What we really need to do is to colonize the next galaxy, get away from the hard facts of 2001 and get on the romantic side of it.
--George Lucas to Rolling Stone, 1977
So goes George Lucas's profitably "critic-proof" logic: Why worry about the "hard facts" of this millennium or the next when it's so much more "romantic" to hit the reset button and start over from scratch? Set "a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away," Lucas's rigorously escapist Star Wars (a.k.a. Episode IV) gave Americans a new hope in between Watergate and Irangate, Vietnam and Reagan, Nashville and Popeye. Now, going back even further to the near-biblical genesis of all things Jedi, Star Wars: Episode I--The Phantom Menace forcefully stakes its claim on the known galaxy's first "digital backlot"--an almost fully computerized film landscape whose eye-popping wonders have replaced, on CNN and every other channel, the hard facts of that real war happening somewhere on planet Earth. Bread lines in Kosovo? That's the dark side. How about those hungry fans queuing outside Mann's Chinese Theatre?
To the degree that this second coming of Lucasfilm's PR Force has succeeded in pushing every other human struggle off the media's radar, the new episode must be something truly special, and indeed it is: To wit, the movie contains more than 2,000 FX shots--this compared with the 500 or so in Titanic. But just as episodes IV through VI and their "special editions" offered slightly tweaked yet soothingly familiar forms of nostalgia, Star Wars circa 1999 is pretty much the same as it ever was--that is, the epic tale, told with weird creatures and whizzing spaceships, of Good's miraculous triumph over Evil. To put it another way: After untold hours spent scratching his beard in monastic seclusion, George Lucas finally has the power to "paint" the frame digitally in any color he chooses--and yet, what do you know, his favorite shade of character is still white.
Hear me out, ye faithful skywalkers and wookies. Ever wonder why the series' first black man, Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), turned out to be a traitor? Or why the climactic cleansing of Darth Vader (born Anakin Skywalker) involved uncovering the scarred white face behind the dark metal mask? Or why, for that matter, the wookie Chewbacca never got to feel the Force? Me too. In any case, Episode I follows suit: Samuel L. Jackson gets a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo as the token black Jedi; the series' new royal highness, Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman), comes outfitted in all manner of "exotic" Asian garb, although she herself is Caucasian; and the all-digital, Disney-style character Jar Jar Binks, whom the press kit describes as "a clumsy, childlike creature who speaks in a language all his own" (e.g., "Oie boie...mesa comen. Mesa comen!"), is voiced by a Caribbean-American actor (Ahmed Best) in what's made to resemble a pidgin English cross between Stepin Fetchit and Roger Rabbit.
Still, Lucas's xenophobic prequel does at least dare to explain the insidious genetic reasoning by which nine-year-old Anakin (Jake Lloyd), future father of Luke Skywalker, comes to be selected for the privilege of Jedi-dom: Seems an unusually high concentration of Force-ful material was found in the young master's blood. (Does this mean Lucas will refuse to authorize sale of the new Anakin dolls to viewers with less distinguished bloodlines?)
Arguably, the original Star Wars, which chronicled a blond-haired, blue-eyed farmboy's quest to follow in his father's footsteps, had a little to do with earning one's way into the elite. Yet the prequel, perhaps because its (box-office) future has already been told, is tediously Calvinistic in celebrating the power of predestiny. According to Episode I's dour Jedi Knight Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson), young Anakin is "the Chosen One" who, born of a virgin mother (!), is fated to bring "balance to the Force." Jesus, indeed: With that sort of spiritual leg up, what's left for this lucky bastard (or Lucas) to prove? Well, not counting Anakin's participation in an unsuspenseful "pod race" (aided by a curiously subservient little buddy with brown skin), the boy's primary challenge is to separate from his mom (Pernilla August) without remorse. "Afraid to lose her, I think," asserts the wizened old Yoda. "What's that got to do with anything?" asks Anakin. "Everything. Fear is the path to the dark side." Uh-huh. Now I understand why so many recent Lucas profiles have fawned over the billionaire's single parenthood: Mothers, you see, aren't merely inessential but downright dangerous to the male fraternity of Jedi Knights and movie moguls.
Gee--any guess as to what phantom menace (speaking euphemistically) will turn poor Anakin into Darth Vader in Episode II? Actually, a little old-school film noir would in some ways be a welcome relief after Episode I's juvenile but oddly joyless assault on the senses. Lloyd's utter lack of charisma notwithstanding, the new film avoids even the slightest hint of its boy wonder's impending dark side, seemingly in deference to the cheerful preteen audience that will no doubt send the box office into light speed. Speaking of kids, the only thing more fatuous than Lucas's self-proclaimed debt to Akira Kurosawa is his recent rebuttal of Episode I critics by saying, "It's a film for 12-year-olds." Hmmm. Episode IV already made clear that the Force works most strongly on "the weak-minded," but really, George. You think we adults shouldn't wonder about what the more impressionable generation might be taking from our cultural products? We shouldn't discuss the fact that, candy-colored lightsabers aside, Episode I is basically a war movie whose lack of blood sugarcoats the notion that grade-school firepower can be really cool when it serves the Force? (If I had kids, I'd much rather show them Starship Troopers than this.)
Gross contradictions have always been central to the Star Wars series, and Episode I is no exception. Is it ironic or just par for the course that the most technologically radical FX film ever made would also be the most egregiously regressive blockbuster imaginable? Not that the latter half of the equation is likely to make any difference at the box office. This is a holy war, after all: a sacred moment of millennial American history with a predestined outcome. In other words, even as we rebels symbolically aim our blasters at the Lucas empire, his dutifully revisionist and undoubtedly disappointed Internet stormtroopers are busy fortifying the home pages, selling tickets to future episodes by recasting the dumb Episode I as a mere hiccup on the way to hyperspace--the phantom menace over which the rest of the trilogy shall forcefully triumph.
Star Wars: Episode I--The Phantom Menace is playing at area theaters.
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