The forces of good and evil have a few nasty run-ins, but the primary struggle played out in ”Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace” is that of George Lucas nervously fighting to give everyone in the galaxy their money’s worth. It’s not just the preponderance of digitally realized (yet still rubbery) creatures, which have the disquieting effect of making everything around them seem cutesy and innocuous. It’s that Lucas now directs like a man with a short-circuited attention span. Some of ”The Phantom Menace” is fun, but it’s also skittery and overstuffed, too intent on keeping the audience wired into a state of sense-crackling excitement. Watching the movie, you feel as if you’re simultaneously playing a maniacally rapid-fire videogame, wandering the aisles of a futuristic toy store, and, almost incidentally, sitting through a science-fiction fable about a couple of Jedi Knights who befriend young Anakin Skywalker, the spunky intuitive whiz kid who will eventually grow up to become Darth Vader.
Our heroes are the long-haired, strappingly fearless Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson), who never loses his pensive Jedi gaze, and his apprentice, the affable, mild-mannered young Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor). When Qui-Gon enters a junk shop on the lumpen desert planet of Tatooine, you can bet that the proprietor will be a snaggle-toothed alien warthog who hovers in the air on fluttery wings as he jabbers on like a Middle Eastern rug merchant. There’s a gladiatorial jet-car derby, and you’d better believe it’s the zappiest high-octane race ever filmed, with vehicles making lightning hairpin turns through caves and canyons as if propelled by electronic slingshot. The climactic battle treats us to the special-effects equivalent of a cast of thousands, as an armada of amphibious Gungans face down an equally vast plain of marching skeletal droids.
”The Phantom Menace” never stops throwing things at you. The cities and space stations have an awesome, plunging vastness, a sense of intricately sinister technology stretching out above and below you. In a strange way, though, Lucas doesn’t trust the power of those images; he keeps cutting away from them. Spectacular yet remote, ”The Phantom Menace” fails to recapture the elemental magic of Star Wars, and that, ironically, is because it represents the coarse culmination of the original film’s adrenaline aesthetic.
The distractingly slack and confusing plot has Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan fighting to protect the planet Naboo, led by the stoic, Kabuki-outfitted Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman). They spirit her away to Tatooine, where the Jedi meet Anakin, a towheaded slave boy whose racing prowess is the key sign that he may be ”the chosen one.” (Yes, a Force-feeling Christ.)
If there’s an actor who holds ”The Phantom Menace” together, it’s Liam Neeson. Tersely commanding, he gives the film its only hints of emotional dynamism. McGregor has an engaging sweetness, but Obi-Wan, disappointingly, is just an eager servant-sidekick here. The next episode, in which he trains the teenage Anakin, sounds as if it may balance psychology and spectacle with greater resonance than this one. ”The Phantom Menace” needed a more lavish sense of menace, of evil. Then again, that may now be difficult to achieve for a filmmaker who is invested, above all, in preserving his empire.