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Phantom Annoyance

[whitespace] Phantom Menace
A Disturbance in the Farce: Jake Lloyd (with bowl cut) puts a damper on a pair of otherwise worthy thespians: Ewan McGregor and Liam Neeson.

Young Jake Lloyd skywalks into obscurity in George Lucas' 'Star Wars' prequel

By Michelle Goldberg

GEORGE LUCAS could have had nearly any child actor in the country to play the young Anakin Skywalker, and his reason for settling on the untalented Jake Lloyd is an unfathomable mystery. Like The Phantom Menace itself, Lloyd is very pretty but utterly hollow. His insipid line readings grate like nails on the proverbial chalkboard, and he exudes slightly less intensity than any bored kid half-heartedly jerking a joystick in any suburban arcade.

Lloyd's performance is so irritating that one is comforted by the knowledge that he'll eventually sell his soul and become the arch-villain Darth Vader. One has to feel bad for Lloyd--only 8 years old when he landed the part, he has already almost guaranteed himself a Mark Hamill-like slide into obscurity.

At least he's not alone. The Phantom Menace displays some of the worst acting ever to find its way onto the big screen. Liam Neeson, ordinarily so robustly dignified, is plodding and portentous as Jedi knight Qui-Gon Jinn, his horrid dialogue not helped at all by his equally unfortunate hairdo (Samuel Jackson, relegated to a tiny part as spokesman of the Jedi council, would have been far more interesting in the role).

Even Ewan McGregor, ordinarily so electrifying and charismatic, never sparkles as Qui-Gon's apprentice, Obi-Wan Kenobi. In fact, he's hardly ever onscreen, though his deadpan wit is desperately needed, since one thing that makes The Phantom Menace so inferior to the other three Star Wars movies is the absence of any rakish Han Solo-style anti-heroism to balance all the tepid New Age blather.

Of course, no one is going to see The Phantom Menace for its acting. Fans are going for the action, or the myth, or the truly astounding computerized characters and sets. And they'll be rewarded. The movie is stunning to look at, packed with bizarre, whimsical, terrifying and comic creatures and awe-inspiring scenery.

One of the film's most breathtaking creations is Naboo, the peaceful planet that Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan must save from imperialist Federation invaders. Ruled by the sartorially majestic Queen Amidala, it's a Renaissance idyll where stately art and architecture coexist with gorgeous waterfalls and lush nature, as close to utopia as a movie has ever come.

A secret underwater metropolis on Naboo is similarly extraordinary, and a chase through the ocean depths in which our heroes are pursued by progressively larger and more ferocious beasts is a marvel. (It does have to be said, though, that the flying hook-nosed, money-obsessed shopkeeping troll who keeps Anakin and his mother as slaves is far too much of a Semitic stereotype for comfort.)

Although The Phantom Menace is a smorgasbord of luscious eye candy, it is emotionally stingy--since we never connect with any of the characters, we have little stake in the action. If anything, The Phantom Menace is an inadvertent case study of the limits of special effects. The Jedis' sidekick, Jar Jar Binks, a wholly simulated creature who looks like an awkward combination of a dog, a horse and a lizard, never has the screen presence of a Chewbacca--he's so fake that he works against our suspension of disbelief.

Similarly, the movie's many race and chase scenes seem more like video games than action sequences and are about as involving as the first-person flight simulators that crowd CD-ROM aisles. Nothing in The Phantom Menace approaches the suspense of Star Wars' famous trash compactor scene, proving that excitement can't be synthesized.

Like James Cameron, George Lucas refuses to recognize his own limitations. Each has marred his most extravagantly budgeted films with his own execrable dialogue, even though hiring a writer would cost less than a few seconds of superfluous computer animation. The Phantom Menace looks so fabulous that you want to be absorbed in it, to get lost in its myriad fantastic planets.

That's why the flat apathy of the drama is so frustrating. When 9-year-old Anakin leaves his slave mother on his desert home planet to join Qui-Gon and become a Jedi, he displays all the pathos of a kid going away to camp for a week. The terrible thing about The Phantom Menace is that it's easier to accept the existence of Yoda or Jabba the Hut than it is to believe that a 9-year-old boy is sad about leaving his family forever.

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From the May 20-26, 1999 issue of Metro.

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