HOLLYWOOD (BP)–The long-expected prequel to “Star Wars” has finally arrived. And let’s face it, just about everybody who grew up admiring the exploits of Han Solo and Luke Skywalker is going to want to see this latest in the series. It should make an enormous amount of money, perhaps the biggest take yet in Hollywood history.
But is it any good?
Well, yes and no.
In 1977, George Lucas put a spin on the old-fashioned western, placing the action in outer space rather than Tombstone. Using spaceships that completely filled a cinema screen, and a villain every kid in America wanted to defeat in battle, Lucas made Star Wars the most popular good-versus-evil franchise of all time. It grabbed our imaginations and took us for the intergalactic ride of our lives. But along with laser sabers and hover cars, Lucas included the most important elements to any movie that wishes to live on in cinema history — characters you care about and a compelling story. That’s what I was waiting to see in “Stars Wars Episode One, The Phantom Menace” (rated PG).
Also, I hoped Lucas would resist the incessant use of gratuitous sex or profane language common in most films of the ‘90s. Gratefully, that element of Lucas’ storytelling ability remains consistent with the first three episodes. There is no sex. No misuse of God’s name. And no crudity. I applaud Mr. Lucas for proving a story can be told without offending the senses.
Now, for the bad news.
Although special effects have been an important element in the Star Wars series, the past three productions didn’t rely on state-of-the-art gimmickry and editing alone to hold our attention. Indeed, ‘70s effects are probably the least of the reasons we might stay home on a night one of the episodes is on cable. People, and yes, wookies, also play a part in making these films a delight to view over and over.
Not so with Phantom. The wizardry of the Industrial Light & Magic studio has replaced actors with special effects as the stars of the film. Not only does Lucas bombard the audience with the latest in special effects (in every single scene), but he has manufactured a new menace to the art of acting: computer editing. If the director was not satisfied with a look, expression or grimace, he found the correct one from another take, or scene, and with the computer’s ability to cut and paste, he grafted the desired expression onto the actor’s face. Oh, I’ll bet Liam Neeson loves that. (The “Schindler’s List” star has recently been quoted as wanting to quit acting. In a few years, he may have no choice, should human thespians become antiquated.)
The look of Phantom Menace is, and I don’t mean this as an adolescent colloquialism but as its true meaning — awesome. Truly, no expense has been spared. But it’s so laden with wondrous detail, while the acting is so deadly dull, you get the impression director Lucas spent all his time and energy focusing on the look of the film, not quite leaving time to motivate anything possessing a heartbeat.
Neeson as Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn lumbers about, looking not like a wise sage, but like a resentful actor who probably won’t see the finished product unless it’s required in his contract. Natalie Portman, one of the best teen actresses of any generation, looks and sounds as if she were on Prozac. And child actor Jake Lloyd as a 7-year-old future Darth Vader does a fine job, but there’s just too much of him. A little precociousness goes a long way.
Our friendly and imposing Chewbacca has been replaced by another strange being, Jar Jar, played by Ahmed Best, with much assistance from good-old Industrial Light & Magic. The problem with this goofy lizard-looking alien with donkey ears is that much of what we need to know to follow the story line is lost by his imperceptible speech. He’s a great character but, like the kid, he’s just too much. His slapstick buffoonery is fun, but you simply can’t understand much of what he says. And he says things all the time. Not being able to understand the comic relief wears thin, quickly.
And then there is the narrative. True, if you’re 11, who cares about narrative? Besides, they figure it out by the fourth or fifth showing. For those of us, however, who will probably only sit through it once, the clearest synopsis I could come up with is this:
The bad guys are taking control of the universe, while the Republic, whoever they are, are unprepared and nearly defenseless, even though they have the mighty Jedis on their side. Darth Vader is introduced as a prepubescent and we meet Queen Amidla, the future mother of Luke and Leia. There really isn’t much of a story here. Just a few lines here and there to separate the battle sequences.
Is it too violent? I have a theory about that. Much of the violence in this series is akin to the Saturday morning matinee B westerns. The action serves as a release to the tensions of everyday life. In these films, the good guys eventually beat the bad guys. Justice is served. In a way, I think that is a healthy discharge.
But I must say, the producers of this latest edition come awfully close to crossing the line. Although little blood is spilled because nearly all the victims are android robots, it’s still much like a video/computer game, where the goal is not to defeat wrongdoers, but to extinguish anything that comes into view. Still, I don’t think Phantom Menace will scar any young ones. There is a difference between this cartoonish action and other contemporary manifestations of desensitizing comic violence.
What should be discussed by concerned parents is the conception of young Anakin Skywalker, the future Darth Vader character. At one point, his mother confesses that the boy was the result of an immaculate conception. This, of course, causes members of the Jedi counsel to wonder if the child is the “chosen one,” the future savior of the galaxy.
In the past, I have defended the Star Wars mystical proponents. Many had problems with the continuous reference to the Force, but after reading interviews with George Lucas and examining the series, I didn’t believe there was an attempt to lead young people into occultism or Eastern philosophies. I believed, and still maintain, that these movies are parables concerning good versus evil. The Star Wars trilogy was full of well-developed characters who worked together to defeat a malevolent empire. The stories were entertaining and devoid of profanity and exploitive sex.
However, this latest development of proclaiming a movie warrior to be of virgin birth may cause some to think the film’s creator is trifling with the significance of Jesus Christ and his entrance into human form.
My suggestion: Parents, if you are allowing the kids to attend, you should view this film with them. Make sure they understand the difference between the film’s “Force” and the real Force, Jesus Christ.
Boatwright, a Baptist layman, is the editor of The Movie Reporter, a monthly film guide, and can be contacted at (805) 495-0914 or at www.moviereporter.com.