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Phantom characters

Movies | Lucas fails to replicate the thrills of the original, but The Phantom Menace will likely make a big cultural impact

Issue: "Saber savior," May 22, 1999

Did George Lucas pull it off? The Phantom Menace does a fine job of showing us the worlds before Star Wars, even though the story is not nearly as memorable. "Episode I" parallels the 1977 movie that started it all, setting up the character of Darth Vader-to-be Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd). It isn't bad, but it isn't worth camping out in a multiplex parking lot waiting for tickets, either. Is it safe for kids? The Phantom Menace is as watchable as the originals. There's no language or sex to worry about. The violence here is mostly computer-generated, and there's no gore in sight. Even battle scenes are pretty clean. The most extreme moments are when a couple of characters find themselves on the losing end of a light saber. Phantom's themes are familiar: The good Jedi battle the bad Federation. The Force is back as that vague bit of Eastern mysticism that powers the light saber. In this movie, the Federation isn't as powerful as it will be. The Jedi exist as defenders of a declining republic that hasn't yet turned into an empire. Except for some corrupt politicians on the Republic's side, this is a heroes/villains affair. Our heroes have an honorable mission: to save the planet Naboo from Federation invaders. Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) must save the day. These Jedi Masters are more mature than Han and Luke. They are more confident and don't worry about going off to the Dark Side as much as their successors. The centrality of these characters reverses the typical current emphasis on morally questionable heroes who care little about right and wrong. Along the way they meet the Jedi's future enemy, Anakin Skywalker. Only 9 years old, he is being kept as a slave on a planet ruled by Jabba the Hutt. The future Darth isn't evil yet, and Mr. Lucas seems to want kids to empathize with him. Yoda and the Jedi Masters get to discuss the Force, but Skywalker gets all the good action scenes. The boy dreams of flying away from slavery and becoming a Jedi-and gets his chance. The boy isn't just a strong Jedi-wannabe in this movie; he's had an immaculate conception. His mother says he arrived without a father. Gentlemanly Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) thinks he's the chosen one sent to "balance out the Force" (whatever that means). But young Skywalker has a long way to go before he becomes Darth and starts talking like James Earl Jones. The Force, of course, is the same Zen Lite from the originals. The references to it are plentiful, but The Phantom Menace doesn't dwell on the subject as did portions of The Empire Strikes Back. We learn that there are strange organisms living in our bodies that channel the Force's power. Obi-Wan has some, Yoda has more, and young Skywalker is crawling with the little germs. Using the Force means the same things it meant before: following your instincts, stilling your thoughts, avoiding your fears, and all that jazz. The Jedi's hooded robes look a bit cooler now, but if the pop Eastern talk didn't convince in 1977, it won't convince now. Still, the real power behind this new Star Wars tale comes from high-speed computers. Mr. Lucas gives us an amazing collection of landscapes, from deserts to cities to hidden worlds under the sea. It's the foreground that gets him into trouble. We live in a time when scads of big-budget movies can marshal an army of Silicon Graphics workstations to create marvelous special effects. Too bad "Episode I" overplays its technological hand, giving the movie an unreal video game-style feel. While the original Star Wars packed audiences into theaters with Lucasfilm's bold new special effects, it became a cultural force with story and characters. The Phantom Menace has a barely seen title character and nothing to match Luke, Leia, or Han Solo. In the end, it performs like a new introduction to a great novel. It tells us more about a well-loved saga but doesn't bring back the thrills of the original. Given the level of anticipation, however, it will still pack a cultural wallop.

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