George Lucas has been quoted as saying that “actors are still the best way to portray people,” but, in watching his Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, you get the feeling he wishes it wasn’t so – that he could dispense with actors altogether. Ninety-five percent of this film was altered on computer; only about 200 shots were not created digitally. It’s a computer-generated-imagery blowout, and the actors in it are upstaged to a fare-thee-well. Being human has never seemed more humdrum. And maybe this was Lucas’s intention: By making his CGI creatures – his ‘droids and globs and thingamajigs – so much more captivating than his people, he’s striking a blow for the primacy of special effects over human effects. At this point in his career, he may not know, or care about, the difference.
Lucas’s vaunted fascination with the mythic elements of storytelling – his Joseph Campbell side – is an extension of this syndrome. It’s his way of turning the commonplaces of life into something larger: into something superhuman or, more exactly, inhuman. In Lucas’s hands, myth becomes a species of special effects, too. It has also, by this time, played itself out.
The mythological structure in the original Star Wars trilogy was keyed to the fall and redemption of Darth Vader. The Phantom Menace, the first of a projected prequel trilogy, introduces the 9-year-old Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), who will grow up to be Vader. We’re supposed to want to hang in for the next two installments of the prequel (ETA 2002 and 2005), which will dramatize Anakin’s passage to the Dark Side. But will anybody except die-hard Star Warriors really care? Based on what we see here, it doesn’t seem like such an ineffable mystery that this kid will end up a wheezing, intergalactic power-mongering control freak. A slave boy who already fashions himself a Jedi knight, Anakin is a precocious brat – the kind of kid who, in our own galaxy, might commandeer a playground and run everybody else off the jungle gym. If the psychological richness of the Star Wars movies is grounded in Darth Vader’s movement in and out of the light, then it may be high time to create a new myth – i.e., a new franchise.
The other characters in Phantom Menace don’t fare much better. Liam Neeson plays Qui-Gon Jinn, the Jedi Master who first spots Anakin’s techno-wizardry and suspects him of being the Chosen One. Qui-Gon is always sensing a disturbance in The Force. You desperately wish this guy would lighten up; he solemnizes everything, even what appear to be his jokes. If this movie is indeed intended for bright 13-year-old boys – which Lucas, when he’s not invoking Joseph Campbell, seems to imply – then why isn’t Qui-Gon funkier? Any kid will tell you that you learn more from the cutups than from the drones. That’s why Yoda, who shows up here as well, is the true sage of the series. Emanating from his green elfin grin, all that Zen mumbo jumbo about The Force has the bounce of a good limerick.
Lucas doesn’t seem to understand the essence of his stars’ various appeals; he turns them all into icons, which is not my idea of a fun time. Ewan McGregor is the young Obi-Wan Kenobi, apprentice to Qui-Gon, and he does a passable rendition of Alec Guinness’s pinched, ruminative speech rhythms. But he doesn’t have much to do in this installment except stride about with his light saber. He too is overly intense; he’s got Qui-Gon-itis. Natalie Portman, as Queen Amidala of the endangered planet Naboo, is queenly, that’s for sure – she always seems to be issuing curt pronouncements, and she’s required to behave as spunk-free as possible. Other actors you might expect to be more present in the movie – like Samuel L. Jackson, playing a Jedi council member – are given glorified walk-ons. What a wingding it might have been to have Jackson strut his stuff as a Jedi badass.
The strongest impression in the cast comes from chief Dark Side bad guy Darth Maul (Ray Park), who has a furious saber duel with Qui-Gon that’s choreographed like an intergalactic Tae-Bo workout. It’s a sinister piece of calisthenics. (For a good laugh, you might reference Time’s April 26 cover story on the movie, featuring a conversation between Bill Moyers and Lucas on “the true theology” of Star Wars; both guys invoke heavy dudes like Dante and Milton to explain Maul’s scare appeal, while, in another part of the magazine, Iain McCaig, who conceptualized him, cites Bozo the Clown as a chief inspiration.)
As impressive as many of the CGI effects are in Phantom Menace, few of them stay with you; they have the disposability of cartoons but without the carefree flippancy that often comes from the best animation. Even when Lucas hits on a resonant image, such as the underwater city of Naboo, which glows like an aggregation of Art Nouveau chandeliers, he doesn’t stay with it for long; he’s on to the next effect. Not surprisingly, the film’s best set piece is also its most sustained: a pod race featuring Anakin whizzing his jerry-built speedster up and around the canyons of Tatooine in homage to the chariot race from Ben-Hur.
Now that computer-generated effects have become so technically sophisticated, there’s a tendency to overhype their aesthetic value. Lucas creates in Phantom Menace the kind of elaborate epic-movie landscapes that live-action moviemakers for the most part can no longer afford. But ponderous is still ponderous, whether it’s for real or computer-generated. What hasn’t yet been solved by Lucas is how to make all this cyber stuff resonate emotionally. Creating a so-called modern legend, droning on about The Force and all the rest of it, is no substitute for the full engagement of our senses. And isn’t that what a film like Phantom Menace should provide? The second Star Wars film, The Empire Strikes Back, directed by Irvin Kershner, was the sole exception to this: Its lush, doomful compositions and its primal conflict between Luke and Darth Vader had a real pop majesty. In our movies, we don’t just want the beauty of technological effects; we want the beauty of emotion that can come out of those effects. Certainly The Phantom Menace is a pop cultural event, but it’s not a movie event that really matters for me. It’s the work of a visionary all right – a visionary capitalist. It doesn’t take much to start a religion these days.