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The Oscar contest is heating up

”The Phantom Menace” looks like a lock for nods in several categories

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Natalie Portman, Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace

Will ”Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace” win any Academy Awards? Stop snickering. Sure, George Lucas’ opus is no ”Titanic.” But we’re not talking about trophies for Jar Jar (”Isa wanna thanksa dee Academy…”). Rather, in terms of moviemaking skill, ”Menace” is a bravura technical achievement. ”It’s ILM [Lucas’ famed effects house], and they’ve got a lot of friends, so visual effects, sound effects, and sound should be a lock,” says longtime Oscar campaign strategist Tony Angellotti. ”The Academy will have to acknowledge how radically different it was aesthetically.”

Throw in likely nods for John Williams’ score, costume design, makeup, and possibly art and set direction, and ”Menace” could collect a Jabba-size trove of nominations — not an unimportant achievement for marketing purposes (Lucasfilm and Fox will be responsible for the as-yet-unplanned Oscar campaign). Lucasfilm spokesperson Jeanne Cole notes: ”We’re proud that we’d be honored in any categories, but it’s early.”

Keep in mind, too, that the 1977 original got 10 nominations and won 6 (costume design, film editing, art direction, sound, original score, visual effects, and a special sound-effects-creations award). It lost picture, director, original screenplay, and supporting actor (Alec Guinness). So could ”Menace” compete in any of those big slots? Says Angellotti, ”Uh, I don’t think so.”