AT THE END OF THE CREDITS TO STAR WARS Episode I: The Phantom Menace, there's an 800 number to call if you experienced anything that detracted from your enjoyment of the film. Well, yeah, operator, I did notice a few things. The story. The characters. The acting. The Barney-in-the-bafwoom attempts at humor. The cutekins-cuddlypie perception of non-humanoid life. And the gallon of Coke some damn brat spilled under my chair.
All that doesn't mean Menace isn't a hell of a lot of fun. It just means I'm not 5 years old. Maybe 10, though. I mean, even though no Star Wars film is in my personal Top 100, I've seen each one three times minimum — so what does that tell you? That I'm likely to overlook the warts in light of what every Star Wars film delivers, and this one most of all: spectacular, pulse-racing zooms and whams, and lots of genuinely imaginative, beautiful stuff to look at.
I warn you, I'm gonna continue whining about the movie. Just keep in mind that I liked it.
The story. Long ago, see, out among the, uh, stars, there were . . . wars of some kind. It's not too clear exactly what Menace's particular war is about, except there are good guys, and very bad guys who inexplicably display no swastikas on their lapels, and wishy-washy politicians distracted from their jobs by irrelevant personal attacks, and there's taxation without representation, and there may be tea involved, I'm not sure.
None of this matters: As with most '90s studio moviemaking, the story isn't the point. One point is to initiate us yet further into the mystery of the Star Wars Mythophilosophy, a parboiled stew encompassing ingredients plucked from L. Ron Hubbard, the New Testament, Frederick Douglass, Parnelli Jones and Richard Simmons. You know, “Be mindful of the future, but not at the expense of the present,” stuff like that.
More important, there's the main point: the rule of the bit. Now, a filmmaker has a story, and he also has bits of business. Think of the story as a cardboard grid, the kind you find dividing up a box of Xmas ornaments, which are the bits. George Lucas and his friends have spent years dreaming up hundreds of ingenious special-effects-laden bits: Long-tongued Jamaican Duckman swipes dead frog; gigantic bizarre fish is swallowed by even more gigantic bizarre fish; exotic chariots, I mean rocket buggies, race to the death.
When the fearsome hour of editing arrives, the guys and gals with the scissors discover they've got 408 minutes of bits and, though they've made the cardboard as thin as they can, a full 12 minutes of story. Regrettably, some of the bits and most of the story must drift to the cutting-room floor. The chosen bits, often unwieldy and unrelated but too expensive to discard, are artfully strewn atop the remainder of the story cubicles while George stuffs his feet into his heaviest pair of lumberjack boots, then stomps repeatedly upon the grid until all the sturdy bits are squeezed snugly in place. Voilà — a movie.
The characters. Even more than in the other Wars, you might see Menace's human roles in terms of Halloween costumes. As holiday vendables, previous Star Wars characters Han Solo and Princess Leia held their own with the scary Darth Vader because they offered a speck of lust, arrogance and vivacity. In Menace, though, all lightsiders are strictly vacuum bags. And black shows less dirt — this Hallows' Eve, expect more kids to dress as glaring darksiders than as the china-doll planet queen or the virtuous Jedi.
As for the animatronic critters: Don't let your progeny crawl into trick-or-treat garb derived from a Duckman, an Evil Emissary, etc. Those characters possess such winsome chin-chuckability that no jury would convict a normal adult for twisting their rubber heads off. Buy a sheet, save a life.
The human performances. Liam Neeson is a good actor. Not good enough, though, to conceal his boredom with a role in which his sole responsibility is to march around determinedly with head aloft, and where he's denied even the chance to slip a hot babe some tongue. The camera occasionally catches Ewan McGregor, as Neeson's apprentice, plainly telegraphing the worry that he might have allowed some part of his face to move. And the kid players, though adorable, perform wretchedly enough to engender suspicions of casting-room nepotism. Nobody's to blame: Imagine the whole troupe's despair upon realizing they've been hired as straight men to a crowd of animatronic Jerry Lewises. For future projects, why not computerize everybody?
The humor. Is stepping in shit your idea of boffo? Then have a hearse waiting outside, 'cause you're gonna die laughing.
The good stuff. I told you before that I liked the movie, so there must have been some highlights, right? Ooooh, yeah.
My God, the beauty of it. Menace is shot in a rich, low-wattage color — not glossy, just a touch of grain; you'll want to lick the schmutz right off the robot's head. The multidomed city is an ancient revelation. The senate interior is a study in clean, infinite repetition. The underwater shots slither powerfully. The spacecraft are fantastic enough to have been designed by actual little kids. The costumes — the futuro-Elizabethan-Chinese creation that encases Natalie Portman, for instance — are glorious studies in contrast.
And the action. This is unquestionably the fastest, deftest film ever made, with ships and shots whipping by at a neck-breaking pace across inspired backgrounds of baroque desert or exploding hardware. Huge armies of slender metal droids roused to simultaneous reveille are just real. In masterful pirouette, the Jedi Knights battle through the Wars series' most intense, athletic and protracted choreography.
And the animation. Little as I could stand the alien bio-things, whose goofiness hamstrings any dignity the film might have salvaged, I can't deny that I rarely thought of them as anything but actual presences interacting in the frame. The tech absolutely rules. At long last, audience imagination has been rendered superfluous.
The weird stuff. Concerns for minimum character development and continuity aren't the only victims of Lucas' progress. I used to enjoy the way the Star Wars series portrayed machines as slaves, worthy of our sympathy: “We seem to be made to suffer,” says C-3PO in the 1977 inaugural film, and then a bartender refuses to serve “their kind.” Menace, though, uses droids mainly for target practice, destroying them to avoid showing scenes of messy human carnage. No tears are shed over their rattling fall, though they display more humanity than their fleshly masters.
Where previous episodes' protagonists strove to defeat evil, the goal here is “balance.” I'll always remember what a friend once told me about balance: There's no such thing; if you're not pushing forward, you're sliding back. The film's message: Compromise — the alternative to dishwater moderation is Hitler.
And finally, in a movie that's going to be this influential, there are a few lines that made me stop and blink.
A mother, waving goodbye to her talented but heartless son: “Don't look back.”
Yoda, ostensibly focusing on each day's opportunities, but really voicing our greatest fear: “Nothing happens by accident.”
Neeson as the Jedi, ostensibly guiding his pupil to use his instincts but really speaking for every capitalist marketeer: “Feel, don't think.”
Got it. Wish you'd told me earlier. Sorry, big brother. Next time, okay?
STAR WARS EPISODE I: The Phantom Menace Written and directed by GEORGE LUCAS
Produced by RICK McCALLUM | Released by Twentieth Century Fox | Citywide