In the Beginning ...

STAR WARS: EPISODE I -- THE PHANTOM MEANCE
Written and directed by George Lucas

For those who have virtually made a religion of George Lucas' Star Wars and its sequels -- the folks who have been camped out in front of theaters since mid-March, or the fan who moved from England to Japan simply because the new film is opening two days earlier there -- the long-awaited new entry in the series, the first in 16 years, will be either a new addition to the dogma, beyond criticism, or a devastating disappointment, neither response leaving much room for serious discussion. For the rest of us, those who have seen -- and even admired -- the Star Wars series without ever feeling the slightest urge to dress up like a Wookiee, reactions will be less extreme; dumbstruck reverence and angry betrayal are equally disproportionate responses to Lucas' latest fantasy.

The Phantom Menace is -- just as one might expect -- loaded with state-of-the-art action sequences and fanciful creatures, and laced with enough inside references and Jungian archetypes to keep both the cultists and Bill Moyers happy. A "prequel," set approximately 30 years before the events of 1977's Star Wars (which was later subtitled "Episode 4 -- A New Hope" to establish continuity), it begins its own narrative line while also following a preordained path that will turn 9-year-old Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) into the adult villain Darth Vader. Narrative continuity aside, The Phantom Menace is also a sequel to the Star Wars trilogy, the result of the series' tendency toward escalating special effects and consciously repetitive story elements. Like The Empire Strikes Back, the only film of the first three made with a sequel in mind, it's a film that leaves many narrative threads hanging. Indeed, one of the more interesting things about episodes 2 and 3, when they arrive (currently set for 2002 and 2005: plenty of line space still available), will be seeing how Lucas pulls everything together to provide a smooth transition to the already familiar Luke Skywalker saga.

By that same token, Lucas' careful groundwork can also be frustrating. The politics of the pre-Star Wars universe, although presented in considerable detail, remain confusing for the noncultist, as do the positions of the various factions in the story -- the Trade Federation, the Jedi, the Sith. (I'm still not sure exactly who or what the "phantom menace" is.) The villains in the new film -- the most striking of whom is a silent, demon-faced warrior named Darth Maul -- are less clearly defined than the dark-helmeted Darth Vader, and the battle scenes are most effective as a formal exercise in screen carnage (redeemed somewhat by the fact that the "bad guys" who are destroyed are merely robots).

But setting aside the promise that all will be resolved in future films, can The Phantom Menace stand on its own as a fantasy epic? It all depends on what you're looking for. The most significant difference between the thrills of the earlier trilogy and the inflated scale of The Phantom Menace is that the model animation and puppetry that originally created the Death Star, the speeder bikes, Yoda and Jabba the Hutt (both of whom make cameo appearances here) have been replaced by the impressive palette of computer animation. The Phantom Menace unfolds at a larger scale, but one that has more in common with the visual terrain of Antz than with live-action films. As a technological achievement, it's undeniably impressive, with elaborate, spectacular sequences -- aerial and land battles, sword fights and a flying drag race -- that echo sequences in the earlier films and in some ways improve on them. Like the earlier sequels, The Phantom Menace plays on the viewer's familiarity with the other films and then raises the dramatic stakes: The climactic sequence simultaneously invokes the Death Star sequence of Star Wars, the duel between Luke and Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back and the battle between Ewoks and Imperial troops in Return of the Jedi, creating a kind of narrative overload that is at once comfortably familiar and brand-new.

Between those thrills, however, the action sags. Lucas, who hasn't actually directed a film since Star Wars in 1977, has never been a particularly strong writer (the other Star Wars films relied on accomplished screenwriters such as Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan), nor does he display much skill with actors. The performers in The Phantom Menace, for the relatively few minutes they spend on the screen, range from wooden (Natalie Portman and Lloyd) to disinterested (Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor), and the most interesting character in the film is the computer-animated Jar Jar Binks, a frog-faced creature with the sensibility and screen presence of a Muppet.

Lucas is a true visionary in American film -- but his vision is often sadly limited to films like Willow and Howard the Duck. The Phantom Menace is entertaining but sterile, the product of a filmmaker with nearly infinite resources and imagination who never has to answer to anyone else. In interviews, Lucas preaches the gospel of digital, dreaming of a cinematic future where actors and writers are superfluous and computer-generated effects will eventually make human performances unnecessary, where movies are produced under laboratory conditions without worrying about retakes or artistic conflicts.

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