Eye-filling 'Phantom' lacks soul

'Star Wars' saga strikes a deep cultural chord

It's here! So in the spirit of all George Lucas movies, let's cut directly to the chase.

After years of waiting and months of hype, "Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace" turns out to be a lively science-fiction adventure that delivers huge quantities of spectacle while coming up short as psychology, philosophy, or anything deeper than quick-cutting action and eye-filling computer effects.

In sum, it's both an ingeniously made epic and a limited screen experience, geared more to video-game fans than to grown-up moviegoers who remember when the best fantasy films had grander ambitions. Lucas himself broke more boldly from current fashion in the original "Star Wars" and evoked more resonant feelings in "Return of the Jedi." The new picture compares most directly to "The Empire Strikes Back," the first Lucas movie to prefer the security of market-tested formulas to the freshness of new ideas.

This notwithstanding, "The Phantom Menace" is sure to have the most successful opening in motion-picture history, sparked by moviegoers who grew up with the series, newcomers curious what the fuss has been about, and anyone on the lookout for spirited PG entertainment. They'll be treated well at the multiplex thanks to Lucasfilm Ltd. rules about show times, limited coming-attractions trailers, and so forth, and many will have their eardrums shivered by enhanced surround-sound systems that catapult the movie's supersonic noises from every possible direction.

Now that the picture's actual content is unveiled, though, it's questionable whether Lucas's interstellar action will blast the more old-fashioned "Titanic" from its position as the screen's highest-grossing epic. "Titanic" was no artistic masterpiece, but its more thoughtful elements - its romantic love story, its respect for the power of memory, its gratifying images of appealing young stars - reached out to a surprisingly wide range of viewers.

For all its sound and fury, "The Phantom Menace" is a narrower and shallower film. It's full of adventure for the eye, but beneath its glitzy surface you'll find little heart and no real soul at all.

As promised by Lucas years ago, when he announced his plan to make as many as six or nine "Star Wars" episodes, this is a prequel to the original trilogy about the struggle of young Luke Skywalker with villainous Darth Vader, a renegade Jedi knight who's eventually revealed to be Luke's tragically misguided but ultimately redeemable father.

"The Phantom Menace" takes us back to the childhood of Darth Vader, when he was still Anakin Skywalker, a boy of such bright promise that Jedi master Qui-Gon Jinn needs only a few brief encounters to spot him as a natural-born member of the heroic Jedi clan. They meet when Qui-Gon and his apprentice, an up-and-coming Jedi named Obi-Wan Kenobi, visit the desert world Tatooine during a dispute between the minor planet Naboo and the Trade Federation, which is powerful enough to override the Republic's shaky government.

Other key characters crowd the story as well, some familiar - remember R2-D2 and C-3PO, the world's most lovable robots? - and many not, from Jedi Council member Mace Windu to the exotic Queen of Naboo and another young woman who claims to be her protective decoy.

The cast includes a few regulars, including the actors who have inhabited Luke's droids throughout the series. Most major parts go to Lucas newcomers, though. It's interesting to see the filmmaker turning to well-known stars more eagerly than in the past. Strange as it may seem, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher were unknowns when the first "Star Wars" blasted off. Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor, who play Qui-Jon and Obi-Wan, are the opposite. Ditto for Samuel L. Jackson as Mace and Pernilla August as Anakin's mom, among others.

Studio publicity for "The Phantom Menace" stresses the complexity of its story, saying the "experimental" quality of its intertwining subplots is a main reason Lucas decided to direct the picture in person, instead of delegating its meticulously planned outline to another filmmaker, as he did with Parts 2 and 3 of the first trilogy. But any attentive child will be able to follow the tale with ease, partly because it's not really "experimental" at all, and partly because the story is far less important to the movie's impact than its hyperactive visual qualities.

These are crafted with masterly care, avoiding the occasional tackiness that some viewers criticized in "The Empire Strikes Back," and drawing maximum dividends from Lucas's talent for keeping the screen constantly alive with motion.

Less successful, and more puzzling, are his efforts to sustain the mythical and even spiritual undertones that many detected in the first trilogy, especially when Yoda joined the series as resident sage and soothsayer. While his pronouncements never came close to profundity, they hinted at a degree of philosophical ambition that lifted the series a step above space-opera superficiality.

This time around, Lucas's flat screenplay comes up with little significant for Yoda or the other Jedis to say. Filling this gap is a heightened interest in biblical imagery, centered on Neeson as Qui-Jon, who's costumed and lighted in ways that bring traditional renderings of Moses and Jesus to mind. It's not clear how literally Lucas intends this or what he wants us to infer from it. Perhaps the coming Episodes 2 and 3 will clarify the situation in fulfilling ways; or perhaps Lucas is playing an allusion game with no real purpose in mind.

The bottom line for "The Phantom Menace" is a box-office frenzy in the short run, followed by home-video and toy-marketing success in months to come. It's too early to predict whether connoisseurs will embrace it as one of the saga's best installments. Still, a clue may be provided by a remark one longtime "Star Wars" viewer made after a preview screening.

"It was great to watch," the young man said, "but I liked it better when Han Solo was there to complain about things.

"This is all about Jedi, and they're always polite, and they're always right about everything. That's boring after a while!"

*Rated PG; cartoonish violence.

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