Can you feel the force?

You know a film is going to be huge when even Hollywood studio executives are queueing round the block. But how would a theatre full of world-weary critics react to a film made for 12-year-olds?

AS I WRITE these words, the Internet site countingdown.com tells me there are precisely eight days, 30 minutes and 28 seconds to go before the most hotly anticipated moment in movie history. Eight days, 30 minutes and, woops, 14 seconds, before the new Star Wars episode, The Phantom Menace, hits cinema screens across America and brings instant nirvana to millions of fans hysterical with excitement over the latest instalment in George Lucas's trans-galactic fantasy.

Some of us, though, can afford to feel a little smug. Some of us won't have to wait until 19 May, still less sit out the agonising extra couple of months before The Phantom Menace plods its way on to British screens.

Some of us, the lucky few, have seen it already. Under normal circumstances, this wouldn't be much of a boast. Advance press screenings of new movies are absolutely routine, especially in a town like Los Angeles. But Phantom Menace is something else.

The advance screenings have had all Hollywood in a frenzy for weeks, with studio executives, agents, actors and journalists all wondering if they were sufficiently on the inside of the industry to get invited. The press in New York got its first look last Friday, with the country's top critics escorted through a warren of tunnels somewhere in Lower Manhattan to a secret screening room where their passports and driving licenses were checked and their hands stamped with a Fox logo.

Then, on Monday, it was our turn in Los Angeles. You know a film has to be huge when even Hollywood studio executives are queueing around the block. There they all were, standing in a tight coil stretching away from Mann's National Theater in Westwood, their precious invitations clutched in their right hands with the words "admit one". A group of heavies in dark glasses and suits was on hand to deter the uninvited. A crew from E! television stood by to film the scene. Fox employees with walkie-talkie headsets sized up the crowd, searched handbags and indulged in a little random frisking.

"Is that a camcorder, sir? Ah, just a mobile phone, please go on in."

As the auditorium filled, something felt wrong. Here was a room full of world-weary, cynical entertainment professionals - looking like they couldn't be impressed if a meteor struck the building - about to watch a film aimed primarily at 12-year-olds.

The room darkened, but before the film began, a Fox executive took a microphone and urged us to turn in anyone we saw surreptitiously wielding a recording device.

"It would be a shame if the film ended up on the Internet," the executive pleaded. A shame for George Lucas and Fox, to be sure.

Then it began. The screen read: "Fox: A News Corporation Company" and everyone cheered.

The screen read: "LucasFilm" and the cheers grew louder. Maybe this was going to be fun after all.

Then the screen read: "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away..." Somebody shouted: "Hey, we've seen this one before!" And the cinema tittered with knowing laughter.

Ah, but they hadn't seen it before. Not this kind of barrage of special effects, not characters entirely generated by computer who nevertheless manage to interact with the human actors, not battle scenes in which vast arrays of monsters, droids and exotic creatures blast each other with exploding blue cannon balls and tanks the size of tower blocks.

Phantom Menace always promised to be a technological special-effects wonder and it certainly doesn't disappoint on that score. A submarine is attacked by monster fish, who then attack each other. A nine-year-old boy competes with an array of peculiar beasts in a hi-tech version of the chariot race from Ben-Hur, a dizzying 10-minute display of visual pyrotechnics that takes the racers and their "pods" through perilous rocky gorges and a stadium seething with tens of thousands of assorted aliens.

But what of the plot, the characters, the dialogue? That's where the film gets rather trickier to read, where those all-knowing professionals in the audience suddenly regained their sense of effortless superiority. Phantom Menace is set a generation before the previous trilogy of films, and purports to open the entire saga. But instead of giving newcomers a gentle introduction to the world of Jedi Knights, Hutts, Gungas and the rest, it quickly plunges the viewer into a confusing nest of intrigue over trade taxation, squabbles in the Congress of the Galactic Republic, and a plot by some alarming-looking creatures with no noses to hold a 15-year-old queen hostage to their evil designs.

"We would never do anything without the approval of the trade franchise," one character says early on, and you have to wonder if George Lucas really thought the audience would be following him on this one, or if he was making some arcane reference to his own highly lucrative business deals in the film industry here on Planet Earth.

As the first reviews - both online and in the Hollywood trade papers - have pointed out, the dialogue is clunky beyond belief, the plot confusing without betraying any great complexity and the acting hamstrung by the fact that humans are considerably less significant in the whole grand design as planets, fantasy cities, monsters and computer-generated cyphers.

The entertainment paper Variety said the film was "easily consumable eye-candy, but it contains no nutrients for the heart or mind". Online reviews largely concurred, complaining of a lack of human warmth despite the best efforts of Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor and the rest.

Does the initial lukewarm reception bode ill for Phantom Menace's chances of becoming the biggest-grossing film in history? Not necessarily: the original Star Wars was given a critical roasting when it first appeared in 1977, and it made not a blind bit of difference.

The fans who have waited in line outside Mann's Chinese Theater in Hollywood for the past month are going to take some persuading that the new film is worth watching any less than half a dozen times.

"I'll see it twice even if it is terrible," said Steve Almes, a computer programmer from San Francisco. "If this was Star Wars: The Phone Book I would go see it."

Perhaps the critics have got it wrong again. Those of us who like to criticise the Star Wars films for their facile mythologising, poor characterisation and bad dialogue may be missing the point. What Phantom Menace's real audience wants are mind-blowing visuals, great gadgets, fast-paced action and a just smack of mysticism.

The film delivers those in spades, and no doubt every 12-year-old on the planet will be clamouring to see it.

the first reviews

The actors are wallpaper, the jokes are juvenile, there's no romance, and the dialogue lands with the thud of a computer-instruction manual. But it's useless to criticize the visual astonishment that is Star Wars.

Rolling Stone

In Phantom, these creatures - and there are a lot of them - are created in computers and essentially overlaid with live action, leaving us a kind of half-in, half-out reality that is, at times, no more convincing than Toons interacting with humans in Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

New York Daily News

It looks like Star Wars, it smells like Star Wars and it feels like Star Wars. However, is it a Star Wars that we are going to walk away satisfied with? Well... perhaps, but not for everyone.

Home Theater Forum website, quoted in the Boston Globe

There's no shortage of action, but there's a curious lack of urgency. Our emotions are rarely engaged. It's been 22 years since Lucas directed a movie, and he's gotten rusty. His rhythm is off. Many of the scenes feel shapeless and flat - they're not ended, but abandoned... But when it works, the movie recreates the buoyant adrenaline rush the original Star Wars so lightheartedly and

consistently generated.

Newsweek

The [film] is always visually diverting thanks to the technical wizardry with which it creates creatures, spaceships and alien worlds. But it is neither captivating nor transporting, for it lacks any emotional pull as well as the sense of wonder that marks the best works of sci-fi.

Variety

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