Cinema: The Phantom Movie

George Lucas' new Star Wars epic showcases some dazzling visual effects but is short on human magic

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The plot is more complicated than this--and much chattier. Even the opening is talky. "Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic," the now familiar trapezoidal text-crawl tells us. "The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute." Immediately one is perplexed. A summary made sense in the earlier films; they were episodes IV, V and VI in the grand fable, and as continuations of an initially untold saga, they required some elucidation. But what's the need for back-story text in a tale that is just beginning? Can it be that Lucas was unable to dramatize these events, so he put them in the crawl? That would explain the gobs of dry exposition, devoted to blustering, filibustering debates on taxation and elections. It's all very edifying.

This is the work of Lucas the compulsive chronicler of his own imaginary galaxy. But there are other Lucases. One is the grownup kid who loves wise heroes and fast cars. That Lucas created a terse, looming Jedi knight in the person of Qui-Gon, and orchestrated a spectacular, turbo-thrust drag race through sculpted desert rock that consumes 12 minutes and most of the audience's adrenaline supply.

There is also the Lucas who wants to dazzle filmgoers with his luxurious bestiary. The Gungan klutz Jar Jar Binks, who talks (sometimes unintelligibly) like a Muppet Peter Lorre and walks as if he had Slinkys for legs, is more annoying than endearing. But the junk dealer Watto is a little masterpiece of design: cinnamon stubble on his corrugated face, chipped rocks for teeth, the raspy voice of Brando's Godfather speaking Turkish, hummingbird wings that give him the aspect of a potbellied helicopter. He, Jar Jar and the other computer-generated critters are seamlessly integrated into live action--a superb technological achievement for Lucas' team.

One suspects that Lucas was more interested in the aliens than the humans, and in the art direction than the direction of actors. The vistas of the imperial city Coruscant and the Gungan sea kingdom have a suave rapture; but some of the dialogue scenes are way too starchy, as if the actors had been left to their own resources while George minded the computerized menagerie. (The line readings of Portman and Lloyd are often flat, or flat-out wrong.) Neeson gives Qui-Gon a flinty dignity; Pernilla August, her weathered face streaked with love and foreboding, brings heft to the small role of Anakin's mother; and Ian McDiarmid is all oily ingratiation as Senator Palpatine. Ah, Palpatine: his name could be a hill of Rome, or a palpitating volcano--one that we know will explode in later episodes as he devolves into the dark Emperor.

We know so much in this first chapter--and not because of the prerelease hype. We know that plucky Anakin will grow up to be Darth Vader, so the crepe of Fate hangs over his ascendancy. We are meant to root for the boy when he finds himself in a plane cockpit during the climactic battle (he could be a kid sneaking a drive in his dad's Lamborghini), yet we know that the budding hero will later be a super-villain, as if Aladdin were to grow up to be Jafar.

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