Dark Side Lite

George Lucas does it his way in the pallid Phantom Menace. Even cultists will wish he’d hired a director and some writers.

Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace
Directed by George Lucas
20th Century Fox

Those poor souls who’ve been camping out in front of theaters for six weeks: Who can blame them for saying, “To hell with the critics, we know it will be great!”? The doors will open, and they’ll race to grab the best seats and feel a surge of triumph as their butts sink down. We’ve made it: Yeeehaww!! They’ll cheer when the familiar John Williams fanfare erupts and the title–Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace–rises out of the screen and the backward-slanted opening “crawl” begins: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away …”Yaaahhhhhhh!!! Then, their hearts pounding, they’ll settle back to read the rest of the titles: “Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic. The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute.” Taxation of trade routes: Waaahoooo!!!!

How long will they go with it? At what point will they realize that what they’ve heard is, alas, true, that the picture really is a stiff? Maybe they never will. Maybe they’ll want to love ThePhantom Menace so much–because they have so much emotional energy invested in loving it, and in buying the books, magazines, dolls, cards, clothes, soap, fast food, etc.–that the realization will never sink in. In successful hypnosis, the subject works to enter a state of heightened susceptibility, to surrender to a higher power. Maybe they’ll conclude that common sense is the enemy of the Force and fight it to the death.

Look, I wanted to love The Phantom Menace, too. I was an adolescent boy and would enjoy being one again for a couple of hours. But the movie has a way of deflating all but the most delusional of hopes. If someone had given Ed Wood $115 million to remake Plan Nine From Outer Space it might have looked like this, although Wood’s dialogue would surely have been more memorable.

The first thing that will strike you is that George Lucas, who wrote and directed the movie, has forgotten how to write and direct a movie. Having spent the two decades since the original Star Wars (1977) concocting skeletons of screenplays that other people flesh out, and overseeing productions that other people storyboard and stage, he has come to lack what one might Michelangelistically term “the spark of life.” If the first Star Wars was a box of Cracker Jacks that was all prizes, The Phantom Menace is a box of Cracker Jacks that’s all diagrams of prizes. It’s there on paper, but it’s waiting to be filled in and jazzed up.

Advance word has been cruel to the actors, but advance word has it only half right. Yes, they’re terrible, but Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, and Natalie Portman are not terrible actors, they’ve just been given scenes that no human could be expected to play. As a sage Jedi Master called Qui-Gon Jinn, Neeson must maintain a Zen-like detachment from the universe around him–probably not a challenge when that universe will be added in later by computers. “I don’t sense anything,” he tells his uneasy young apprentice, Obi-Wan Kenobi (McGregor), as the two sit waiting to conduct trade negotiations with a bunch of gray, fish-faced Federation officers who talk like extras in a samurai movie. McGregor furrows his brow. “There’s something … elusive,” he says, working to enunciate like a young Alec Guinness but succeeding only in nullifying his natural Scots charm. “Master,” he adds, “you said I should be mindful of the future.” Neeson thinks a bit. “I do sense an unusual amount of fear for something as trivial as this trade dispute.”

A hologram of Darth Sidious, Dark Lord of the “Sith,” commands the Federation to sic its battle droids on the Jedi ambassadors before they can apprise Queen Amidala (Portman) of the imminent invasion of the peaceful planet of Naboo. In come the battle droids and out come the light sabers, which still hum like faulty fluorescents. Clack, clack, clack. Lucas can’t edit fight scenes so that they’re fluid–he cuts on the clack. You get the gist, though. The Jedi make their getaway, but with gas and tolls and droid destroyers, it takes them over an hour to land on Naboo, by which time the queen and the Galactic Senate have already got the grim message. For one thing, communications have been disrupted: “A communications disruption can mean only one thing,” says someone. “Invasion.”

Queen Amidala, done up like a white-faced Chinese empress in hanging beads and glass balls and a hat with curly horns, speaks in tones from which emotion has been expunged, perhaps on the theory that subjects won’t argue with a ruler who puts them to sleep: “I … will … not … condone … a … course … of … action … that … will … lead … us … to … war,” she drones. Meanwhile, the Jedi whiz through the underwater core of a planet in a man-of-warlike submersible pursued by 3-D dragony beasties and a giant catfish with extra movable parts. Potentially thrilling stuff, but Neeson and McGregor remain peculiarly unruffled. “The Force will guide us,” says Neeson blandly, and the director seems to share his lack of urgency. There’s Zen detachment and there’s Quaalude detachment, and The PhantomMenace falls into the second camp: It really does take place a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. When R2-D2 showed up, I thought: At last, a character with the potential for intimacy!

Say this for Lucas, he doesn’t whip up a lot of bogus energy, the way the makers of such blockbusters as The Mummy (1999) and Armageddon (1998) do. It’s as if he conceived The Phantom Menace as a Japanese No pageant and has purposely deadened his actors, directing them to stand stiffly in the dead center of the screen against matte paintings of space or some futuristic metropolis and deliver lines alternately formal or bemusing. (“This is an odd move for the Trade Federation.”) Lucas considers himself an “independent” filmmaker and an artist of integrity. Had he not been such a pretentious overlord, a platoon of screenwriters would doubtless have been engaged to rewrite him and make the movie halfway human. A buddy specialist would have punched up the Qui-Gon Jinn/Obi-Wan Kenobi badinage, and a black dialogue specialist would have given the comic-relief character, Jar Jar Binks, a man-size dinosaur with pop eyes and a vaguely West Indian patois, something fresher than “Ex-squeeze me!” and a lot of Butterfly McQueen-style simpering and running away from battles. Those of us who complain about the assembly-line production of “blockbuster” scripts need an occasional reminder that assembly lines can do much to make empty thrill machines more lively.

The Phantom Menace didn’t need to be barren of feeling, but it took a real writer, Lawrence Kasdan (The Big Chill, 1983), to draft the best and most inspiring of the Star Wars movies, The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and a real director, Irvin Kershner, to breathe Wagnerian grandeur into Lucas’ cartoonish fantasies. Having lived with the saga for so many years, the audience was prepared to set aside some of its narrative expectations here to plumb the origins of Lucas’ universe. In The Phantom Menace, however, the Jedi already exist and the Force is taken for granted–we’re still in the middle of the damn story. The only dramatic interest comes from a young Tatooine slave named Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), whom we know will grow up to father Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and then surrender to the dark side of the Force and become Darth Vader. But that transformation won’t happen until the third episode; meanwhile, Anakin is a conventionally industrious juvenile with a penchant for building droids from scratch and “pod racing”–an activity that he demonstrates in one of the movie’s most impressive but irrelevant special effects set pieces, a whiplash hyperdrive permutation of the chariot race in Ben-Hur (1959).

L ater in the film, when Anakin goes before something called the Jedi Council and meets Yoda and Samuel L. Jackson (together again!), Lucas dramatizes the interrogation so ineptly that you either have to take Yoda’s word that there’s something wrong with the boy (“Clouded this boy’s future is”) or to conclude that Yoda, like us, is moving backward through time and has already seen Episodes 4 through 6. Anakin, he says smugly, has fear in him, and fear leads to anger and anger to the dark side–which would mean, as I interpret it, that only people without fear (i.e., people who don’t exist) are suitable candidates for Jedi knighthood (perhaps Yoda will enlarge his definition of fear in subsequent episodes). There’s also some quasireligious, quasiscientific blather to the effect that the boy was conceived without a father by “metachorians”–symbiont, microscopic life forms that will speak to you if you “quiet your mind.” In other words, the Force. So, it’s not nebulous, after all! It can be measured. It can be quantified. It can even, perhaps, be merchandised.

Yes, the effects are first-rate, occasionally breathtaking. But the floating platforms in the Galactic Senate do little to distract you from parliamentary machinations that play like an especially dull day on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. The final military engagement, in which long-headed attack droids are rolled onto the field as the spokes of a giant wheel, would be awesome if Lucas didn’t routinely cut away from the battle just when he seems on the verge of actually thrilling you. The chief villain, bombastically named Darth Maul, is a horned, red, Kabuki-style snake demon with orange pingpong-ball eyes who challenges the Jedi to a couple of clackety light-saber battles. His appearances are underscored by demonic chants; he might as well wear a neon beanie that flashes “Bad Guy.” Like all revisionist historians, Lucas cheats like mad. If Darth Vader had built C-3PO as a young man, how come he never paid much attention to him in the other movies–and vice versa? As Yoda himself puts it, in another context, “See through you we can.”

Still, it’s worth reprinting a blistering e-mail sent to my wife by a relative, after she’d let him know that I hated The Phantom Menace:

Surprise, Surprise. Star Wars was never reviewed well by critics. Sometimes a basic story that rests on great special effects and stupid dialogue can be very entertaining–it’s called a cult movie, and no critic can have an effect on the obvious outcome that this is going to be the highest grossing movie ever. I myself stood in line for five hours and already have tickets to see it three times, and I know I’ll enjoy it. Why? Because it plays on my childhood imagination. And I’m sure it’s not as bad as Return of the Jedi, which was the weakest one–but I still liked it and saw it a dozen times. I get tired of being told I’m not going to like it because it doesn’t adhere to certain basic critic criteria. I say bpthhhh (sticking my tongue out to review)–don’t be sending me anything dissing my movie:):):)

I’ll be curious to know whether he sees The Phantom Menace a dozen times, or even the three for which he has paid. (I could imagine seeing it three times only if they sold adrenaline shots at the concession stand.) Or maybe he’ll come out of the movie and say: “No, you didn’t get it, Mr. Snot-Nosed-Criteria Critic Person. It’s not supposed to be exciting. It’s laying the foundation for the next chapter, when Anakin and Obi-Wan defeat the Mandalorian warriors in the Clone Wars and Anakin marries Queen Amidala. And listen, I’m getting in line even earlier for tickets to Episode 2. The Force is with me, butt-head.”