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'Star Wars, Episode I'

Review: Visually dazzling 'Phantom Menace' lacks heart, soul

Web posted on:
Thursday, May 13, 1999 5:23:48 PM EST

By Reviewer Paul Clinton

(CNN) -- Nothing could live up to the hype of this film. Nothing. "Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace" is a movie. It's not the Second Coming. It's not even the First Coming, depending on your religious stance. It's just a movie.

And while I'm saddened to report that it's a deeply flawed film in terms of both story line and character development, I'm happy to note that visually it's a marvel.

Paul's Pix: "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace"
Windows Media 28K 80K

Anyone who hasn't been living under a rock -- a big rock -- knows that this film is one of three plot-line predecessors to the trio of wildly successful "Star Wars" movies of 1977, 1980 and 1983.

'A long time ago ... '

Now, 16 years after the release of "Return of the Jedi," we meet for the first time young Anakin Skywalker. He's destined to become the evil Darth Vader and the father of Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia. We also meet for the first time Luke and Leia's mother, Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman). Her kingdom on the planet Naboo is threatened by a vicious trade war.

To the rescue: Jedi Knight Qui-Gon Jinn, played half-heartedly and woodenly by Liam Neeson, and his apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi, played by Ewan McGregor. (Of course, in "future" episodes already released, Kenobi is played by Sir Alec Guinness and he becomes Luke Skywalker's mentor.) Jinn and Kenobi stumble across a slave boy, Anakin, who obviously has Jedi powers in the making. There are even some rumblings that the lad may be the result of an immaculate conception. Say what? Yes, strange but true.

Things then liven up considerably during a race among flying vehicles -- young Skywalker wins his freedom à la "Ben Hur." The special effects here are spectacular and the overall production design is breathtaking. Concept designer Doug Chiang and production designer Gavin Bocquet have done a stunning job. The cities and planets visited in this film, from Queen Amidala's kingdom (looks like a Disney Florence) to the teeming city-planet of Coruscant, are truly mind-blowing.

But the tension, the fun and the roller-coaster effect of jumping from action to action -- factors that made the rest of this series of films so enjoyable -- are strangely lacking here. And there are no romance, no humor, ultimately nobody to care about in this oddly sterile movie.

Been there, met them

The film's main problem is intrinsic to its being a prequel. We already know these characters. We know where they end up and who they become. There's no mystery or sense of "what's next?" No matter how cute little Jake Lloyd is as Anakin Skywalker, he still grows up to be Darth Vader. So who cares? And boy, is he cute. Not even a hint of the bad seed lurking inside.

Another thing lacking in this lackluster story is a reluctant hero like Han Solo. He and his humor are sorely missed. As Kenobi, McGregor is given absolutely zip to work with. He just lurks around saying, "Yes, master," every once in a while. And the new computer-generated floppy-eared character Jar Jar Binks, with his incomprehensible accent, is annoying to say the least.

The bottom line: George Lucas has made no secret of the fact that this film is aimed directly at 12-year-old boys, not at men in their 40s trying to recapture their lost youth. But that doesn't give him license to ignore character development and dramatic pacing. It's true that with this film Lucas has raised the bar in terms of digital special effects. But despite all the magnificent razzle-dazzle, when it comes to movies "it's the story, stupid." This could have been, and should have been, a much better story.

Maybe Episode II will have better luck. We might get the romance back when Anakin and the queen fall in love, and we can hope there'll be more humor. But we're working backward here, covering ground that just doesn't need to be covered.

Basically, "Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace" is full of sound and fury signifying nothing.

I know, I'm talking to a wall here. So run out there, stand in line, pay for a scalped ticket, whatever, and go. Personally, I wouldn't have missed it for the world. Of course I got in free and didn't have wait in line.

May the Force be with you.

"Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace" opens nationwide on Wednesday, May 19, and is rated PG with a running time of 132 minutes.

In-depth Special: Star Wars: Back to the Beginning
'Phantom' anticipation: The great Wait
May 12, 1999
George Lucas: Free to follow his muse
May 11, 1999
'Star Wars' fans jam theater lines, phone lines for tickets
May 13, 1999

Official "Star Wars: Episode 1" site
Star Wars Official Site
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