Is The Force Still A Force? -- Hype Storms Aside, `Phantom Menace' Is Still Just A Movie. Right? So What Do We Want From All This, Anyway?

For the past two years or so, we've been preparing for the arrival of George Lucas' newest "Star Wars" baby, due one minute after midnight tonight. Thanks to some boffo, crowd-pleasing features from print and television press nationwide, "Episode I: The Phantom Menace" has transcended movie status to become a full-blown cultural event.

Whether or not it will prove critic-proof over the long run remains to be seen. "Episode I" has already shown reviewers that it doesn't live up to the hype. Then again, it never could have. Fans seem to know this. So what is it that people really want from this movie? Let's see. . .

-- The Second Coming, Part I. Anakin Skywalker, we hardly knew ye. The last time we gazed upon the fallen Jedi's face, his son Luke was peeling off his hard-candy Darth Vader shell to reveal the soft, redeemed goodness within - just in time for Pops to die. Who knows why that bruised puff-pastry visage enchanted us so? Apparently it did, because here we have Anakin's story, starting with his innocent boyhood. He's the product of a virgin birth. Does that make him an interstellar Jesus? Or is he more like Damien? Given his outcome, Anakin should rival the "Omen" child, although in "Episode I" the boy shows none of the anger that precipitates his undoing. Saint or demon, why should we care? Lesser films have covered an entire three generations of family history in less time, with more grace, using their stars more efficiently. Surely these prequels have another carrot to dangle before us. Maybe something like. . .

-- Escapism. "Star Wars" upped the ante in American filmmaking by taking the notion of fantasy to a totally different level. More to the point, it gave us terrific space battles, lasers and lightsabers. The special effects were amazing. A new, fantastic universe was opened up for us. Never again would audiences be forced to ignore wires, or look beyond the obviously fakey appearance of the vehicles. Though by today's standards, the original "Star Wars' " effects look antiquated, the movie's proven enchanting enough over the years to bring kids and adults back time and again. Speaking of escapism, isn't "The Matrix" still kicking around out there? It may star Keanu "Meat Puppet" Reeves, but isn't the Wachowski Brothers' script better, and doesn't the film have cooler special effects? Yes, yes and yes.

-- Morality and spirituality. "The Matrix," however, is too violent for the little ones. Then again, the whole "Star Wars" series is nothing if not a big intergalactic shoot'em-up, even if most of the random acts of bang-bang are commited by jack-booted thugs. The earth-toned, fabric-draped good guys are only defending themselves. And what about that Force? The concept crosses religions and creeds to embrace all varieties of holy stuff. So kids, if you're tired of the same old movies in Saturday and Sunday school, bring "Episode I" to your religious study. You can probably make a pretty strong argument for watching it.

-- The Second Coming, Part II. This is the first movie Lucas has written and directed in 22 years, and fans are anxious to see him strut his stuff again. Between "Star Wars" and now, Lucas' brain has been busy, having thought up such wonders as the "Indiana Jones" Trilogy, all the made-for-television Ewok movies, "Howard the Duck" and "Willow." OK, forget those last three; the point is, expectations are high. There's a wee problem: The last time Lucas took sole writing credit for a script was "Star Wars." The other scripts received surgery from Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett. Go back and read the original "Star Wars" script, and you'll understand why we should worry. When it comes to character development and dialogue, well . . . Harrison Ford put it best as quoted in Peter Biskind's "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls": "George, you can type this. . ., but you sure can't say it."

-- A galaxy of cool stars. Ford wasn't kidding. Even with an improved stable of talent at Lucas' disposal for "Episode I," not much can be done in the way of spinning this verbal flax into gold. But what stars: A brooding Liam Neeson to tantalize Mom, with Ewan McGregor to keep the baby-sitters in the audience in sighs. Samuel L. Jackson adds excitement just by appearing on the screen; Natalie Portman makes the young boys cry. Or something. A younger-looking Yoda enchants the kids while making adult fans wistful. The cast also includes Jake Lloyd. Ahem. Moving right along. . .

-- A computer graphics zoo. The beings Jackson refers to as "synthespians" play a heavy part in "Episode I," and they're pretty incredible to look at. Jar Jar Binks and his fellow Gungans are all completely generated, though Jar Jar was played on the set by human actor Ahmed Best. (His positions and movements were digitized later.) Other characters who played integral parts without actually existing include junk-shop swindler Watto and Anakin's pod racing nemesis, Sebulba. Too bad they tend to be annoying.

When all is said and done, the synthespians don't have much more to add, either - even when they're speaking in Huttese. It's the pod race that makes all the computer graphics worth the money. That race is also one of two aspects of the movie that have been made into. . .

-- Video games. In fact, the whole darn movie is like looking over someone's shoulder at GameWorks. For another $40 to $60, you can do a better acting job than Lloyd when you play "Episode I Racer" or "The Phantom Menace" CD-ROM games, both for your PC or home gaming system. Oh, boy! Or, remake your version of "Episode I" the old-fashioned way with. . .

-- "Episode I" toys. Don't brood over the shallow acting, they're only trying to look like their plastic likenesses. Yeah, bring on the Lego ships! That's what we really want, isn't it? Lucas knows it; the trilogy made about $1.5 billion at the box office, while the toys and other merchandise have cleared three times that amount, says Newsweek. The new prequels' merchandising take is expected to make that old number look like Bantha poop. In other words, Lucas won't lose any sleep over "Episode I" as long as you think the Darth Maul action figure is cool. Ooh, have you seen those Pepsi cans? Or the Taco Bell cup toppers?

Hype can have its sweet side, after all, as long as you know what you're getting into. Now pass that Qui-Gon Jinn lollipop holder with Jedi dueling action. Everyone's going to want a lick.

So you missed John Hartl's review of "Episode I" in last Friday's MovieTimes? Here's a summary, along with some opinions from our other critics. You want to weigh in? Call Rant & Rave at the Movies, 206-464-3230 and get in on a special "Star Wars" R & R. For "Episode I" showtimes, see Page F 2.

Charm and heart have vanished

XX Story. Character. They used to mean something to George Lucas.

After you've seen "The Phantom Menace" - and of course you will - you may wonder if he's forgotten their importance altogether.

The charm, humor and heart of "Star Wars" have vanished in this mechanical prequel, which is so dominated by special effects that it begins to look like a toy-crammed cartoon rather than a live-action adventure movie.

- John Hartl, Seattle Times movie critic

Imperfect, but lovely to look at

XX 1/2 The movie event of the decade is more about merchandising than it is about characters, plot and story. This would explain why Lucas squandered Ewan McGregor by relegating him to Jedi gaffer; didn't give the deliciously insidious Darth Maul more depth; and doesn't seem to care that Jake Lloyd, who plays the important role of Anakin Skywalker, can't act his way out of an open landspeeder.

Yet "Episode I" is lovely to look at. The computer-generated creatures and characters are splendid, the kingdom of Naboo is a colorful paradise, and Trish Biggar's costume designs for Queen Amidala lets young actress Natalie Portman shine in her regal best.

- Melanie McFarland, Seattle Times staff reporter

`Episode I' plots crash in the end

XX 1/2 You know where the characters and the plot of "Episode I" are going, and perhaps that's why you expect more from this film than what it offers.

There are the great moments, like when C-3PO and R2-D2 meet for the first time. And you can always count on the Tuscan Raiders to liven things up, just as you could count on the linebackers from high school to get drunk at parties and smash beer cans on their heads.

But aside from that bit of foreshadowing, there's no depth to "The Phantom Menace"; no texture or sophisticated writing. It's three plots that hastily crash together at the end - an end that you know really isn't.

- Nicole Brodeur, Seattle Times columnist

A breathless and exciting family film

XXX "The Phantom Menace" is a terrific piece of visual entertainment that will more than satisfy the huge majority of "Star Wars" fans and non-fan moviegoers. The ones who'll be dissatisfied are the backlashers who allowed themselves to fall for all the hogwash about Lucas' god-like orchestration of a new religion meeting a new filmmaking technique.

"The Phantom Menace" is what it was always meant to be: a breathless, exciting family movie with a couple of truly memorable sequences, and just enough in the way of story and character to keep the franchise going for another 20 years.

- Ted Fry,

------------------------------- If you're sick of it, read this -------------------------------

For those of us vomiting over the hype, here are a few more important things to do besides snaking in line to see "Star Wars":

Teach Grandma to set VCR.

Comb secondhand stores for velvet fez.

Rename dog.

Organize letter-writing campaign to save "The Nanny".

Vacuum refrigerator grille.

Gather trolls for yard sale.

Make those "Waiting for the Interurban" tutus.

Test old batteries.

Buy Kleenex for the final episode of "Melrose Place".

Alphabetize CDs.

Design clothes for Bill Gates' paper doll collection .

Pick fight with Dad.

Shop for a new parka for Jim Forman.