We pull back the curtain on ''Star Wars: Episode 1'' and bring you the details on everything from Natalie Portman to who brings Yoda alive on the big screen

Think of them as Batman and Robin in burlap. One a master and one a pupil, they’re the leading guardians of that galaxy far, far away, charging around with lightsabers extended and brows furrowed in a story set a generation before the original Star Wars.

If you’re mystified by cultists’ drooling enthusiasm for Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace, the first of three ”back story” installments, think of it this way: It’s as if Lucas has, for better or worse, produced the equivalent of ancient, prebiblical scrolls chronicling the first friendly handshake of God and Lucifer. But don’t expect The Phantom Menace to be first and foremost the Book of Obi-Wan. Moviegoers are about to discover exactly what Ewan McGregor and Liam Neeson did when they showed up for work in the summer of 1997 and finally got a gander at a script: It’s really Neeson’s character, Qui-Gon Jinn, a sort of roving freelance ambassador adept at troubleshooting disturbances in ”the Force,” who’s the anchor of Menace.

The scottish star of Trainspotting
Ewan McGregor: Obi-Wan Kenobi
The earnest young Jedi Knight in training

Nobody in episodes IV through VI (also known as Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi) ever mentions him, but Qui-Gon, it turns out, is the man who mistakenly believes that young Anakin Skywalker, eventual father to Luke and Leia and also the boy who becomes the evil Darth Vader, is a sort of savior who will help the monastic order of Jedi Knights thrive. In the meantime, McGregor, as a younger Obi-Wan Kenobi (the character played by Alec Guinness in the original trilogy), mostly stands around looking serious and analyzing Anakin’s blood for microscopic life-forms called ”midi-chlorians” (don’t ask; it’s the sort of detail that Lucas declines to elaborate on but that keeps fans burbling in Internet newsgroups). McGregor, along with Samuel L. Jackson (who appears in Menace briefly as a Jedi Council member), are what Lucas has referred to as ”emerging” characters, but Neeson’s place in the balance of the new trilogy is murkier.

NOTE: Hit the hyperdrive and move to the next segment now if you don’t want the plot spoiled!

A very unretiring Irish fellow
Liam Neeson: Qui-Gon Jinn
Darth Vader’s unwitting Jedi mentor

As anybody who’s looked at the soundtrack-album-cut titles already knows, Qui-Gon winds up on the wrong end of a lightsaber. So will Neeson’s stoic pilgrim be back in some spiritual form in episode II, the way Guinness’ Obi-Wan lingered in the first sequels?

”I really can’t say,” Neeson demurs. ”But I’m going to make sure my passport’s up-to-date.” And what of the high-profile interview he gave recently, in which he was quoted as feeling ”uncomfortable” with actors being treated like ”puppets” in films, and said he planned to retire from movie acting completely (to pursue stage roles) and raise his two sons with his wife, actress Natasha Richardson?

”Oh, that,” pooh-poohs Neeson. ”Don’t believe everything you read. Certain things are said in jest. It got blown out of all proportion, so we’ll just leave it at that. It’s not likely.” George Lucas had better hope so if he plans to use Neeson again. After all, some things still can’t be done with special effects.

Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace
  • Movie
  • 134 minutes