Cinema: It's Lucas who's the real menace

Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace Director: George Lucas Starring: Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman (133 mins; U)
Well, I tried, I really tried. Truffaut once observed that the ordinary man in the street has two jobs, his own and that of film critic; nowadays, a film critic is also expected to have two jobs, his own and that of ordinary man in the street. Personally, I continue to believe that the criteria to which critics owe sole allegiance are their own taste, judgement and erudition. In the particular case of The Phantom Menace, however, I genuinely tried to sweep from my mind the glorious debris of three and a half decades of filmgoing and just enjoy the spectacle like an ordinary paying customer.

But, really, no, it was impossible. From the ridiculous title, with those two M's gummily stuck together in the middle, to the uniformly atrocious performances, from the incomprehensible plot to the sluggish pacing, The Phantom Menace is an unsalvageable disaster, of interest only - to anyone over the age of eight - as a documentary on its director's mindset. For it's frighteningly obvious that, if he himself hadn't made it, George Lucas would have been one of those pathetic nerds seen on television queueing up for days in advance to purchase a ticket.

I never cared for the earlier Star Wars episodes - except, in the very first, for the droll scene which had our heroes stopping over for refreshments in a trendy extraterrestrial eatery, or what you might call a Mars bar. But, whatever was Lucas's former flair for populist mythopoeia, and it would be churlish to deny that he did indeed possess such a flair, he's patently lost it. Nothing, absolutely nothing, works this time around.

Consider the choice of the characters' names, an elementary but eloquent test of an artist's powers of imagination. Sio Bibble? Boss Nass? Nute Gunray? Daultey Dofine? Ric Olie? Jar Jar (hilariously pronounced "Zsa Zsa") Binks? Does Lucas really expect these to ring down the ages? Compared to such duds, "Luke Skywalker" and "Han Solo" suddenly strike one as coinages of genius, up there with "Falstaff" and "Don Quixote".

Or the narrative development, which centres, as an expositional title informs us, on interplanetary taxation problems. Taxation problems, for heaven's sake! I never thought I'd say this of a science-fiction movie, but those I can get at home!

A more serious issue is raised by the biologically indiscriminate menagerie that populates the movie. In America Lucas has already been accused of racism, a charge that can't be shrugged off as political correctness run rampant. Jar Jar, for example, a snouted denizen of the planet Naboo, is played by an African-American actor, the inauspiciously named Ahmed Best. I say inauspicious as, to anyone versed in Hollywood's history, his campy falsetto and excruciating comic-relief antics are disturbingly reminiscent of one Willie Best (no relation, I hope), who was regularly cast in the 1930s, like almost all black performers of the period, as a saucer-eyed valet or Pullman car conductor. And Jar Jar is by no means the worst of the movie's stereotypes. Even more offensive is Sibulba, an elephantine slave-trader whose hooked nose and oleaginous manners come straight from the Nazis' anti-Semitic stock barrel.

My guess, though, is that Lucas is probably just too ignorant to be a racist. By that, I obviously don't mean to equate racism with knowledge. All I'm suggesting is that - since, clearly, his exclusive point of reference is the movies - he may know so little of the world beyond Hollywood that he's like the character in Woody Allen's Mighty Aphrodite who had to be reminded who the "bad guys" were in Schindler's List. Say what you like about Spielberg, who has often been bracketed with Lucas, but he at least was capable of conceiving a film like Schindler's List. Lucas, never.

Which leaves, yawn, the special effects. A curious fact of contemporary special effects, whose implications for the medium's future no one has as yet explored, is that, the more sophisticated they become, the closer they bring the movies to, paradoxically, books. Everything, after all, has always been possible in print; now everything is equally possible on film. A cinematic frame is merely a page of text on which a director (a major Hollywood director, that is) can write whatever he pleases.

In consequence, having reached a point of culmination, or academicism, special effects have forfeited their capacity to impress us in and of themselves. It's the wit, style and invention with which they're exploited that are now calculated to produce the effect; and (not surprisingly, perhaps, in view of his shameless filchings from Kurosawa, Disney, Powell and Pressburger, Blade Runner, Ben Hur, The Wizard of Oz, et al), Lucas's digital doodles, state-of-the-art as they may be, look peculiarly dated and derivative. As far as The Phantom Menace is concerned, that celebrated Open Sesame, "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away ... ", strikes one as all too uncomfortably apposite. It really does feel as though it's taking place a long time ago.

Naturally, nothing that I, or any other reviewer, can say will have the slightest influence on the movie's success. When one is dealing with a phenomenon on the unprecedented scale of Star Wars, criticism is of utterly no consequence. In any case, The Phantom Menace is itself less important than the merchandising frenzy surrounding it. It was Hitchcock who invented the delightful word "McGuffin" to describe the kind of pivotal but ultimately meaningless plot point - a secret formula, a cache of stolen plans - whose only real function is to get things going. With Lucas the movie itself is the McGuffin.