If the latest from George Lucas is long on anything it’s the title — not entertainment value. What a pompous, meatheaded mouthful. It’s like the titles of three movies all strung together into one. And, speaking of things meatheadedly strung together, there’s the movie itself.
I’ll be honest: I dozed through chunks and left shortly before it was over. Somehow, though, I feel confident I got the gist of the thing. Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor star here as Jedi knights. For those of you unfamiliar with the Lucas lexicon, a Jedi knight essentially is someone who’s read too many fortune cookies and taken a vow of humorlessness.
As best I could make it out, the idea is that some kind of evil political body is going hog wild and levying taxes on a bunch of planets which aren’t too thrilled about it. Tensions escalate when one disgruntled planet refuses to put its share into the pot. So, unless I missed something, the plot of the new Star Wars is pretty much Vermont’s Act 60 controversy set to music by John Williams.
I’m not kidding. The action in The Phantom Menace is propelled by the intergalactic equivalent of a bond issue. What a visionary. Maybe in the next installment Lucas will have Darth Vader turn evil when he runs for a seat on the school board in his district and loses. Anyway, Neeson and McGregor get sent to the tax-protest planet to smooth things over, only they catch wind of an invasion plan and whisk the queen away so she can come up with a strategy for saving her people even though she’s, like, 19. Soon after they escape, their ship breaks down and they’re forced to pull over on a small out-of-the-way planet, where Neeson encounters a young boy he immediately senses is The Chosen One. Neeson wants to bring the kid to the Jedi home office for evaluation, but hasn’t got money to pay for the needed repairs. The obvious solution? Get the tyke to risk his life in a deadly supersonic bloodsport.
Neeson enters the boy in a pod race that makes the chariot sequence in Ben Hur look like a driver’s ed safety film. He gambles not only that the kid will survive, but that he will come in first, and stakes his vessel on it. The most amazing thing about the race, though, isn’t how digitally sophisticated it is, but rather how redundant its endless twists and turns quickly become — and how reminiscent it is of the sequence in Return of the Jedi, where airborne motorcycles streak between trees at warp speed. That’s the way it is with much of this overhyped and underwritten film. A better title might’ve been Star Wars Episode 1: Been There, Done That.
The new characters introduced here aren’t much help. Jar Jar Binks is little more than a rubbery version of the Trix rabbit with marbles in his mouth. He’s got to be the most annoying special effect since Howard the Duck. Only slightly less lame is the movie’s bad guy, a Mephistophelean moron with a red paint job, little devil horns, and all the menacing and mysterious charisma of the Hamburglar. The movie probably cost close to $150 million to make, and the best Lucas could come up with for a villain was someone who looks like he plays bass in a Kiss cover band?
It just goes on and on, without generating suspense or building excitement. The whole picture really boils down to about 300,000 short little scenes all strung together. Each works pretty much the same way: Lucas opens up on some exotic alien vista, holds the shot just long enough for us to drink in all the kooky buildings, snazzy rocket ships and funny-looking animals he’s crammed into the frame, a couple of characters utter some stunningly banal line of dialogue and then, pfft! — it’s on to the next effects-stuffed vista. Nine or 10 thousand of these mini-scenes into the picture, you begin to wish the director was sitting nearby so you could shake him and scream, “Okay already, we get the idea! You guys spent the past six years in front of computers making really complicated cartoons with lots of goofy-looking martians and stuff. Didn’t anybody think to type up a story?”
Apparently everyone was too busy writing up merchandising agreements. If there’s a toy chain, retail giant or fast-food franchise that isn’t paying to promote Lucas’ movie for him right now, it’s probably only because it’s located somewhere in the Belgrade metro area and NATO forces deeply regret they just bombed it by mistake. The filmmaker didn’t amass a personal fortune in the billions by fussing over nuances in dialogue.
I guess you can’t blame Lucas for not knowing how to make a real movie with professional-quality pacing, story and character development. He’s fairly inexperienced, after all, having directed only three films in his entire career before this. And one of those — THX 1138 — was merely a remake of a project he did in film school. The guy’s pushing 60, and that’s the sum total of his output. Think about it: If he’d directed, say, Jaws or The Godfather almost a quarter century ago instead of Star Wars, everybody would be calling his career a disappointment.
And I suppose I am. Sure, he’s created new ways to make beautiful pictures with computers. But he’s forgotten a simple truth: Scenery is something that belongs in the background. Behind the people. In service to their story. George Lucas knew that once. He couldn’t have made American Graffiti had he not.
Unfortunately, that was long ago in a galaxy far, far away.
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