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Tom Brook Wednesday, 19 May, 1999, 08:16 GMT 09:16 UK
Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Plot
The Phantom menace lacks the human touch
By BBC News Online's Entertainment Correspondent Tom Brook

The production design is sumptuous, the creatures are spectacular, and the special effects are truly impressive, but the story that is told in Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace is very, very thin.

Star Wars
The tale that unfolds is basically a preface, and it seems to me that George Lucas didn't quite know how to handle it.

The film provides the background to Anakin Skywalker who, as every Star Wars fan knows, turns to the Dark Side to become Darth Vader. This should have been the central dramatic thrust of the film but it wasn't.

Anakin Skywalker: The all-American kid
Instead we are treated to an irrelevant story in which all attention is focussed on an evil federation invading the peaceful planet of Naboo and the galactic battles that follow. We will have to wait until Episode 2, maybe even Episode 3, to learn Darth Vader's story. That is a pity because I felt cheated.

There are no characters that add a human dynamic like Star Wars stalwarts like Princess Leia and Han Solo did in the first three films. It tries to rely on star power like Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor, who appear as Jedi warriors in the new picture.

Liam Neeson: "Dour and unappealing" role
Neeson does an admirable job, but his character is rather dour and unappealing. McGregor, who is a good actor, has so little to do in Menace that I can understand why he found making the movie boring. Anakin Skywalker is played by Jake Lloyd, who looks and performs like a vapid sweet all-American kid.

I quite liked Natalie Portman who plays Amidala, the teenage queen of Naboo, not because of her acting, but because her demeanour and manner were so strange.

The acting in this film is flat. Partly it's the lines, but much of the dialogue seemed unrehearsed.

It is perhaps a reflection of the film's sterility that the only real applause (at least at the screening I attended) comes when a robot, the beloved R2-D2, appears on the screen. In fact, the machines, especially the new ones, get much higher marks than the humans, and that goes for all the new droids and weird animal-like creatures which populate the set.

The attention to detail has been painstaking, and these creations are fascinating to watch, but I felt that George Lucas had brought all this about at the expense of neglecting the actors.

There's a new addition to the cast with a silly character called Jar Jar Binks who hooks up with the Jedi warriors much too early in the film, and he definitely outstays his welcome. Jar Jar is computer-generated and seems like a goofy character from a Disney movie deliberately playing for laughs.

Bad-guy Darth Maul in toy form
Some of the Star Wars fans have told me that he's "uncool" because humour in the old films was much more subtle. Then there's Darth Maul, who I suppose is a substitute for Darth Vader. Maul isn't quite so formidable, but he is a pretty good performer with his lightsaber.

To my mind the imperfections in the film are made tolerable by the breathtaking production design. I haven't seen such ravishing panoramic vistas so well reproduced.

Naboo looked so inviting I want to vacation there. The film also takes us to a beautiful imaginative underwater world, and a metropolis that thrilled every bit as much as the Manhattan skyline.

Unfortunately, we didn't linger long enough in any of these places to savour the artistry, because we were yanked away to some awkward scene in a plot we didn't really care about.

The machines are the real stars
For action-adventure fans the high point in the film comes with a gigantic pod race.

It's rather like a drag car race in which contestants are situated in pods pulled by high-powered jet engines, which travel through canyons at high speeds at extremely low altitudes.

With Anakin Skywalker controlling one of the pods it was a moment when some of the old Star Wars magic resurfaces, but not, I'm afraid, sufficiently to keep cynicism at bay.

Whenever a new creature or contraption emerged my thoughts turned to commerce and I began to think of how all these items are populating toy stores, and will no doubt be doing so for years to come.

Make no mistake, the Phantom Menace is one gigantic merchandising product. It is also a brilliantly produced film, and one that seems to be targeting a young audience. Star Wars fans will of course love this film - it's critic proof. But for the rest of us adults there just isn't a poignant human tale to digest, and that is what I found most distressing.

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13 May 99 | Entertainment
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