Assessing the Empire's new clothes
By Peter Keough
MAY 24, 1999: Darth Vader conceived via virgin birth? The Force passed on by infectious organisms that are like a Neo-platonic AIDS virus? These and an underdeveloped C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), a racist amalgam named Jar Jar (Ahmed Best) who's part Disney's Goofy and part Stepin Fetchit with a Rasta lilt, and the most expensive flatulence joke in the history of cinema (may the farts be with you?) are some of the more intriguing elements in a film that is largely irrelevant after the marketing campaign that preceded it.
That hype now makes it hard to recall the original innocence and exuberance of the Star Wars phenomenon. Not only did the first trilogy offer the escapism of "a galaxy far, far away," but the bland Joseph Campbell soup of its pop psychology notwithstanding, the Force had the pull of the Dark Side -- the enigmatic charisma of Vader, the Oedipal ambiguity of Luke's lineage. Here, though, at the story's supposed origins, the dark side is the down side. The movie has no heart, dark or otherwise, only state-of-the-art accouterments.
As for the story, the prospects dim with the unscrolling of the torturously written introduction -- trade routes? tax disputes? bickering congress? It's like recent headlines without the sex scandals. The planet of Naboo on the galaxy's fringes is at the focus of a nebulous conflict between the blundering Republic and the Federation, the corporate precursor of the evil empire to come. Sent to negotiate the dispute are the Jedi knight Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson, more dispirited than detached) and his apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor as the younger Alec Guinness seems more sour than tart). But the noseless, mandarin-like Federation representatives (shades of the green menace) have a covert invasion and more in mind, and the Jedis must flee with kabuki-coiffed Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman, lost in ornate costumes, hairstyles, and a pointless subplot lifted from Kagemusha) to the familiar desert planet of Tatooine.
How to combine an update of the Ben-Hur chariot race, a cameo from Jabba the Hutt, and the appearance of the future Darth Vader? Strapped for cash to repair their ship, the Jedis decide to bet that nine-year-old Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd, more Dennis than menace) can win a "pod race" held by the obese, slug-like crimelord. Qui-Gon notes that the young slave boy has an overdose of the Force and decides that he is "the Chosen One" who will restore balance to the universe, a conviction supported when Anakin's mother (Pernilla August) shrugs her shoulders in answer to questions about the boy's paternity. When the skeptical Obi-Wan objects to his master's affinity for the precocious stranger, Qui-Gon points out that there is no such thing as coincidence, at least not in a movie with such a contrived plot.
Be that as it may, the resultant race is one of the film's most thrilling sequences, and aside from the phallic and vaginal imagery (whether he knows it or not, Lucas rivals David Cronenberg in that regard) one of the most gratuitous. But it does get Qui-Gon and company off the ground, and what follows is a multi-front engagement, related in laborious parallel editing backed by a portentous John Williams score (though his climactic Carl Orff-ish and Wagnerian strains are memorable), that's a reconfiguration of The Return of the Jedi. While friendly fighters attack a prototype of the Death Star, the Jedi and Queen Amidala sneak up on the Federation usurpers in the throne room, and Jar Jar and his Gungans -- a Caribbean version of the pseudo-African Ewoks -- wage primitive warfare (Lucas's anti-technology message consists of delivering a neutron bomb with a catapult) against hordes of android warriors (like the skeleton army in Jason and the Argonauts, but less scary).
One major development from the previous episodes is that, except for some mano a mano between the Jedi knights and bad guy Darth Maul (a charismatic Ray Park, whose red-and-black-patterned face and horns make him look like Satan or a cheap carpet), no humans are injured in the course of this movie. Menace's reliance on computerized creatures not only lets Lucas get away with the racial stereotyping of Jar Jar, the Asian-inspired Federation bad guys, and a big-nosed housefly of a slave trader who seems like an outtake from Aladdin, it also lets him engage in wholesale slaughter with impunity. Legions of androids are dismembered, many by young Anakin at the controls of what looks like the galaxy's greatest video game. Given the kid's destiny, not to mention the recent nightmare in Colorado, this Phantom might be more menacing than it seems.
Of Stars and SternNEW YORK -- Deep inside the well-fortified cinema at Broadway and 13th Street, on the night of May 8, a resounding sucking sound could be heard. Only the very privileged had been permitted to enter this theater-turned-Star-Wars-shrine, and at that their tickets had to be authenticated by hand-held black-light wands. Dry-witted film critics filled most of the seats. A giddy Natalie Portman (Queen Amidala) was in attendance, as was Samuel L. Jackson (a Jedi master) and Ahmed Best (Jar Jar Binks). But the sucking sound was coming from Howard Stern as he ingratiated himself to as many people, including security, as humanoidly possible.
Somewhere between the original 1977 Star Wars (which was largely panned) and this year's The Phantom Menace (which has been inordinately hyped), reality has taken a hard left. What began as a movie aimed at 10-year-old boys became first a fad, then a belief system, then a merchandising tsunami. Now, Star Wars' creator and intermittent director, George Lucas, is retreating from his L. Ron Hubbard status back to the safe harbor of "It's just a movie." In a press conference at Manhattan's Regency Hotel ballroom (which at first he declined to do and then agreed to), Lucas suggested that though Star Wars is "designed to make people think about the larger mysteries of life, there are definitely not enough answers in Star Wars to constitute a religion."
But what about all the hype? Sitting under the glare of TV lights, Lucas cried uncle. "I'm a little surprised at the imbalanced attention the film has gotten. Actually we have tried very hard to not let the film be over-hyped, and it got out of control and over-hyped anyway."
And the issue of fans worshipping at the temple of FAO Schwarz? Lucas awarded himself an ecclesiastical indulgence: "Well, it doesn't seem to bother the Church very much." Then he positioned himself as the underdog. "The movie and the merchandising are two different things. They are not connected. I have had to make sure that I have exploited everything I possibly can on the movie. It's like being an Indian, when you kill a buffalo, you have to use everything. I'm a very small company relative to the studios."
Late that same day, a different scenario was revealed by producer Rick McCallum. Asked point blank whether the press was even needed, he answered, "Not really, no." In other words, Star Wars is a project with no downside, no risk, even with its $115 million budget. McCallum elaborated, "We have a lot of other [related] businesses. We have the books, which are expected to be huge. The soundtrack, which is expected to be very huge. And the toys are huge."
Yet though the power of the cult, if not the Force, places Lucasfilm above the critics, the filmmaker has not been able to extract himself completely from the system. The usual understanding that reviews should not appear more than 24 hours before the release was breached, mostly at the behest of info-hungry readers. Rolling Stone and the New York Post printed reviews two weeks in advance. Lucasfilm feels abused.
McCallum has seen the light and it's emanating from the monitors of computer screens. "There are 1400 Star Wars Web sites now with an average daily involvement of seven or eight million people. Worldwide, on peaks like when the trailer comes out, there's 30 to 40 million people. You can have a kid write an article that eight or 10 million people read in a week. That's five times the subscription rate of Time or Newsweek." Bottom line for McCallum is that this will probably be the last time the press gets a whack at previewing a Star Wars movie.
Meanwhile, this imbroglio over hype and control has produced a counter-swing
subcult embodied in the single persona of Howard Stern. So sycophantic was he
at the screening that he rearranged the gravitational pull in his immediate
vicinity. When he next got on the air, however, he did an about-face, reaching
the by-now hardly original critical conclusion that Stars Wars is not as
good as it gets.
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