'Menace' a worthy prequel

By now, anybody not residing in a galaxy far, far away has probably heard an earful about "Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace," and might be disappointed to discover that this frantically anticipated event is, in fact, just a movie.A better way to approach "Phantom Menace" might be to go back and watch "Star Wars," "The Empire Strikes Back" and "Return of the Jedi," the trilogy to which George Lucas' new film forms a varied and mesmerising backdrop.

By now, anybody not residing in a galaxy far, far away has probably heard an earful about "Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace," and might be disappointed to discover that this frantically anticipated event is, in fact, just a movie.

A better way to approach "Phantom Menace" might be to go back and watch "Star Wars," "The Empire Strikes Back" and "Return of the Jedi," the trilogy to which George Lucas' new film forms a varied and mesmerising backdrop. In this context, happily, the new "Star Wars" movie works: It's a worthy heir to the "Star Wars" franchise, and also a remarkable excursion into a mostly digitally-created fantasy universe. It's also pretty fun to watch.

Several critics have already noted that the acting in the new movie leaves something to be desired, that there is little character development, that for some reason "Phantom Menace" seems focused on attracting an audience of kids, but that it has good special effects.

One can only suppose that these people never saw the original "Star Wars" movies, which pretty much started that tradition in 1977. What made those films stand out was not well-rounded characters or a convincing plot; it was that they were visits to a world that seemed to be made up of elements of our own, run through a blender and projected onto a canvas of epic proportions. This is also the best thing about "Phantom Menace." Lucas' universe still has the power to awe -- in part, at least, because Lucasfilm continues to define the forefront of special effects.

But all that computer machinery is informed by Lucas' eccentric vision, a quaintly virtuous point of view where the good guys are good, the bad guys are snarly, dark and creepy, and there are lots of spectacular battles. When the characters aren't dueling with light sabres or piloting fighter craft, they are exploring a series of exotic locales -- the prosperous and peaceful Naboo, the backwater Tatooine, or Coruscant, capital of the Galactic Republic, which is what Manhattan would look like if it engulfed an entire planet.

These scenes are where "Phantom Menace," and Lucasfilm's designers and numerous powerful special effects computers, come into their own. We see dozens of different species wandering around in the streets of Mos Espa, on Tatooine, most of them looking for a fight. We wander among the copper-domed buildings and cypress-lined streets of Naboo, which is like Renaissance Florence on a planetary scale. We watch streams of exotic aircraft nosing along in the late-afternoon sunlight of Coruscant. It all works beautifully.

Of course, Lucas doesn't have the same constraints with his CG cities as, say, "Titanic," which had to simulate something we've seen in photographs. The action sequences are, for the most part, just as well-executed; the sabre duels, for example, have benefited from America's late-'90s fascination with Asian martial arts movies. One exception might be a battle between an army of amphibious Gungans and rank after rank of robot soldiers, which, unfortunately, are about as terrifying as Tinker Toy sculptures.

For the "Star Wars" faithful, there are additional rewards. The movie is constantly striking resonances with the earlier movies: When it is not introducing the early lives of Star Wars characters, both major and minor, it is preparing us subtly for the fall of the idyllic Republic and the coming of the evil Galactic Empire.

When the characters are left to interacting with each other, on the other hand, one does get the feeling that Lucas would rather be working with robots or CG effects than real people. And certainly the script has a robot-written feel to it. That said, none of the performances are as wooden or ridiculous as those in the original "Star Wars," and even the annoying Jar Jar Binks has moments when his comic pratfalls are elevated to the level of actual humour.

But the best way to see "Phantom Menace" is to forget that some of these actors have won prestigious awards. Instead, think of it as a couple of hours' vacation in a place that existed a long, long time ago in a ... well, you know the rest.