First of all, let's get one thing straight. I will never in my life have another movie experience like the days and moments leading up to the 12:05 a.m. showing of Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace at the Coronet Theatre here early, early Wednesday morning.
This was not a movie. From my 25-hour wait in line to purchase tickets, through an incredibly elaborate costume contest held just a few hours before the movie's premiere, to the final moments leading up to the 20th Century Fox drumroll -- this was a once-in-a-lifetime event.
There will simply never be anything else like this, including the future premieres of episodes Two and Three. The 10 minutes before the curtain rose had it all -- intrigue, celebrity, action, romance. First, there was the desperate search for good seats. Then Rick McCallum, producer of "The Phantom Menace," made a surprise appearance. Light-sabre duels raged in every aisle. And to top it off, a young couple got engaged in front of a packed house of 1,200 screaming well-wishers.
When the opening theme finally rumbled onto the screen and the theatre erupted in 20 years' worth of pent-up anticipation, I had a feeling in the pit of my stomach probably only comparable to the butterflies you get after a first kiss. That said, The Phantom Menace is no Star Wars.
Don't get me wrong. This is one hell of a movie. Visually, you've never seen anything like it. George Lucas' vision of mystical worlds and far-off cities is absolutely stunning. Unfortunately, that is where my enthusiasm over the film's use of digital effects ended. It's very hard to get emotionally caught up in a movie where nothing is real. I want flesh-and-blood characters. I want the cheesy, plastic masks. I want the fuzzy Ewok suits. At least costumed performers come across on screen as tangible, understandable beings. Phantom's reliance on digitally animated characters in this film was, at best, uninvolving, and at worst, in the case of Jar Jar Binks, annoying.
As for the human characters ... the other critics have it right -- the roles are all sadly underdeveloped. Particularly Darth Maul, who, despite being a best-selling action figure, had only about five lines of dialogue in the whole film. Just about anyone who's seen the original Star Wars could describe Han Solo in three words or less. He's the roguish adventurer with the mischievous smile. Princess Leia? A snobbish chick with an attitude. Luke? A naive farm boy.
I defy anyone who's seen The Phantom Menace to describe the personalities of the main characters. This isn't the fault of the actors. For the most part, they played their roles believably. The story line just didn't provide the opportunity to add any unique attributes to their characters.
As action adventure movies go, The Phantom Menace holds its own among your basic Hollywood blockbusters. The light-sabre duel between Darth Maul and Obi-Wan makes Luke and Darth Vader look like clodhoppers. And the pod race puts you right inside the driver's seat at the Indy 500. But as an addition to the "Star Wars" saga, "Phantom" doesn't even come close.
The loudest cheers during the movie were for characters and references from the original trilogy. When the people watching have waited a month or more in line to see new characters and a new story, that reaction doesn't bode well for the future of the Force.