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Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4

*Also starring: Natalie Portman, Samuel L. Jackson, Frank Oz, Jake Lloyd, Ian McDiarmid, Ray Park, Ahmed Best

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

The plot hasn't the twists and turns of "Goodbye, Lover," the language hasn't the elegance of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," the pathos of "Cyrano de Bergerac" is lacking and the bon mots wouldn't challenge those of "The Importance of Being Earnest." Yet whether you're an eight-year-old addict of Nintendo or an eighty-year-old peruser of the films of Akira Kurosawa, be prepared to be caught up in the lavish video game that is "Star Wars--Episode 1: The Phantom Menace." While George Lucas's current offering lacks the eye-opening novelty of the first "Star Wars" shown in 1977 and the polished sentimentality of Richard Marquand's "Return of the Jedi" released six years later, this "Star Wars" engages by its sheer variety of characters, many of whom perform in a wonderfully stiff and mechanical style. While there may not be much to the theory that the entire "Star Wars" series possesses mythic resonance, this version, like all others, has its share of warfare, scientific gobbdygook, spirituality and a grandly epic style. One of the scenes--that of a pod race which recalls the writer-director's youth as a racer and fan of hot rods--is as stunning as any car chase you've seen in "Ronin," and one of the characters, Jar Jar Binks, will delight the young 'uns demonstrating more pratfalls than Chevy Chase and a stranger language than Mrs. Malaprop's.

Perhaps there's no need to compare 1999 Lucas with the guy that broke new ground twenty-two years ago with the first of the "Star War" series. We've heard that the current offering does not match up to the prototype in terms of plot development and witty interludes, but oh, those special effects! Ninety-five percent of scenes utilize digital creations which in the not-too-distant future could threaten the small percentage of actors that actually can find work in Hollywood. Automation has hit the cinema so hard that theatrical director Gordon Craig's theories could eventually be realized. In the early part of this century, Craig, frustrated that actors constantly thought to exalt themselves by ignoring the director and casting their own impressions on their parts, favored the use of superpuppets, or ubermarionettes. These plastic figures would be capable of carrying out all demands of the director. While Lucas still depends on the voices of real human beings, most of his characters--indeed, the more interesting ones--are played by digital marvels. Still, the 132-minute movie is dominated by four human beings--Liam Neeson as Jedi knight Qui-Gon Jinn; Ewan McGregor as his apprentice, Obi-Warn Kenobi; Natalie Portman as Queen Amidala; and young Jake Lloyd as Anakin Skywalker. But their dialogue is often so wooden, their personalities so bland, that our attention shifts easily to such inventions as the aforemenetioned Jar Jar for comic relief, the adorable R2-D2 as a metallic robot with compassionate responses, the eponymous phantom menace, Darth Sidious as a mysterious, hooded figure who appears as a hologram, and arch-villain Darth Maul, who engages the two heroes in the culminating battle to the death.

While a familiarity with the rest of the series is helpful, no prerequisites are essential. You can understand the plot, such as one exists, by recalling your high-school history lesson on the causes of all wars: nationalism, imperialism, alliances, the arms race, and international anarchy. For nationalism, you have the brave citizens of the planet Naboo, ruled by the courageous Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman)--determined to ignore the advisers that suggest she sign a treaty of virtual surrender to an invading force. For imperialism, count on The Trade Federation, a sinister energy determined to humiliate that otherwise obscure planet in a galaxy far distant from Earth. For alliances, look to the linkup of the Jedi knights with the nine-year-old Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd). The principal armaments are the laser pens used with mastery by the Jedi knights and their nemesis and an array of weaponry that appears low-tech by contrast. While a galaxy-wide body exists to oversee territorial violations, its leader is a weak chancellor who--like those in our world today who take a pusillanimous stand of neutrality in the face of ethnic cleansing--is fearful of upsetting the status quo.

What is called "Episode I" actually takes place three decades before "Episode IV--a New Hope." The Naboo queen is held captive by the Trade Federation, which has sent a squadron of ships to the planet, and its honchos are determined to have her sign a treaty of surrender. Like medieval knights who have pledged their lives to the defense of womanhood, Jedis Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Obi- Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) take off to rescue her. The Federation may have the uniformly obedient droids as its foot soldiers--all under the precise management of a control ship-- but they will prove no match for the combination of the Jedis and the youthful Anakin Skywalker. (Those who follow the series will recall that this young man, who is being used as a slave, will later marry Amidala, later to become the parents of Luke and Leia Skywalker.)

The cognoscenti in the preview audience who have followed the epic series with more rapt attention than they have given to "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey" cheered most when familiar character re-appeared, individuals such as the adorable R2-D2 and the most Martian of all personalities, Yoda. Who can blame them? The only human being who inspires true empathy is Pernilla August who, as the mother of Anakin Skywalker is torn by her desire to keep her boy by her side until he is of age and her wish that he be freed from bondage by the brave and noble Jedis. Ewan McGregor is a fine actor who had turned in a poignant performance in the British comedy "Brassed Off" but despite his educated and resonant voice cannot mine the depths of Obi-Wan Kenobi's character as did his predecessor, Alec Guinness. Liam Neeson, who gave life to Oskar Schindler in Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List," is pale and wan this time around. Natalie Portman will be remembered primarily for her succession of royal costumes, though she does exhibit reasonably solid chemistry with Jake Lloyd, who is himself the predictably darling movie kid.

The vast array of digital images is at once a tribute to the level of technology that Hollywood has brought to the world's cinema and an unfortunate symbol of the glut that must be projected to a young audience to keep the targeted market involved. Adults will more likely appreciate the less cluttered beauty of the desert scenes, while game fans will happily go frenzied gazing at the astounding multiplicity and variety of creatures.

As Roger Ebert said in his review of the original "Star Wars," the film was a technical watershed like "Birth of a Nation" and "Citizen Kane" that influenced many movies that came thereafter. For better of worse, George Lucas ushered in a barrage of megabudget movies that all but clobbered to death the more personal films of the 1970s. Happily there is yet an abundance of such intimate works, both comic and dramatic, silly and deep, on the indie circuit. If movies are to continue to survive and prosper against the fierce competition of the VCR, the Internet, and video games, material of the nature of "Star Wars" must reach out to those who would otherwise substitute the privacy of the home for the community of the movie theater. For his contribution to the continued prosperity of the cinema, we owe George Lucas a debt of gratitude.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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