STAR WARS; THE PHANTOM MENACE REVIEWED (1999): A Miami vice, with dazzle but dazzlingly dull

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STAR WARS; THE PHANTOM MENACE REVIEWED (1999): A Miami vice, with dazzle but dazzlingly dull
Phew! Talk about queues to get into Star Wars in America. One insensitive citizen likened the camp-out crowd outside cinemas in New York and Mann's Theatre in Los Angeles as being like the tent villagers of Kosovo.

Yep, talk about queues ...

Well, talk about them if you must, but the day after Star Wars, Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace opened at a multiplex on 71st Street in North Miami, it's just me and a sweaty old man chewing on burgers standing outside.

We joke about the hype and gulp Cokes out of Anakin Skywalker cups.
Admittedly it's about 40 degrees and a school day, but to find fewer than 40 people in the cinema when the famous theme booms out of the Dolby is just a little surprising.

Fortunately, three are kids of the George Lucas demographic - early-teen boys, one wearing the merchandising. They'll be my focus group later, I figure.

71RnVVa7AlL._AC_SY679_Star Wars may have had a visible presence in Los Angeles but the big news in Miami is Latino singer Ricky Martin, whose first English-language album has just gone to No 1 and is coming to sign autographs. And did he get queues! The Force, it appears, is with him.

Punters may have recoiled from the thought of standing in a queue, but it's likely the two- or two-and-a-half-star reviews the movie is getting have been just as off-putting.

It's only a movie, as director George Lucas has said.

Most who've seen it agree with him. After only a few minutes it's easy to see why.

Lumbered with a dull, talky script, this Star Wars gets off to a limping start and even when it gets going about an hour in - by which time a few in the audience have gone back into the Miami sun - the story isn't much to write home about.

We are again in a galaxy far far away where nasty characters - who speak a kind of Asiatic English (hmm) - have put up a trade embargo around the planet Naboo (which is like Venice rendered large) and are set to invade.

There are the dark forces (Darth Sidious and his menacing sidekick, Darth Maul); a Jedi master, Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson), and his apprentice, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor); and a goofy, clumsy character (Jar Jar Binks) who is clearly there to provide low-brow comic relief and speaks in an almost unintelligible Jamaican patois as he flops his head around sending his huge ears (dreadlocks?) flying.

You can't criticise Lucas for not having paid attention to recent cinema trends. He's seen Dumb and Dumber.

Lucas has had fun, though. A desert drag race effectively recreates Ben Hur's famous chariot race, and one of the cities is a dead ringer for Metropolis on steroids. There's also a divided galactic senate and a lame-duck chancellor. (Sound like any democratic country you know?)

Yet despite astonishing special effects, the melding of computer-generated characters and real-life actors, and breathtaking screen images - which Lucas too often passes over with such rapidity you wish he'd slow down and let you take it all in - the film lacks heart and character.

Neeson looks like a man acting before a blue screen. He gets to deliver empty epigrams like, "Your focus determines your reality." Samuel L. Jackson appears as a blink-and-you-miss-him member of the Jedi Council and McGregor, woefully wasted as the young Obi-Wan, has so few lines as to be rendered unmemorable.

jarjarThe already notorious Darth Maul gets all of five lines. (He'd be more frightening if we hadn't already seen the Prodigy bellowing about being a fire-starter. Now that was really scary.)

It gives nothing away either to note how the film's last third descends into a series of quick vignettes crossing from one piece of action to another just to keep the momentum going.

But Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) is no Princess Leia, and this Star Wars conspicuously lacks the self-deprecating wit of a Han Solo.

So it's big, usefully loud, superbly crafted -- and ultimately soulless, characterless and disappointing. A "visually dazzling dud" according to The Miami Herald. It's Lucas' equivalent to the reconstituted Beatles single Free As A Bird. It taints the others by association.

Essentially, someone should have spent money on a decent script. The choicest piece of Americana-cute is when the boy Anakin is invited to join the Jedi masters and says, "Can I go, Mom? Yippee!" This is more Opie in The Andy Griffith Show than serious sci-fi in a galaxy far far away.

There's also something seriously wrong with a film when you need to see the sequel for it to make sense.

Lucas' skills as a storyteller seem to have abandoned him and the cloak of spirituality he casts over things (it's suggested Anakin's was a virgin birth) is mere window-dressing. It's an empty film at heart, so inevitably media attention has shifted from whether the movie is any good to whether it will outstrip Titanic. It's business, not art.

Still, maybe that's just the adult kicking in, so on the way out I latch on to my focus group. 
Yeah, it was pretty good, they thought, although one said he couldn't understand what Jar Jar was saying most of the time. I thought it was just me.

Yeah, they say half-heartedly, they'll see it again.

So what else have you guys seen lately?

The answer comes back in an instant, two of them speaking with almost one voice.

"Oh, The Mummy. You should see that, that's really good."

Certainly sounds worth queuing for.

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