It’s really difficult to enjoy the new “Star Wars” film without remembering all that came before. A virtual smorgasbord of visual splendors, “Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace” manages to be both original and familiar, which creates a beast with more conflicts that the one stirring inside Darth Vader.

Arriving 22 years after the premiere of the original “Star Wars,” “Phantom Menace” is writer- director George Lucas’ showcase of how much far special effects technology has advanced. Indeed, the mostly computer-generated film is dazzling and exciting, filled with wonderful new worlds and characters.
Unfortunately, all that technology eclipses any chance of emotional ballast the film had. It’s easy to root for the goods guys and hiss at the bad guys, but you really don’t care about them. Characters are introduced and dispatched as if the film were a big screen video game.

Not that “The Phantom Menace” is a bad film. Far from it. It delivers the bang for your buck, but it is not the sort of film that endears itself to you. You desperately want to warm up to the characters, but they’re merely signposts on the road to Industrial Lights and Magic, Lucas’ visual effects dynasty.

The real problem with “The Phantom Menace” is that Lucas has to reinvent the series, plus he has to top the previous installments in the series. That means introducing new characters, only to have them get lost in the digital transfer. We all know Lucas can pull a rabbit out of a hat, now what he needs to do is concentrate on giving it more depth.

Visually, “The Phantom Menace” is a real treat. It takes us to new worlds where anything and everything is possible. There’s an underwater city that glistens and glows, where giant sea creatures lurk in dark caves, ready to feast off anything that comes within distance.

Even though “The Phantom Menace” takes place thirty years before “Star Wars,”, most of the action takes place in the same galaxy. This allows writer Lucas, whose script is serviceable at best, to introduce familiar characters into the mix, lending a sense of nostalgia to the proceedings.

Two Jedi Knights, master Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and a young apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) have been sent to the planet Naboo to help Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) fend off advances from the evil Trade Federation.

When negotiations fail and the Federation sends in soldiers droids to secure the planet, Jinn, Kenobi, the Queen and her entourage escape, but when their ship is damaged, are forced to land on a dusty planet run by crime lord Jabba the Hut.

It’s here where “The Phantom Menace” begins to connect with its roots. Jinn runs into young Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), an eight-year old slave who works in an interstellar junk yard. Jinn immediately senses something special about Anakin, who creates a disturbance in the force. If you’ve read this far, then I don’t need to explain what the force is, or who Anakin becomes later in the series.

Anakin lives with his mom Shmi (Pernilla August), and is the product of a virgin birth. Hole smokes! This information leads Jinn to believe that Anakin is the chosen one, the individual who will bring harmony to the universe.

In order to secure Anakin’s release from his flying lizard boss, Jinn bets on the youngster to win the upcoming pod race. This sequence, which has the participants zooming around treacherous canyons and deadly obstacles while strapped to thundering engines is the highlight of the film. While the outcome is more than obvious, this sequence is actually gripping and exciting.

From there, it is off to a planet that is actually one large city. Think Los Angeles in the future. It’s here where Jinn approaches the Jedi Council (including Yoda) about the prospects of training young Anakin. Always the wise one, Yoda senses a major conflict in the child, and refuses to allow Jinn to proceed.

“The Phantom Menace” ends up back at Naboo, where Queen Amidala’s army and the underwater amphibian race the Gungan prepare to do battle with the Trade Federation droid army. It’s a battle that takes place both on land and in space, allowing Industrial Lights and Magic to flex their visual muscles. While these ground and aerial battles are visually exciting, they too lack an emotional punch. Since most of the participants are either computer generated or lack depth, we really can’t experience loss when they die.

With “The Phantom Menace,” Lucas seems to be catering more towards a younger audience, and fails to bring a level of sophistication to the story or the characters. The computer generated comical sidekick Jar Jar Binks seems more like an action figure creation than a genuine character. He’s there to make the kids laugh with his slapstick antics, but he grows tiresome even faster than the furry Ewoks.

The film also lacks real menace. The villains are weak, but I presume they, like the rest of the new characters, will need time to reach their full gallop. “The Phantom Menace” is represented by Darth Sidious, who remains somewhat of a mystery while Darth Maul does his bidding. Even then, Maul (Peter Serafinowicz) looks more like Marilyn Manson than someone capable of beating a Jedi Knight.

As director, Lucas manages to keep the film moving. “The Phantom Menace” is never boring. You constantly marvel at the technology, and appreciate the way Lucas manages to mix myth and mayhem.

There really isn’t a bad performance in the film. Neeson fares best as the wise Jedi Knight Jinn, while McGregor does nicely as a young Alec Guinness. Young Jake Lloyd shows promise as Anakin Skywalker, and is especially good in his scenes with Natalie Portman as the Queen, who is a stand out.

David Tattersall’s cinematography is exceptional, the perfect blend of live action and computer generated images that never ceases to amaze, while Gavin Bocquet’s production design and Phil Harvey’s art direction are both Oscar worthy. Ben Burtt and Paul Martin Smith’s editing is a major plus, seamlessly piecing together what must have been a nightmare in the editing room. John Williams returns as composer, delivering a score that touches on old themes.

Ultimately, I believe that “The Phantom Menace” suffers from what I like to call the “Superman” syndrome. I didn’t like the first “Superman” film with Christopher Reeves. It felt leaden and lacked great villains. The second film was on the mark, and then I realized that the reason I didn’t like the first film as much was because it bore the burden of having to set up the story, introduce the characters and the premise.

That’s how “The Phantom Menace” feels. The next chapter, due in 2002, won’t carry the burden of having to explain everything. Lucas and company will be able to kick the next film into hyper drive from its first frame.

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