The actors are wallpaper, the jokes are juvenile, there’s no romance, and the dialogue lands with the thud of a computer instruction manual. But it’s useless to criticise the visual astonishment that is Star Wars – Episode I: The Phantom Menace.
With this epic and the trilogy that preceded it, George Lucas has built a pop culture monument that packs all of history – war, religion, myth, art, science and those old reliables, good and evil – into a mystical grab-bag that plays like a kiddies cartoon.
Episode I is set 30 years earlier than the original 1977 Star Wars film (now renamed Episode IV: A New Hope) but some things never change. A royal babe is in trouble. Not Princess Leia – this time it’s Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman).
The Trade Federation sends battleships to her planet, Naboo, to persuade her to sign a dodgy treaty.
To her rescue come two Jedi knights: old pro Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his apprentice, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor).
You’ll recall that Sir Alec Guinness played Obi-Wan the first time, and McGregor does a deft job of matching up with him vocally.
When Federation types send in droids for the kill, the Jedi’s link up with Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), a nine-year-old slave who will grow up to marry the queen, father the twins Luke and Leia, and turn from the Jedi cause to the dark side as Darth Vader. Got that?
Good. Here’s what else you should know: Phantom Menace, which cost $115 million, lacks the crude freshness that Lucas lavished on the low-budget ($10 million) original in 1977 and the fluid storytelling that director Irvin Kershner brought to The Empire Strikes Back (1980) – still the best in the series.
But Menace is light years ahead of the uneasy mix of furry Ewoks and Freudian psychology in Richard Marquand’s Return Of The Jedi (1983).
As for Lucas’ directing skills, his work with actors still belongs to the “don’t emote, just stand there” school. But in terms of visual sophistication, he ranks with the masters.
McGregor is saddled with lines like, “I have a bad feeling about this”, and Neeson must answer, “be mindful of the living Force, my young Padawan.” Ouch.
Comic relief – and, boy, does this film need it – arrives with Jar Jar Binks, a gangly, floppy-eared Gungan, voiced by Ahmed Best but otherwise a fully digital creation.
Jar Jar is an alien amphibian who lives in an underwater city and speaks in pidgin English that still gets his point across.
“Mesa in bombard troubles,” says Jar Jar as he nabs food off plates with his long tongue and guides the Jedis in a submarine that gets chewed by a killer fish.
Digital marvels abound, along with appearances by old favourites such as Jabba the Hutt and Yoda, who leads the Jedi Council on the planet Coruscant, along with Mace Windu (Samuel L Jackson).
Lucas surpasses himself in the creature department. Jar Jar’s nemesis, Boss Nass, is a wonderfully odious menace, and Watto the slave driver is a fat-slob fly who manages to levitate on tiny hummingbird wings.
The humans have a hard time keeping up. Neeson has a natural warmth but too few opportunities for humour. Portman is a beauty and a gifted actress at 18 but stuck with an underwritten character. And McGregor, a live wire in
Happily, he comes into his own in the final scenes.
The ‘Phantom Menace’ is Darth Sidious, the Sith Lord who appears cloaked or as a hologram. This baddie leaves his battles to Darth Maul (Ray Park), a horn-spouting apprentice who wears makeup suggesting an unholy union between Marilyn Manson and KISS.
It’s Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan who take on Darth Maul and his double-edged light sabre in a battle royal.
Your reaction to Phantom Menace will depend on what level you’re watching it on, just like playing a computer game. Beginners will log on, enjoy the surface thrills and shut down. Intermediates will play again to see what they missed. Experts will study plot details like they’re cosmic tea leaves . . .
Best moment: The pod race. Anakin climbs into his homemade pod – powered by two huge engines – and with the help of the Force, makes alien pilots eat his dust.
Worst moment: Qui-Gon conjectures that Anakin is a virgin birth, spawned by midi-chlorians (microscopic life forms that reside in cells) through a surrogate mother. Jar Jar needs to tell Lucas, “Dissa bad, George, berry bombad”.
Oliver Ford Davies
Jar Jar Binks
Samuel L. Jackson
Karol Cristina da Silva
Dipika O’Neill Joti