There have certainly been eagerly awaited big-budget blockbusters that turned out to be as bad as "The Phantom Menace," the first installment in the new "Star Wars" trilogy. But it's hard to think of one that's more perverse. George Lucas has always been a clunky, pedestrian filmmaker (just look at "Star Wars"), so it's no surprise that his return to the director's chair would follow suit. But who would have guessed that "The Phantom Menace" would be so incoherent, so completely bereft of a grand adventure's surging thrills?
Whatever the faults of the original trilogy, it's not hard to see why audiences responded to its combination of a big special-effects show with a simple Saturday-afternoon serial story of good vs. evil (except in "The Empire Strikes Back," directed by Irvin Kershner, which is the dark, gleaming jewel in the series). The movies provided audiences with the pleasures of a story familiar to them from westerns or swashbucklers while wowing them with the new movie technology on display. (And it's worth remembering just how amazing those special effects looked 22 years ago.)
In the press material for "The Phantom Menace," and in "Today" interviews that George Lucas did last week, the success of the trilogy is explained as a respite from modern cynicism and disillusionment. But in order to give audiences that sort of satisfaction, you need a simple, immediately engaging story line, and "The Phantom Menace" just doesn't have it. The plot has something to do with a trade embargo being waged against a small planet called Naboo, an embargo that turns out to be a disguise for a planned full-scale invasion. We're never told what this tiny planet could possibly be worth to the enormous Trade Federation (the way we understand, in the first "Star Wars," what the baddies stand to gain from the elimination of the rebel forces), so the story's basic conflict has no weight.
In the same fashion, we're not told how the Republic has become so weak as to allow the Federation to take over. We're supposed to be watching the back-story of the original "Star Wars" trilogy, but most of the reasons for what's taking place seem to have occurred in yet another back-story, one not sufficiently explained by the trademark monolithic crawl that starts the film. If "The Phantom Menace" really is the beginning of the story, why not just start with those familiar words, "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away ..."?
Except for the battle sequences, scenes rarely last longer than 15 or 20 seconds. Lucas zips from place to place, careless about giving us our bearings. There should be a special pleasure in watching the origins of characters who, whatever sins can be laid at George Lucas' door, have become mainstays of pop mythology. But action figures are given more dynamic presentation than Lucas has managed here. The young Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and the Jedi he is apprenticed to, Liam Neeson's Qui-Jon Jinn, are sent to negotiate a settlement between Naboo and the Federation, and they simply turn up, as if they were spear carriers. (I didn't even catch the name of Neeson's character until halfway through the movie -- though part of that may be because the audio has been geared more to the sounds of spaceships taking off than the sound of human speech.)
And the new characters barely register. We should feel torn watching the 9-year-old slave Anakin Skywalker (who will become the father of Luke and thus Darth Vader), as we're warming to the little boy and yet knowing what he will become. But Jake Lloyd has been directed to play the character as a scrappy little go-getter, a smudged-faced sprite. It makes no sense when Anakin is called before the Jedi council and Yoda speaks of the danger he senses in the child. Lloyd has the manufactured "spunk" of dozens of interchangeable child actors. And even if he were good, what could he do with a line like "Mom, you say the biggest problem in this universe is that nobody helps each other ..."?
Lucas has abandoned the dialogue that sounded as though it were lifted from comic books and movie serials for lines that drop like New Age pensies (and plot developments -- like the apparent virgin birth of Anakin -- freighted with mythology). There's no place for the smart-alecky banter that Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher brought to the first movies, none of the youthful spirit of that cast. Everyone is glum and solemn, and so the new characters we're meant to be transferring our affections to -- Qui-Jon, and Natalie Portman in the dual roles of Queen Amidala (gotten up in Chinese opera costumes throughout) and the queen's handmaiden -- feel distant from us. There's nothing actors can do when their roles consist of striking poses to deliver atrocious lines or running around in the midst of special-effects-laden shots. Not even Samuel L. Jackson and Terrence Stamp, both of whom turn up late in the film, make any difference.
Ewan McGregor does some masterly vocal work, finding a way to blend his Scottish accent with an approximation of Alec Guinness' purr. But the role allows no room for McGregor's fire. And why cast one of the few young actors around who has the dash to play a hero if you don't allow him a hero's panache and reckless bravery? Though Yoda, R2-D2 and C-3PO make welcome appearances, Lucas miscalculates badly with the new creature, Jar-Jar Binks, which, with its quasi-Caribbean dialect and jivey carriage, strays uncomfortably into the realm of racial caricature, though a bigger problem is that most of his dialogue is almost totally unintelligible.
"Star Wars" fans have said again and again that they've been waiting 16 years (since "Return of the Jedi" was released) for this movie. "The Phantom Menace" suggests that, for Lucas, the wait has been too long. I can't think of any other movie aimed at an eager, worldwide audience that seems so locked up in its maker's head. Not just in the clumsy, careless way the story is told, but in the way Lucas' movie squanders all the detailed work that has gone into the movie's design. In the press material he talks about wanting to create a separate look, a distinct culture, for each of the film's worlds. For Naboo, he's designed a city that sits atop waterfalls. There's a planet covered by skyscrapers and an underwater city where the dwellings are shaped like translucent Hershey's Kisses. But Lucas gives us no time to drink in any of these sights, forgetting about them after a few quick vistas and then scurrying along.
The film gives the impression of being both over-edited and not yet in its final form, of being nothing but plot and having no real story, of being off-puttingly unfamiliar and utterly predictable. He has likened the movie to a symphony, saying there are "certain musical refrains I am purposely repeating." Maybe Lucas thought that copying so many of the first trilogy's recognizable set pieces saved him the trouble of drawing audiences into this new story. In Salon Arts & Entertainment last week, Michael Sragow reported that Lucas likes to think of himself as a toy maker. "The Phantom Menace" is like nothing so much as the private game of a solitary boy moving his imagined characters hither and thither in the freedom that comes from not having to explain the game to anybody else. Sometimes, a director's craziness can provide a unifying excitement to films that have a shaky narrative. But Lucas doesn't have that sort of visionary passion. He can come up with the idea for a space opera that will span six films, populated by all sorts of creatures, and yet his isn't the sort of imagination that takes loony flight. He's the squarest fantasy filmmaker imaginable.
None of this, of course, is going to keep "The Phantom Menace" from being a monstrous hit. But I seriously doubt that the film is going to occupy the place in the fans' affections that the first three do. Primed to love it, the audience at the preview I attended erupted in cheers when the familiar credits burst on the screen. But as the movie went on, those cheers took on the sound of people desperately trying to convince themselves they were having a good time. And I have a feeling that the repeat business the movie will likely get is going to be the result of people going back to try to explain away the disappointment they feel. Just being there may be enough for most fans, like the ones who camped out last week in order to buy advance tickets. "Star Wars" has been part of the lives of most of these people since they were children, and you can't blame them for wanting to take part in a pop phenomenon. "Star Wars" may not be what I dream of in the movies, but I think the millions of people for whom it has occupied a central place in their fantasy lives deserve better than this spiritless, cobbled-together pastiche.