Cover

1999: A Space Oddity

The Phantom Menace is a curious mix of kiddie pop and cool

Andrew Clark May 24 1999
Cover

1999: A Space Oddity

The Phantom Menace is a curious mix of kiddie pop and cool

Andrew Clark May 24 1999

1999: A Space Oddity

Cover

The Phantom Menace is a curious mix of kiddie pop and cool

Andrew Clark

The news media began covering Frank Bianco just minutes after he arrived outside New York City’s majestic Ziegfeld Theater. He—and 249 other Star Wars faithful—had first congregated near the movie palace on May 1, hoping to secure tickets to the May 19 official opening of Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace. So Bianco, a 28-year-old waiter and bike courier, finds nothing exceptional about yet another journalist—a Canadian this time—nosing around. Talk turns to the “Force,” which to Bianco means “everything evens itself out.” Then the reporter makes an odd request, asking Bianco and another fan to pick a number between one and 10. Bianco guesses right. His cheeks fire red as he processes the information— the reporter has an extra pass to a media preview of The Phantom Menace that night.

“You in?”

“Oh God.”

The climax of 16 years of waiting—and 117 hours in line—is now just a seven-block walk away. Two hours later, the words “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...” appear on the screen. The air goes electric and even the jaded journalists cheer, just as audiences will no doubt cheer this week when one of the most anticipated movies in history opens nationwide. The Phantom Menace has been so hyped that its creator held a news conference to play down the publicity. “We have tried very hard not to let it get overhyped,” says George Lucas, not terribly convincingly. “But it kind of got out of control.” So it has: amid a barrage of articles, TV promos and merchandising (Bianco already owns a trio of Phantom Menace action figures), three generations of moviegoers have been sitting with salivary glands in overdrive. There are the six-year-olds, primed by commercials and product tie-ins; the Gen-X fans, like Bianco, who grew up on Lucas’s imaginary universe; and the 50-year-olds, to whom Star Wars was a mind-blowing experience. Samuel L. Jackson (now Jedi Master

Mace Windu), saw the 1977 original buoyed by the effects of a few beers and the contents of a nickel bag of marijuana. “When it went into hyperspace, we were off,” he recalls. “We were the people who said, ‘You’ve got to go see this movie, man, and I’ll go with you.’ ”

Back then, it was Luke, Leia, Han, Obi-Wan, Darth Vader, Chewbacca and the Death Star. The Phantom Menace is set a full generation earlier, long before Luke is a glint in Darth Vaders metallic eye. This time around, the heroes are two Jedi knights on their way to settle a trade dispute on the peaceful planet of Naboo. Jedi Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his apprentice, a young Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), aim to break up a Trade Federation blockade of Naboo. Its Queen, Amidala (Natalie Portman), fears an invasion and hopes that the Jedis can find a nonviolent solution for her planet’s precarious situation. But faster than Jinn can say “Mind the living Force,” trouble is unleashed. A phantom senator is engineering an evil master plan that threatens the entire galaxy.

Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi hightail it to Naboo to save the queen. Along the way they befriend Jar Jar

Binks, a jovial amphibian, and traverse an underwater world. Their quest takes them to the desert planet Tatooine, where they meet a nine-year-old slave boy named Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd). Jinn senses that the precocious youngster (who is destined to become Darth Vader) is blessed with a heaping helping of the Force, making him one of the most holy creatures in existence. And so, Anakin leaves his dutiful mother to become a Jedi apprentice. The band of space heroes heads off into the galaxy determined to vanquish evil and restore balance to the Force.

Its a plot so corny you could butter it and invite 1,000 of your closest friends over for a picnic. But hey, this is a Star Wars movie and Star Wars movies cannot be judged like other films. And even when reviewers try, Star Wars flicks are impervious to critical attack. The previous three, Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, weathered drubbings and then hit blockbuster status. To succeed, a Star Wars movie must do three simple things. It must:

• have groundbreaking special effects,

• have a rip-roaring, no-holds-barred intergalactic quest,

• and be cool.

Special effects-wise, The Phantom Menace is a force to be reckoned with. The movie is a wild, digitally enhanced excursion. Its chase scenes, including one that plays like a space version of a Nascar rally, are especially rivetting. The set design and costumes are incredibly rich. Many of the landscapes, ve-

hicles and even characters, such as Jar Jar, were computer generated. In all, 95 per cent of the frames in the movie were composed digitally. These high-tech effects were meshed with the actors’ live-action work. In many scenes, the cast performed before blue-screen backdrops that allowed Lucas to place whatever images he wished in the final cut. The result is the most fully realized fictional universe ever created on-screen. “It is weird,” says Portman, “to watch yourself walking around in places you’ve never been.”

As a piece of cinematic storytelling, however, The Phantom Menace is about as potent as a lightsabre with its batteries failing. The dialogue and the film’s bizarre strain of refried mythology (including a new-age immaculate conception) caused some in the preview audience to collapse into uncontrollable laughter. At one point, Jedi mentor Yoda decrees portentously: “Fear is the path to the dark side.”

Previous Star Wars movies employed a straightforward pedal-to-the-metal storytelling approach. Audiences followed Luke on his quest for glory. The chases and light-sabre duels kept viewers glued to the screen and the Force’s mysticism imbued the movie with a sense of grandeur. What’s more, the symbolism had current resonance. Small wonder that a 1970s audience living in enduring fear of nuclear war was electrified when Luke (the everyman) destroyed the Death Star (the symbol of nuclear destruction). But The Phantom Menace breaks this mould. It is a throwback to Lucas’s 1973

non-sci-fi movie, American Graffiti, which used a crisscross of concurrent plots. But this technique is hampered by the cast of The Phantom Menace, whose acting is competent but never inspired:

McGregor, for example, practically disappears from the film. Lucas fails to keep all the balls in the air and his newest Star Wars instalment comes off more like a laboured historical epic than a swashbuckling adventure.

But that is nit-picking, especially to a fan. The first words out of Bianco’s mouth as the movie ends and the credits roll are: “I feel like I am 6 again.” Later, he admits the plot’s weak points did irk him. He says that the cutesy Jar Jar character, the goodnatured but dim-witted sidekick will annoy die-hard fans, who will consider it a “kidification” of the movie. “I was a little disappointed,” says Bianco, “but I knew I might be. Overall I loved it, the effects were incredible.”

In other words, the cool factor has registered. Cool, in this sense, is leaving earth and entering a world of wonder, in which good and evil are clearly defined. Up to age 10, it is easy to do. When you’re 28 and working two jobs, it’s worth standing in line for. Asked what element of Star Wars he would like on earth, Bianco pauses a moment and then replies: “Good conquers evil.” In New York, or anywhere else, that isn’t always the case. Nor does Star Wars seem that fantastic when compared with a world in which one group of people line up for weeks to escape ethnic cleansing while, thousands of miles

away, another group waits weeks in line to watch a movie. It’s enough to make the fairy-tale world of Star Wars comforting. “Reality just stops and there is nothing else but this world you’re in with the characters,” says Bianco. “You don’t have to worry about anything for the next two hours and 20 minutes. The 16 years between the movies just collapsed.”

As the clock pushes midnight, Bianco strolls back to the Ziegfeld—to rejoin the queue. “I thought, after I saw the movie, I wouldn’t want to wait in line anymore. But hearing the cheers, I want to share that with the people in line.” He expects to get at least 12 opening night tickets and he means to give them to friends and their kids. “I really believe in the balance thing. I got lucky and I want to pass that luck on to someone else.” In silhouette against the street lights, with his long raincoat blowing in a gentle breeze, Bianco cuts a Jedi-like figure. Like a true knight, bound by honour and duty, he is keeping his word. Frank Bianco will be with his people when that fateful day comes and the world sees the space age Hollywood splendour it has already been his privilege to behold. ESI