thriller, for my money -- is an exhilarating spacecraft land race, in which Anakin Skywalker plays a youthful Ben Hur to Sebulba, a tentacled, cheating Messala who tries to destroy his space pod. Now that's a cool scene.
But after the movie's immediate effect has worn off, the shortcomings hover in the air. Obviously, this film will touch the lives and fantasies of millions of people. But I'd be surprised if a majority of "Phantom" fans -- after sober reflection in a Jedi monastery, of course -- place the movie at the top of the "Star Wars" pantheon. I think even Yoda would back me up on that.
STAR WARS EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE (PG, 112 minutes) -- Contains battle fights and multiple droid deaths. Area theaters.