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Epic Appeal

The Phantom Menace is tainted but triumphant

People will be forever intrigued by the most perplexing things. They will be lured in droves, the craze will escalate, and we will end up with phenomena like conventions devoted to the show and tell and trade of Beanie Babies. The attention garnered by these crazes, so often disproportionate to the inherent worth of the object of attention, sooner or later (usually sooner rather than later) wanes - "very now" becomes "embarrassingly outdated" with aspirations to "endearingly kitchy." Occasionally, though, pop culture crazes are sustained over decades. Like, for example, the Star Wars craze.

Anakin Skywalker As if the return of summer had been postponed through 16 years of a long winter, each year between the release of The Return of the Jedi and this newest Star Wars movie, The Phantom Menace, seems to have exponentially intensified the fans' incredible anticipation for it. (This represents rare memory and loyalty on a Hollywood scale; see, for counter-ex.ple, the sad fate of last year's re-release of The Big Chill, another good movie of 1983.) For all their potentially off-putting sci-fi trappings, and for all their potentially dated special effects, Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi have remained popular favorites. These movies seem to tap into a moving sympathy we have for a mythical, never-ending struggle between good and evil. The sides were clearly defined and easy to understand: the Rebel forces versus the evil Emperor and his troops. We knew whom to root for and whom to fear. We got to feel threatened and anxious when the Emperor and his minions made gains against our bold and brave Rebels, and got to rejoice when our persistent underdogs celebrated victories. They were, after all, fighting against intergalactic domination by the Dark Side of the Force. What greater war to wage? And not only that, but this war was being waged in a fantastically far out strata of George Lucas' staggering imagination. These are kid's movies, basically, but they tell a compelling story artfully.

The Phantom Menace is similarly artful in many ways. Ewan McGregor is perfectly cast as the young Obi-Wan Kenobi, mimicking not only Alec Guinness' accent and speech patterns but his eerie calm and resolve. There's not a trace of the dark mask of Darth Vader in the angelic face of Jake Lloyd, the little boy who plays the young Anakin Skywalker, so our knowledge of what this kid becomes is chilling. And the special effects are dazzling. The big light saber fight scene is still a show-stopper, even coming on the heels of the technologically advanced fight scenes of movies like The Matrix. The views from above and within Coruscant are incredible - the entire planet is covered by a bustling, futuristic metropolis. It's huge, as are the proportions of many of the other locales in the movie. Visually, the movie is epic. The story it tells isn't.

Queen Amidala This is chapter one in the narrative of the Star Wars, and what we're looking for, at least in part, is some explanation of why and how the evil Emperor began his hostile takeover of the planets, moons, and stars. But the earlier movies' clarity of good guy, bad guy, and, more importantly, clarity of plot, are gone. Ostensibly, The Phantom Menace describes the invasion of the planet Naboo by the Emperor, whose military action arrives in the guise of an (ill-explained) aggressive Trade Federation. But the invasion itself is sadly ignored. Princess Amidala (played by the lovely and talented Natalie Portman), leader of the people of Naboo, whines incessantly about the massacre occurring on her home planet, though the scenes on Naboo don't corroborate these c.plaints. We spend what are arguably our most enthralled and involved moments at a "podrace," a sort of super speedy sci-fi drag race and a dalliance of the plot. Possibly most disappointing is that our main characters, the human characters with whom we're supposed to relate, are repeatedly upstaged by the animated comic foils, most noticeably by Jar-Jar Binks, an annoying bumbler whose speech is less intelligible than Yoda's.

Perfect the film is not. There seems to be a consensus here. It's hard, in all the hoopla, to determine if criticism of The Phantom Menace is harsher than it should be - 16 years of anticipation and the marketing treatment this film has gotten are damn hard to live up to. The truth is, the effects and the extravagant fantasy of the movie (not to mention the John Williams theme music) are delightful even if, as a pop cultural experience, this film doesn't fulfill as it might.

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Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace
rated PG
2 hours 12 minutes

Liam Neeson
Ewan McGregor
Natalie Portman
Jake Lloyd
Ian McDiarmid
Anthony Daniels
Frank Oz
Samuel L. Jackson
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