THE FACT THAT GEORGE LUCAS AND HIS NEW FILM have received as much press in the past two weeks as the war in Kosovo is a lewd reminder of our tendency toward nationalistic daydreaming. The war we are currently waging on an impoverished land the size of Massachusetts is as remote and simplistic as the tale of a Nazi-like Federation trying to squash an Edenic, democratic Kingdom "a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away."

In their reckless pursuit of box-office gold, Lucas and our friends at 20th Century Fox have purchased the media wholesale, ably demonstrating the weakness of national policy in the face of the Hollywood marketing machine. We may be slaughtering civilians, but as long as we're winning, why not sit back and read about grown men play-fighting in a false world? The fact is, Star Wars: Episode I--The Phantom Menace is a foregone conclusion. You will see it, and you will enjoy it. Any question of its quality is a waste of time. Your complicity in furthering its mission--to sink the financial primacy of Titanic--must be absolute.

Still, it must be said that The Phantom Menace is heavily flawed. Lucas' fourth feature as a director lacks some of the mystique that made the first three enchanting. That aura is taken for granted here; it's more implied than real. For most viewers, Star Wars is already well established, a fact too well understood by Lucas, enabling him to merely go through the dramatic motions. The threadbare plot involves a trade dispute between the emperor-controlled "alliance" and the peaceful, enlightened people of Naboo. The Jedi appear, Kofi Annan-like, to negotiate a settlement, but alas, it cannot be. And so the "drama" begins: the race to flee the planet; the ship's crash landing on Tattooine; the mystery boy who joins the mission; the simmering Oedipal setup as the boy leaves his mother and discovers, in her stead, Natalie Portman; the inevitable 11th-hour solution to all problems. The elements of the plot may represent an attempt at a hyperbolic rendition of contemporary issues (are the Naboo a shorthand for the Zapatistas versus NAFTA?), but the promise is unfulfilled. Lucas avoids politics, and proceeds with almost no story at all. Why bother?

There are moments in The Phantom Menace when Lucas actually threatens us with competent direction. The pod race--the obvious centerpiece of the film--is an impressive architecture of montage and design. The "pod" is a purely Lucas invention: a futuristic alcohol funnycar, with tremendous engines and a knack for the old whiz-bang. One remembers with a slight nostalgia Lucas' dalliance with hot rods in American Graffiti. We are no older here: it's still fun and games with turbo-charged engines. But to his credit, he directs the action very well. Moreover, this is a rare instance where he uses digital technology with admirable finesse. The crowds, the stadium, and the landscape may all be digitally enhanced, but they remain ephemeral; it's the composition and editing, and Lucas' flair for rhythm, that make the scene work. It is not just the action, but the execution of the action; what master critic Andrew Sarris (an obvious Genius) would call "the How versus the What." It is a genuine five minutes, perhaps the only genuine moment in the film, and it's leagues above the dilettantish, de rigueur action sequences of The Fifth Element or The Matrix.

But these are Pyrrhic victories. Lucas' other obsessions--with technology, with money, with salability and easy-access--too often overwhelm his abilities as a director. Too many tie-ins clutter the film: the robots are needlessly slick; the child is cloying and largely superfluous; the queen is well-costumed but vacant. While the sword fights are magnificent, they are draining; one less would be much more. Most glaringly, Lucas' determination, above all reason, to further the craft of computer graphics ultimately detracts from the film.

Take Jar Jar Binks, aquatic and wholly digital lizard man, who exists ostensibly for comic and child appeal, though the more obvious motivations are merchandising and a mandate to technological innovation. In his conception of the character, Lucas wanted to show it was possible to have a digital character fully incorporated into a (mostly) human drama without looking false. He succeeds, but at great cost. Jar Jar is just one of the principals, but the attention he commands is almost completely negative. He stumbles around in his bell-bottoms, speaking a near-indecipherable pseudo-Caribbean tongue, casually and simplistically parlaying idiocy into heroism.

Lucas previously flirted with this type of silliness with the Ewoks and their Gilligan's Island brand of ingenuity. Indeed, all three previous pictures are full of ham and camp, but Jar Jar represents a new level of disturbance. His comedy is grating; his relevance is nonexistent. Moreover, the explicit racism with which he is conceived--bumbling, Disneyish, lisping Rastafarianism cast as colonized cuteness--is spooky. He's remarkably similar to Chris Tucker's reporter in The Fifth Element, and equally detestable. In fact, Jar Jar is so ill-conceived and so distracting that, in 20 years, Lucas would be wise to set about the making of the definitive edition Phantom Menace by removing him completely. It's as though Lucas himself has been seduced by the Dark Side of CGI effects and the promise of digital filmmaking. Indeed, the young Darth Vader is merely a surrogate for Lucas the Director: a natural with great promise, somehow given to the evil, inorganic pleasures and manipulations of power and money for their sake alone.

But who cares? You will see the film. You are up against too much to avoid it. After all, it takes a nation in revolution to defy Industry, and there can be no doubt that Star Wars: Episode I--The Phantom Menace is an industrial product. As long as we're winning the war, why bother to revolt? If there is a phantom menace, it is the specter of you not seeing the film. So pull yourself away from the TV news and pony up your seven bucks. Why not?

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