(Originally published 1999)
Is it The Force that makes “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace” feel so forced? Or is it the weak dialogue, the occasionally stiff performances, the surprisingly soulless characters that ultimately undermine what’s otherwise a thrilling, visually stunning masterpiece of mindbending special effects?
It has been 22 years since George Lucas directed his last film, “Star Wars,” the groundbreaking powerhouse that launched the series and became the second most successful film of all time (eclipsed only by “Titanic”).
In the interim, he’s worked behind the scenes at ILM, his special effects studio responsible for many of the special effects blockbusters we see today.
After viewing “Menace” with a terrifically enthusiastic crowd, there’s no question that all those years spent behind a computer have benefited Lucas--this man knows how to create and direct computer-animated monsters, droids, and warriors that can literally bring an audience to its feet.
Still, as a director of humans, he’s as clumsy as his annoying new character, Jar Jar Binks.
To be fair, it’s difficult to imagine “Menace” ever living up to the hype it’s received in the press--how could it, really? Not even Elvis’ resurrection could live up to this kind of hype.
But what does confound is how Lucas could have missed what made the original “Star Wars” and its two sequels such classics: It wasn’t just their special effects that lifted audiences up and away with euphoria (although that was certainly part of it), but the overall sense of mystery (who didn’t wonder what Darth Vadar looked like underneath that helmet?), the sudden twists and turns, the strong characters and the electric chemistry between those characters that carried his film to legendary status.
With the exception of its brilliant special effects, which fully deserve the Academy Award they will win next year, “Menace” falls short of creating a satisfying mystery: Going into the film, most know that young Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) will eventually turn to the Dark Side and become Darth Vadar, Luke Skywalker’s father. Not knowing how or why he becomes evil does generate some mystery, but not an epic mystery.
What’s worse is the lack of chemistry between the characters. It just isn’t there as it was between Han Solo and Princess Leia, R2D2 and Luke, C3P0 and Chewbacca; Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor as Jedi warriors Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi are largely wasted. Lucas is more concerned with their expertly choreographed sword fights and pseudo-philosophizing about the elusive Force than he is in giving us a feel for who these men are and how they came to The Force.
Because of this oversight, “The Phantom Menace” lacks soul.
But not action, certainly not thrills, and hardly an artistic vision. Every scene in “Menace” teems with a vision that is richly unparalleled, from the elaborate costumes worn by Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman), whose planet Naboo is under siege by the evil Sith, to the slick cinematography, to the gripping, unrelenting action sequences that are absolutely breathtaking.
Just as he did in “Star Wars,” Lucas has raised the bar for special effects into the stratosphere.
By seamlessly wedding live action to computer animation, he has created a brave new world for technicians and directors alike. Finally, we have reached a period in film where--visually speaking, at least--anything is possible. Anything. It seems only fitting that George Lucas has taken us there.
There is so much to admire in “The Phantom Menace,” it ultimately deserves to be seen for its universe of triumphs. This is shrewd filmmaking that has its missteps. Watching the movie, one gets excited by where film is going, if not so much by where humanity is going.
Lucas has wisely protected his multibillion-dollar franchise by making a film targeted at children and adolescents, who will love the film (and buy the merchandise) because it gives them exactly what they want--eye-popping eye candy that moves at light speed.
So, in the end, The Force is still with Lucas--but he’s shifted the power behind it. Perhaps mirroring the times, The Force now has less to do with a late 1970’s spirituality than it does with a late 1990’s Pentium III-crushing chip.