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'Phantom' blasts on screen and what a ride!

di Bob Strauss

     Daily News Film Critic Bob Strauss attended the first press screening of "Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace" on Friday night in New York. The movie opens nationwide May 19.

     NEW YORK -- The prequel has landed.
     "Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace," George Lucas' madly anticipated follow-up to his epic "Star Wars" movie trilogy, was finally shown over the weekend to film critics, exhibitors and other anointed souls who congregated in Gotham. It hits theaters nationwide May 19.
     All in all, "Phantom Menace" is pretty good. Outstanding in many parts -- once it gets rolling.
     When you get past the setup, the rest is intoxicating.
     It's Lucas' first directing effort since the original "Star Wars" film, which changed the movie dreamscape forever 22 years ago.
     It's got nearly 2,000 digital special effects shots. That's by far the most ever seen in one film -- four times the number that "Titanic" had.
     It also takes us to dazzling new worlds teeming with outlandish alien creatures.
     There are even some fine actors along for the ride.
     Lucas' strengths as a filmmaker and mythmaker have been nothing but enhanced by the advances in computer graphics technology that his own company, Industrial Light and Magic, has been at the forefront of developing for the past decade.
     His genius for visual grandeur and kinetic excitement has never been realized with the photo-realistic detail seen here.
     It's safe to say that "Phantom Menace" presents the most elaborate, thoroughly integrated fantasy universe ever put on film.
     You could watch it without sound and still be enthralled.
     More enthralled in some stretches, since Lucas' main deficiency as a writer and director -- which can be summed up as a tin ear for dialogue and its delivery -- apparently can't be improved upon by high-tech wizardry.
     And because the early parts of "Phantom Menace" are the talkier ones, they're by nature the least satisfying.
     Although there's action from the get-go -- one short, early monster bit is wittier and scarier than all of last year's "Godzilla" remake -- the film's first 45 minutes are mainly devoted to extensive exposition and introductions. There's probably not too many ways around that, though it would have helped if the human characters displayed more personality than the sets.
     But wait.
     Set three or so decades before the first "Star Wars," "Phantom Menace" is mainly concerned with the decay of a democratic but ineffectual galactic republic and the origins of the boy who will become Darth Vader, both key factors in the forthcoming rise of the evil Empire. A plot summary follows, so stop reading now if you don't want to know that happens.
     A masterful if somewhat unorthodox Jedi knight, Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson), and his eager young apprentice, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor, not even trying to sound like Alec Guinness), are dispatched to settle a dispute between the greedy, militaristic Trade Federation and the teen-age Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) of the Edenlike planet Naboo.
     The monkish warriors, practitioners of the good part of that cosmic spiritual essence called the Force, are almost immediately attacked by the federation's skeletal, birdlike robot soldiers. They barely escape with the deposed queen to the outlaw desert planet of Tatooine.
     You'll recall that that's where we first encountered the hero of the original trilogy, Luke Skywalker. This time, while hunting for spare parts to repair their damaged spaceship, Qui-Gon encounters 9-year-old Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd, whom you may have seen playing Arnold Schwarzenegger's kid in "Jingle All the Way"). Though a slave to a kind of flying blue cross between a mosquito and a vulture named Watto, young Anakin possesses a mechanical genius (he's already built a humorously see-through prototype version of the fussy droid C-3PO) and an attunement to the Force that, by Qui-Gon's reckoning, is off the charts.
     Young Anakin proves his mettle -- and kicks the movie into high gear -- when he enters an all-or-nothing pod race that could earn him his freedom or a ghastly early death.
This long, grippingly intense sequence is worth the price of a ticket alone.
     The pod racers are rickety constructs of twin jet engines connected to small, exceedingly vulnerable driving modules. The race itself, several laps around the rocky, barren Tatooine landscape, is like the "Ben Hur" chariot sequence in anti-gravity overdrive.
     It's a senses-shattering suite of speed and sound (forget what was said about watching in silence earlier; Ben Burtt, Lucas' quadruple Oscar-winning sound designer, does the best work of his career here) that elevates the movie, and the movies, to a new level.
     From this point on, "Phantom Menace" crisply careens from one awesome spectacle to another.
     There's a visit to Coruscant, a planet entirely covered by a city. There's plenty of fancy spacecraft jockeying. A younger, greener Yoda, still puppeted and voiced by the incomparable Frank Oz, makes a welcome appearance. And there's the inevitable fight to regain the Italianate ice cream castles of Naboo, which incorporates battle elements from all the previous films and finds ways to top most of them.
     Of the key new characters, the computer-generated, comically klutzy amphibian creature Jar Jar Binks is, as many feared, initially annoying.
     But the floppy-eared goon grows more tolerable as the film goes along, something which could not be said about Ewoks. And the way he interacts so intimately with Qui-Gon, Anakin and the gang is never short of astounding.
     As for main villain Darth Maul, the demonic practitioner of the dark side of the Force is portrayed with great gymnastic vigor, if not exactly deep resonance, by martial arts stunt master Ray Park. Neither are likely to threaten Han Solo's position at the top of the "Star Wars" character canon. But it would be wrong to leave anyone with the impression that Lucas hasn't written anything as interesting as what he shows us here.
     "Phantom Menace," by turns more serious and more childlike than the earlier trilogy, truly seems to express the whole mythos from young Anakin's point of view. This is not wrong; not only is "Star Wars" the ultimate boy's adventure of our era, the whole saga is clearly now about Anakin's troubling evolution, and it is only fitting that we start out on that path in his hopeful, wonder-driven shoes.
     Beyond that, Lucas refines the scope of his mythic theme here, moving from archetypal heroic elements to more specifically Judeo-Christian ideas about the struggle between good and evil.
     He even lays the ground for a pretty sophisticated political allegory -- and a sadly relevant one. Debate in the Galactic Senate over the Naboo situation sounds presciently similar to current discussions of the Kosovo crisis.
     There is, then, great storytelling in "Phantom Menace."
     Lucas just expresses it better with pictures than words.
     And this movie has some of the greatest pictures ever whipped up in cyberspace or on celluloid, which is certainly fitting for the millennial chapter of the movie century's most popular fantasy.

     Apparso sul Los Angeles Daily News 16 maggio 1999

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