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.

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence