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Friday, July 9, 1999

The spirit is willing, but the Force is weak

A long time ago in a decade far, far away -- the '70s -- there was just another movie called "Star Wars." In the weeks prior to its release, the prognosis was poor for this piece of recycled space opera, but it opened to wild enthusiasm and went on to become a megahit beyond belief.

It's easy to see why: Nobody had ever seen anything like it. Never had a science-fiction film (with the exception of the far more cerebral "2001: A Space Odyssey") achieved such technical excellence in its special effects, and, accordingly, such a powerful suspension of disbelief among viewers. Audiences love to be amazed by film, and George Lucas and "Star Wars" took it to the next level.

Now, some 22 years later, such special effects extravaganzas are all too routine, with dinosaur stompings and asteroid impacts gracing our screens every few months. SFX-overkill has become the dominant model for Hollywood filmmaking, and we're all getting a bit too accustomed to seeing the impossible rendered cleanly and convincingly. So the question is, as "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace" opens, can Lucas work his magic again? Can he one-up everything else out there?

The answer: almost, but not quite. And as we all know, "almost" is fine with hand-grenades, but not with the most anticipated, hyped and talked-about film of the decade.

I feel rather like Cassandra at this point, knowing that no one wants to believe this film will be anything less than magical. Truth be told, I didn't want to believe the bad reviews in the U.S. media either, and having seen it, it's not nearly as dire as they made it out to be. But it is underwhelming.

Set a generation before the events of the original "Star Wars" (now known as "Episode IV"), "The Phantom Menace" begins as the Galactic Republic is unraveling. The nefarious Trade Federation and their army of battle droids have designs on the planet Naboo, ruled by Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman), and the Republic has sent a pair of Jedi Knights, Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his disciple, a young Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), to sort out the situation.

Treachery soon leads to lots of flashing light sabers, as the Jedis, with the help of a Naboo native, Jar-Jar Binks (Ahmed Best), rescue Queen Amidala and slip through the Trade Federation's blockade, thanks to some timely damage control by a little robot named R2D2. Their ship lands on the remote planet of Tatooine for repairs, where the Jedi encounter a young slave boy with a penchant for high-speed "pod racing" named Anakin Skywalker. Qui-Gon senses that he is in touch with the force. Meanwhile, the mysterious Sith master, a dark Jedi, has sent his black-cowled apprentice Darth Maul (Ray Park) to terminate the Queen.

Just like the Force, "The Phantom Menace" has two sides: Visually, there is nothing like it. Just looking at it, slack-jawed, you could think this is the greatest film ever. Lucas and crew (especially costume designer Trisha Biggar and design director Doug Chiang) are great at atmosphere and detail, immersing us in the gleaming towers of the city-planet Coruscant, the luminescent bubblelike underwater city of the Gunga, the Babylonian palaces of Naboo, or a careening pod racer in the arid canyons of Tattooine. Some of the set pieces, like the battle between the low-tech Gungas and a gleaming phalanx of synchronized droids, or the revved-up, Hong Kong-style light saber duels, are equally gripping.

But there's a dark side as well: The film bears almost no emotional impact whatsoever. Lucas claims to be aiming for a mature synthesis of fantasy, myth and metaphor that would rival the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, but much of the Lucas-scripted dialogue is laughably wretched, as is his direction of the cast, which results in lines being read with all the passion of cheap computerized speech software, with Natalie Portman and Jake Lloyd being the worst offenders.

Lloyd, in particular, is regrettably cherubic and spunky, in that fake kid-actor sort of way. One doesn't expect the future Lord Vader to be whining "But Mom, you always say the biggest problem in the universe is that nobody helps each other!" Shouldn't he be torturing droids or something?

Given the wooden performacnes, this would have made a great silent movie. As is, the film just isn't enough fun. All the humor has been left to the new alien sidekick (replacing Chewbacca), Jar-Jar Binks, whose reptilian Rastafarian accent is nearly unintelligible at times. One longs for the sly grin of Harrison Ford, who could actually turn a joke, or the sparks that flew between Ford and co-star Carrie Fisher.

Finally, there's an inescapable feeling of deja vu, whether it's Anakin Skywalker and R2D2 piloting a lone fighter against the enemy dreadnought, or the climactic light saber duel between the Jedi and the Sith. But just as Darth Maul is no Darth Vader, "The Phantom Menace" is no "Star Wars," and the film remixes past glories instead of creating new ones. For fans of the series (and I count myself as one), there's no way you want to miss this, but don't expect it to top any of the previous three installments ("Star Wars," "The Empire Strikes Back" and "Return of the Jedi"). To be optimistic, it's worth remembering that Lucas couldn't give it all away in what is, after all, the first of a six-film series -- the peaks should come later.

For both fans and haters of SFX-laden space-opera, there's much to enjoy in "Dark Star," a maniacally funny sci-fi parody from 1973 that's getting a timely revival. Directed on a $60,000 budget by a young, pre-"Halloween" John Carpenter, and scripted by Dan O'Bannon (writer of "Alien"), "Dark Star" is a wonderful piss-take that sends up genre cliches from "Star Trek" to "2001" and "Alien." (Indeed, many of "Alien's" tropes can be spotted here, especially in the film's grungy, blue-collar approach to life on a starship.)

The spaced-out computer-geek crew of the starship Dark Star cruise the universe looking for unstable planets . . . and blowing them up. They have to deal with a cryogenically frozen commander, an alien that runs amok on the ship (and looks like a beach ball with duck feet), mind-numbing boredom and a distressing lack of toilet paper.

Well worth seeing for a priceless scene in which the crew attempt to talk a smart bomb out of detonating in the bomb bay: They take a Descartesian tack and try to convince the bomb that it doesn't exist. "Dark Star" is full of such absurdist philosophical humor, and always manages to stoop to the cheap laughs as well. A minor classic.

"Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace" starts tomorrow at Shibuto Cine Tower and other theaters. "Dark Star" opens tomorrow at Box Higashi-Nakano.

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