All Droid Up


There’s a rough justice in the way the 24-hour news cycle devours its own. Bill Clinton was the first American president to enjoy a preinaugural “honeymoon”—the day he took office his poll numbers were already falling. If spouse Hillary’s Senate campaign has faded from overexposure even before it could be declared, the same is true for George Lucas’s Star Wars prequel.

Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace may be the first movie to peak before its opening. Last year’s Godzilla was dead on arrival, but The Phantom Menace—which (finally!) has its premiere today—has enjoyed a six-month run in the media. Hence, the movie requires scarcely more than six minutes to wear thin. There is nothing in this noisy, overdesigned bore to equal the excitement generated by the mere idea of the trailer. Indeed, days before The Phantom Menace‘s high-security press junket, fans who penetrated a top-secret distributor’s screening were venting their disappointment over the Net. By junket time, the backlash was evident. Several local and national periodicals broke the cardinal rule of studio PR and jumped the opening by 10 days to pan the most anticipated movie in living memory.

This, of course, scarcely matters. However anticlimactic, The Phantom Menace is not only critic-proof but audience-resistant as well. The movie has already made its money back 10 times over through Pepsi’s just launched merchandising blitz alone, and thanks to Lucas’s pressure on theatrical exhibitors to guarantee lengthy exclusive runs (and the decision by rival distributors to cede him the rest of the spring), it would take the consumer equivalent of the Russian Revolution to keep The Phantom Menace from ruling the box office for weeks.

What else is new? In essence, The Phantom Menace remakes Star Wars with more elaborate effects, greater childishness, and weaker characters. The evil Darth Vader is here an innocent nine-year-old towhead named Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), while the absence of a Han Solo antihero further diminishes the humanity quotient. From the moment a pair of Jedi knights (Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor) do battle with a treacherous gaggle of Trade Federation fish faces, the movie is steeped in déjà vu. If Star Wars was, as Time magazine once raved, a “subliminal history of movies,” The Phantom Menace is a dreary recap of that synopsis. Thus cute li’l R2-D2 saves another spaceship, Jabba the Hutt presides over a drag race through a digital Monument Valley, and Lucas rewards the faithful with the revelation that the future Darth Vader, who we already know fathered Luke Skywalker, was also a precocious mechanical genius who invented the dithering C-3PO.

Yoda puts in a cameo, but the film’s designated alien is Jar Jar Binks, a rabbit-eared ambulatory lizard whose pidgin English degenerates from pseudo-Caribbean patois to Teletubby gurgle. (Although Jar Jar can be construed as grotesquely Third World and the fish faces talk like Fu Manchu, the most blatant ethnic stereotype is the hook-nosed merchant insect who owns young Anakin.) Jar Jar and his fellow Gungans suck the oxygen out of every scene; their human costars seem understandably asphyxiated. In addition to dogged
Neeson (whose presence gives Oskar Schindler a retroactive Jedi glow) and the embarrassed, smirky McGregor, the unhappy-looking cast includes the seemingly dubbed Natalie Portman as the elected queen of Naboo, a walking piece of Japanaiserie; a ridiculously earnest Samuel L. Jackson as an über-Jedi; and Terence Stamp as the galactical pol Lucas has designated the Clinton character. The big tease is the close-up of Portman gazing fondly down at Jake Lloyd. All true Star Woids know that this little kid will father her children, doubtless offscreen—if not between episodes.

Climaxing instead with four simultaneous battles, The Phantom Menace is a war movie that’s all the creepier for making the combat virtually cost-free. The two human Jedis decimate, dismember, and destroy several dozen digital droid armies—but these pesky critters feel no pain. Similarly, little Ani learns the magic of strategic bombing (or is it a video game?), blasting away at largely unseen as well as nonhuman targets. The extended carnage has none of the horror that characterized the digitally produced human-insect struggle of Starship Troopers. The most exciting action is also the most conventional—the Jedis’ leaping light-saber fight with a horned, orange-eyed, camouflage-faced bogeyman could have been choreographed for Errol Flynn.

The Phantom Menace may strike even some kids as excessively cartoon-like, but then, as a director, Lucas remains the greatest exponent of the theme park aesthetic. As each character in The Phantom Menace has been designed with a molded plastic collectible in mind, almost every sequence suggests either Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride or a Fantasyland it would be a pleasure not to visit. The production design is astonishingly crass. If Naboo City is a gussied-up Victorian vision of ancient Rome, the Gungan underwater civilization seems modeled on a Bowery lighting-fixture emporium. Most hideous is the galactic capital—a nauseatingly dense combination of Manhattan and L.A. in which every interior is furnished like a Reno carpet joint and every window reveals a sky in whirlybird gridlock.

Nor is the script much better. Most of the dialogue sounds like silent movie intertitles (“The death toll is catastrophic—we must bow to their wishes”). The rest, mainly intoned by Neeson, seems to have been found in a fortune cookie. “Our meeting was not a coincidence—nothing happens by accident,” he explains to his little protégé. Representative of the Force, Neeson is the resident sage: “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering”—which presumably promotes fear.

Religion may be a presence, but Lucas’s magic kingdom is strikingly sterile. His creatures dwell in a perpetual present, devoid of sexual activity (Anakin, it is strongly hinted, was the product of an immaculate conception), historical consciousness, or even the most debased form of cultural expression (like advertising). Any of these would constitute a dangerous distraction. The Phantom Menace is simply a billboard for itself. Anyone who sees it will be experiencing it for the second time. The hype was not about the movie, the hype was the movie.

The Walter Reade has seized this week to bring back a lesser-known cult film. The Saragossa Manuscript, directed by Wojciech Has from Jan Potocki’s episodic early-19th-century novel, is part Alice in Wonderland, part Arabian Nights. This three-hour Polish superproduction—shot with actual people in sumptuous wide-screen black-and-white—is a convoluted succession of stories-within-
stories-within-stories, with Zbigniew Cybulski (Warsaw’s answer to James Dean) playing a Spanish officer lost in the Sierra Moreno and mixing it up with all manner of hermits, ghosts, gypsies, cabalists, and bandits, not to mention smiling babes with bodice-bursting cleavage.

Has’s comic, macabre extravaganza, in which everything turns out to be an elaborate stage-managed sham, first blew minds at the 1966 San Francisco Film Festival, attracting a New York hippie following six years later with a brief, post–El Topo midnight run at the old Elgin theater. Somewhere along the line, Jerry Garcia signed on as the movie’s biggest booster. It was evidently the print he underwrote that was shown at the 1997 New York Film Festival.

The Saragossa Manuscript is being paired with another rarely screened and highly regarded East European movie, Alexei Guerman’s My Friend Ivan Lapshin—the last great Soviet movie (and the Soviet contribution to the postmodern nostalgia film)—which takes a brilliant and deeply troubling Chekhovia approach to the Great Terror of the mid 1930s.