“The ‘Phantom’ Sickness” by Scott Mantz

“Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace”
Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman
Directed by George Lucas

I know its a little late in the game for a review of this film. After all, its been out for more than 2 months, and its already the 3rd highest grossing film of all time (behind “Titanic” and “Star Wars”). However, some things take time to sink in. Sometimes, the greatest reviews for a film are written not immediately after a screening, but down the line after you’ve had a chance to absorb what you’ve seen and look at it objectively.

Yes, I was in the line that fateful day in May for a midnight screening with tons of other Trekkies, er, I mean, Jedi’s. Lets face it. I was 8 years old when I saw “Star Wars” for the first time, and even that was by default. Actually, I had gone in to see “Rollercoaster in Sensurround” with my mom, but I was so scared that she dropped me off on my father’s lap, who had gone in to see “Wars”. I can’t say it was the mind-blowing experience it was for my peers (Hey! I was only 8!), but by the time “The Empire Strikes Back” came out in 1980 (and I was the worldly age of 11), I was hooked. Mature, dark, and full of suspense, “Empire” remains one of my top 5 favorite films of all time. Then came “Return of the Jedi” in 1983. At the time I loved it, but now its pretty much regarded as the weakest, and most juvenile (Ewoks–ugh!), of the trilogy.

No matter what, it is a fact that Star Wars is imbedded in popular culture. What would the world be like without references to “May the force be with you” and “Luke, I am your father”? More importantly, I grew up with these characters. Princess Lea may have been a strong female role, and Han Solo may have been the ultimate space cowboy, but I wanted to be just like Luke Skywalker. Then I got older, and I realized that Han Solo was much cooler.

Every once in a while I’d watch the trilogy on video, but that was nothing compared to re-release of “Star Wars” to theaters in 1997. I can’t remember what 1977 was like (did I mention I was only 8?), but it must have felt like this. I was even more excited when “Empire” came out 4 weeks later. (I didn’t even bother to see “Jedi”–sorry).

When word got out a few years ago that George Lucas was once again going to take us to a galaxy far, far away for a trilogy of prequels, I was skeptical. I mean, some things are better left alone, and how do you top the original trilogy? Lucas promised incredible special effects–the kind that he could never have dreamed of the first time around. He was also going to tell us how Darth Vader came to be and how the Empire reared its ugly head over the galaxy. How could you not get excited about that?

As time got closer and I saw pictures of the film, I started to get excited. To be brutally honest, I’ve always been more of a “Star Trek” fan (the Original Series, of course!) than a “Star Wars” fan, but this was something very special. It was the talk of the town. Secrecy about the story only fueled rumors, and interest was building to a fever pitch. Finally, almost 22 years to the day of the first “Star Wars” film, “The Phantom Menace” opened. The wait was over. This was going to be an experience that a new generation would call its own and an old generation would share with them.

And to this I have to say, “Et tu? George?”

Before I go any further, I have to say that beyond any natural expectations (after all, this is a “Star Wars” movie!), I was not being unrealistic. This was not a story I knew, and these certainly weren’t the characters I grew up with. In fact, this was so different, it almost wasn’t even a “Star Wars” movie.

You would have thought that after all the attention “Jedi” got for its immaturity, Lucas would have listened and made “Menace” more appealing to adults. Instead we got a 2 hour toy commercial. We got potty humor. We got one of the most annoying characters in motion picture history.

The special effects may have been great, but after the succession of “Terminator 2”, “Jurassic Park”, and “Titanic”, you expect them to be great. We’re so jaded by effects that nothing will have the same impact that the first movie had. This says nothing of the fact that George Lucas hasn’t even directed a movie in over 20 years.

George Lucas, Terrence Malick, and Stanley Kubrick are among the greatest directors of the 1970’s. What a year this has been when all three have new movies out. Malick and Kubrick, the reclusive geniuses that they are, didn’t compromise their visions when they peeked their beaks out of their nests and decided it was time again to spread their wings. The only problem is that their films seem a little out of place. People didn’t really get “The Thin Red Line” or “Eyes Wide Shut”. That’s not to say that they’re not good films. As a matter of fact, they’re both poetic works of art and should be heralded as the last of the great 70’s films. However, this is the 90’s, and people have short attention spans.

I thought that time would give me a new perspective on “The Phantom Menace”. It hasn’t. Well, who am I to judge? As of this writing, “Red Line” and “Eyes” are struggling to break even, while “Menace” has grossed more than $400 million in the US alone. As an artist, Lucas is lacking, but as a businessman he knows his stuff. Lucas has promised that he will direct “Episode 2”, and that it will be a love story. Maybe he’ll grow up and appeal to us adults. Well, he also promised that Jar Jar Binks will be back. So much for growing up.