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Film Studies: I've been to `Star Wars' and I've got the stub to prove it

About two weeks before 19 May, you could feel the air going out of the balloon called Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace. The mounting hype was impatient for that Wednesday, no matter that George Lucas likes to think of himself as someone who doesn't do things the old, manipulative, Hollywood way. Two weeks ago, the papers and the television news were agog with stories of people camping out on the streets to get in to the very first screening. Every magazine had Lucas on its cover.

I asked my son, the nine-year-old, whether he was prepared on opening day to get up early and brave the lines with me. I should have known, there and then, that something was wrong.

"The Phantom Menace?" he said.

"You've got it, my lucky lad."

He sighed. "Seen the trailer?"

"You betcha!" I volleyed back.

"Feeling all right, Dad? Getting some sleep?"

It turned out that the nine-year-olds at his school had been disappointed by the trailer. It didn't have any edge or laughs, much less sex or violence. The creatures were weird, but the "humans" were flatter. My son did his best for me. "The seven-year-olds," he said. "They're talking about it. I think it's a young thing."

Then the sour stories started to accumulate. The lines outside the theatres didn't grow longer. Perhaps they shrank, as May stayed cold in California. And there were stories about how ruthlessly Lucas had sold his film to theatres. You see, he footed the $115m production bill himself, and then allowed Twentieth Century-Fox to be its distributor - but only on his terms.

These included a bare 10 per cent of the box-office going back to Fox, and they required that any theatre running the picture was obliged to retain it for at least 12 weeks. What that meant was that Lucas, whether he intended this or not, was ensuring that the best theatres were unlikely to play Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut (set to open in America on 16 July). People who had scant interest in the business or the cut-throat nature of distribution suddenly became indignant on behalf of Kubrick. George Lucas began to seem like a hustler - instead of just the best of the independents. One commentator noted all the tie-ins with fast-food franchises - so many that the film was guaranteed to be in profit even if not one ticket was sold. On the radio, he said that the new Star Wars was more intent on filling kids with junk food than introducing them to Joseph Campbell's mythology.

"That was you, Dad," said my son. "I heard you say it."

"I don't see why my column shouldn't quote me. Last offer," I said. "It's the 19th tomorrow."

"No," he said. "I don't think I want to miss a day's school."

By then, the first reviews were in - polite but lacklustre, putting on a brave face and turning a blind eye, but generally admitting to let-down. You could feel the mood at dinner parties: it was as if the film had already opened, and people were going to wait for the video. Somehow, in those last two weeks, the tide turned, and now the sea was half a mile away.

So I reckoned I'd be blase. I turned up a moment or two late for the first screening at 10.30am. The lobby of the multiplex where it was playing on all 10 screens was nearly deserted. I asked for a seat at the next available screening, and the girl in the kiosk said I could make the 10.30 if I wanted. The ticket was only $5.

The theatre was half-full. When the screening ended, there were about five seconds of applause from a few loyalists. It stopped abruptly, and when we came out, there were maybe 50 people waiting for the next screening. That's just one theatre, in San Francisco (a town where Lucas is regarded as a local), but if the pattern is borne out across the nation, then The Phantom Menace is in trouble.

I am no fan of Lucas or his pictures, but this is the dullest of the Star Wars series. There is no urgency in the story; the characters are drab and unexplored; and my son - or yours - could have improved the dialogue in an afternoon. Liam Neeson looks like someone trapped, while Ewan McGregor is passing the time by trying to sound like a young Alec Guinness (he plays Obi-Wan Kenobi). Natalie Portman should go back to school. And Terence Stamp looks torn between grief and wrath at being wasted again.

There are pretty effects - it is now reported that out of 2,200 shots, 235 were actually photographed, as opposed to being rendered through a computer. But if you want to know what's wrong in a nutshell: we all know there's a little boy in this film, Anakin Skywalker, who will become Darth Vader. OK, giving the game away is a handicap. Surely, though, you then turn Anakin into a bright, appealing child who gradually discloses darker, more alarming traits? You make the flux of good and evil dramatic. No way. Anakin remains just a kid in the screenplay, written by Lucas himself. It remains to be seen whether we have enough kids dumb enough to settle for that timidity.