"Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace" didn't turn out to be much of a supernova. As a marketing event it was the big bang all over again, but as an actual movie it plummeted through its own black hole with surprising speed - making hardly a ripple in the Oscar race, and vanishing from everyday conversations a nanosecond after it vanished from multiplex screens.
This doesn't diminish the walloping effect the "Star Wars" series as a whole has had on our mythologies. George Lucas's approach to science fiction - high-speed storytelling, video-game special effects, and characters based on old Hollywood formulas - has defined the rules for a generation of fantasy-film producers. The end is no more in sight than the final installment of Lucas's saga.
The latest "Star Wars" clone is "Titan A.E.," billed as "the first animated science-fiction film ... produced in the US in decades." (It seems "The Iron Giant," one of last year's best pictures, doesn't fit this description.) As a feature-length cartoon, it obviously has differences from the live-action pictures that inspired it. But this won't matter much to the teenage boys at whom the new movie is squarely aimed.
This is a "Star Wars" wannabe in everything but name - so close to the Lucas originals that if it didn't bear the imprint of 20th Century Fox, the studio that owns the franchise, the movie's sound effects would be drowned out by the din of lawyers sharpening their pencils for a cosmic copyright battle.
Set in the 31st century, "Titan A.E." blasts off when Earth is wiped out by evil aliens, leaving a handful of survivors to battle their enemies from the Titan, an elaborate spacecraft that embodies the human race's best accomplishments. (It's not clear why the title abbreviates "After Earth," but that's what the initials mean.) The protagonist is Cale, a young man who wants to be left alone but joins the struggle because, well, sometimes a guy's just gotta take a stand. (Does the name Han Solo ring a bell?) Others on board include the ship's crusty commander, an oddball navigator and first mate, and yes, the luscious Akima, a female pilot whom neither Cale nor we can stop watching, cartoon character or not.
Lucas's influence shows up in conspicuous ways - it was the first "Star Wars" movie, for instance, that upped the science-fiction body count by massacring an entire planet - and also in a zillion small details, from voice tones of characters to snazzy high-tech effects.
Young viewers will have fun identifying the famous folks (Matt Damon, Drew Barrymore) who speak the dialogue. But horizons will hardly be broadened by a movie that borrows its gimmicks from a bag of tricks we've been all too familiar with for the past 25 years.
*Rated PG; contains action-movie violence.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society