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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To get in, you needed a ticket, more precious than a passport out of Kosovo, and a fluorescent handstamp with the 20th Century Fox logo. Security guards, as imposing as the Fruit of Islam, eyed you through four separate checkpoints. Inside the theater, an official requested that audience members turn in anyone who might be camcording the event. George Lucas' Star Wars films may celebrate the spirit of communal rebellion, but the first critics' screening of Episode 1: The Phantom Menace in New York City last week had a sulfurous scent of the Empire about it.

Precautions may be indulged for the most avidly awaited, assiduously hyped film since Gone With the Wind. But they may also boomerang, by setting up expectations that few films could satisfy. That too was evident at the screening. Robust cheers greeted the first words of the sacred text ("A long time ago...") and the blast of John Williams' brass as the title Star Wars appeared. Later there was mild applause at Yoda's arrival. By then the impulse to ecstasy had been diluted into rote nostalgia. For whatever reason, the audience was quieter at the end than at the beginning.

All right. We know that critics aren't human. And those rabid fans who sneaked into screenings last week, then peppered the Internet with their indifference, are not Kevin and Katelyn Moviegoer. But the early murmur of unrest dented The Phantom Menace's doctrine of infallibility. Recall that last year's highly hyped, sure-hit fantasy adventure--Godzilla--was out-grossed at the North American box office by such modestly budgeted frippery as There's Something About Mary, The Waterboy and Rush Hour.

Somewhere beyond the critics' dispassion and the cultists' disappointment lies the likely response of the multiplex masses when the film opens May 19. As one woman said upon leaving the screening, "What do you want for $9?" What you get in The Phantom Menace is a panoramic entertainment with several terrific set pieces of action, stalwart acting from the Brits (and some very raw work by the kids), a precise, luscious visual design, a multilevel climactic battle and a funeral pyre that echo Return of the Jedi, and a triumphal coda from the first Star Wars film (1977). All that, and a lot of talk.

The plot is familiar to anyone with access to a computer or magazine. Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), hoping to settle a dispute between the flabby Republic and an insurgent Trade Federation, find Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) on the planet Naboo. Diverted to Tatooine, they meet the boy Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), who has a mysterious force--perhaps the Force. They amass for a fierce face-off against battle droids and the malefic Darth Maul (Ray Park).

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