May the farce be with you

"Loud, vulgar, manipulative, careless and pretentious, `The Phantom Menace' is one of the worst movies ever made"
Having heaved my late-middle-aged carcass out of a chair and become a one-night hero to my girlfriend's kids by taking them to a preview, I can report that George Lucas's film, The Phantom Menace, is one of the worst movies I've ever seen. Loud, vulgar, manipulative, careless and pretentious - the lot. The only phantom in it is that of Lucas's former talent for actual film-making, gibbering and squeaking among the special effects. It isn't quite down there with the works of Ed Wood, mainly because its extravagant techie resources make that impossible - if you have $115m to spend on a 150-minute movie, or roughly $13,000 dollars a second, you should be able to give some sheen to the turd. The military-industrial complex has known this for many years, and the industrial-entertainment complex has learned it only too well. It is also true, in every creative life, that a guy has a right to his own cliches, at whatever level. But it can safely be said that, if rights can be abused at the expense of duties, then Lucas has abused this one - at the expense of the audience, which is bound to be the largest in cinematic history. It would be wonderful if The Phantom Menace flopped but, let's face it, we are living in the real world. It won't. It will make those who don't like it look like crabby and marginal elitists.

Tough. Maybe we are, but this is a condition once known as having some taste and independent judgement. Lucas has performed the remarkable trick of (a) inventing a genre, the sci-fi film with "epic" scale and metaphysical pretensions, and (b) bringing it to decadence, with several more sequels to come. And the wonderful thing, of course, is how Lucas's decadence as a film-maker resonates and, in that depressing term, "synergises", with the decadence of movie coverage in the American media. He has managed to broker or, more exactly, enforce a situation by which hundreds of thousands of promotional words have been churned out and published about The Phantom Menace by writers who were specifically forbidden by Lucas to see it ; and the said writers went right along with it because, in the end, the tail of Hollywood was wagging the ass, if not the whole dog, of journalism. This is a situation which not even the old titans of the studios could have dared to hope for, and it, too, is known conventionally as "synergy".

It may be a bit suspect to lavishly over-promote something you have seen, but what do we say of those who shower such praise on what they haven't? Oh, they're just doing their job, as presently defined. A job defined by Lucas and his ilk. The excuse is that things like The Phantom Menace aren't actually movies - they're part of the zeitgeist. They're Phenomena. And so on, and so forth. It's the most ludicrously overscaled reaction to an entertainment "phenomenon" since America was convulsed with panic by Orson Welles's 1938 radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds - the difference being that, whereas the deluded audience of that show thought it was a real report, the millions of people who will flock to The Phantom Menace will think that it's in some way metaphysically profound. Jedi Knights and villains and Ultimate Good and Evil and all that stuff, with Yoda wiggling his ears and the ghost of Joseph Campbell blithering in the background. This mock-Zen drivel about Will, Fate and Heroism is enough to make an honest droid blow his Intel.

It's so badly put together. Lucas has lost most of his sense of pacing. Sequences peter out, or they go on far too long, especially the battle scenes - though some of their hardware is wonderfully imaginative. The scooter-race sequence, an overblown parody of the chariot race in Ben- Hur, with dear old Jabba the Hutt in place of the Emperor Tiberius, lasts a timed 13 minutes, and by the end of it you've lost interest because you know what's going to happen anyway.

Lucas, a true postmodernist in his mania for appropriation, quotes lavishly from earlier film - Mack Sennett comedy, Cecil B DeMille biblikitsch and, of course, his own work - but without much wit. The best thing about The Phantom Menace is its design, by Doug Chiang and David Bouquet: one scene in the Galactic Senate is visually stunning. But even in this area, you know that Lucas and his team are too heavily dependent on earlier imagery - it's just that they've been able to gussy it up with special effects that didn't exist 75 years ago. The planet-sized city with traffic streams of spacecraft criss-crossing the lurid sky above the skyscrapers comes straight from Fritz Lang's Metropolis and Alexander Korda's Things to Come. The pompous mock-classical architecture of Naboo is from DeMille and Griffith, who got it from the early 19th-century American artist Thomas Cole. But it all looks like the Vatican Sheraton anyway.

The sets, however, are more expressive than the characters. They were conceived, it seems, merely as the prototypes of secondary marketing, from which incalculable millions of plastic dolls, fated some day (though not just yet) to clutter the attics and dank basements of family-rearing America, will be struck. At least those action-figures will be more three- dimensional than the people, aliens and robots on which they're based. I liked the Wookie, that hairy Yeti with overtones of inarticulate Wild Man, who played off so amusingly against Harrison Ford's sceptical and pragmatic Han Solo. His substitute, in The Phantom Menace, is Jar Jar Binks, a wrist-flapping, deer-faced twit of an alien with the voice of a Jamaican drag queen who encumbers every scene he's in with his overacted dippiness. Queen Amidala is a cipher, lacking not only royal bearing but even the snippy Hollywood-princess petulance that gave some life, however inadvertent, to Fisher's old performance as Princess Leia. On the other hand, Liam Neeson, who really can act, walks through his role as the Jedi knight Qui-Gon as though anaesthetised by his lines - as well he might be, since every one of them was written by Lucas, whose dialogue was never great but now can hardly even be called functional, such is its lack of wit or even inflection. And the gifted Ewan McGregor, as Obi-Wan Kenobi, turns into the merest cipher. Little Anakin Skywalker, the future Darth Vader, played by Jake Lloyd, does a wooden rendition of Dennis the Menace.

Despite the amount of munching the Jedi Council does over this brat's admission as a Jedi apprentice, lest he disturb the harmony of the Force, you never get the slightest hint that he might turn into Darth Vader: he's just vacuously cute all the way through, playing a video game locked inside the larger video game of Lucas's movie. Lucas's imaginative level has dropped so low that his way of conveying that this macho moppet might turn out to be, well, special is to suggest that his was an immaculate conception and a virgin birth, like You-Know-Who. Anakin even gets a Holy Single Mom who, in turn, gets to watch him going off to his Jedi destiny from their mock-Palestinian village - You-Know-Who leaving the droid- shop to preach, in future sequels, to zillions of already converted teenagers. I don't know if this is blasphemy, and wouldn't care if it was, but its manipulative vulgarity is not in doubt.

The only new character with any zip is a nasty old crook of a frontier trader in second-hand technostuff on the planet Tatooine, who has little Anakin as a slave and hovers around like a depraved bumblebee with a Shylock proboscis, talking in the voice of a French voyageur on the Mississippi, circa 1720. Him, I'd take home - at least in polystyrene form.

Do I hear you say Aw, c'mon, lighten up, it's just a kids' movie? Sure I do, and I'll lighten up when the accountants at Skywalker Ranch start issuing millions of refund cheeks for the ticket price of this ridiculously hyped, warp-driven turkey. Until then, no.

Robert Hughes has been art critic of `Time' magazine since 1970. He wrote and presented `The Shock of the New' and `American Visions' for television and is the author of several books, among them `The Fatal Shore', `Barcelona' and `The Culture of Complaint - the Fraying of America'