Lucas Strikes Back

Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace (PG) General release

Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace (PG) General release

Finally, after years of unprecedented hype and anticipation, George Lucas's first film in the prequel trilogy to Star Wars arrives at Irish cinemas, many of which will be showing it on three screens daily to meet demand. That demand is fuelled by childhood and teenage memories of the 1977 Star Wars among thirty-somethings, and by the excitement generated among a new generation by the hugely successful recent re-release of the Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. To many, the Star Wars experience is so deep and takes on such fervent religious overtones that, for them, it may survive the understandable disappointment triggered by a tidal wave of expectation which few movies, if any, could possibly match.

Hard as it might be to credit from the hysterical excesses of many media outlets, there are actually some people who approached Episode 1 with no great expectations or sense of excitement - and who merely smiled rather than felt the spine tingling when the familiar John Williams score struck up and the credits once again scrolled back into infinity to launch The Phantom Menace.

I know those people exist, because I am one of them. For me back in 1977, Star Wars paled as an escapist futuristic fantasy compared with Close Encounters of the Third Kind, as did Return of the Jedi in the aftermath of ET, and I found The Empire Strikes Back much the most rousing and engaging of the series. Of course, it was impossible not to admire the sheer technical virtuosity of the series, and that element is elevated to even higher planes of achievement, sophistication and wizardry in the new film. Set about 32 years before the 1977 Star Wars, The Phantom Menace opens most unpromisingly with a loquacious and over-explanatory scene-setting sequence. The future emperor, Senator Palatine (Ian McDiarmid) is quietly consolidating his powers at a time of unrest throughout the Republic when the small, peaceful planet of Naboo is threatened by an invading android army commanded by the unscrupulous Trade Federation. Sent to negotiate a settlement are the Jedi master Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his apprentice, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), who, in the course of their exploits, encounter a young slave boy, Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), in whom Qui-Gon senses the potential to bring balance to the Force, and he makes a fateful decision to train Anakin as a Jedi Knight.


The movie considerably ups the religious ante when Anakin's mother (Pernilla August) suggests that the boy was the result of an immaculate conception when she says, "There was no father. I carried him. I gave birth to him. I can't explain what happened". However, as we already know, Anakin is set to grow up to be the evil Darth Vader, but that's the subject for another day - some day in the summer of 2002 when Episode 2 is released and that element of the narrative is developed.

Thereby hangs one of the recurring problems with Episode 1: so much of it is consumed by expository plotting of the back story to characters and incidents already so familiar from Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi that there is something cursory about it all and one longs for Lucas to get on with things.

This he does eventually, delivering a number of quite superb set-pieces which catapult the movie out of its inertia: the dazzlingly shot and edited high-speed pod race on Tattooine: a terrific, extended space battle; and dramatic three-way light-sabre combat involving Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan and an athletic new villain, Darth Maul. We could have done with rather more of Darth Maul and a great deal less of the computer-generated, jive-talking Jar Jar Binks, who is, in a word, jarring.

Altogether more welcome is the return of such old favourites as Yoda, Jabba the Hutt, R2D2 and C-3PO, even though the latter is still a work-in-progress created by young Anakin. Playing the young Obi-Wan, Ewan McGregor sounds aptly refined given that the character already has been played with such gravitas as an older man by Alec Guinness, while Liam Neeson invests the pensive QuiGon with Zen-like dignity, grace and integrity.

Back in the director's chair for the first time since he made Star Wars 23 years ago, Lucas sends audiences out of the cinema on a high note when he finally injects some spirited vigour into the proceedings in the last 45 minutes or so for a finale in which the special effects are quite remarkable and the scale is commendably ambitious.

The Third Man (members and guests only) IFC, Dublin

Re-released in a restored print to mark its 50th anniversary, this classic - set in post-war Vienna - took the Palme d'Or for best film at Cannes in 1949 and is arguably director Carol Reed's best film. Orson Welles gives an indelible performance as the shady Harry Lime, with Joseph Cotten as his novelist friend, Holly Martens. The incisive screenplay is by Graham Greene and the unforgettable zither music by Anton Karas.

Bollywood comes to Dublin this weekend with the launch of what's planned as a regular series of Saturday and Sunday screenings devoted to the world's most prolific film industry, Indian cinema. The first in the series is Bimi No. 1 (Wife No. 1), which tells the story of Pula (Karisma Kapoor) and her errant husband, Perem (Salman Khan) whose extra-marital affair forces her to take matters into her own hands. The film is directed by David Dhawan, who is regarded as Indian cinema's king of comedy. The film will be shown tomorrow and on Sunday at 11.30 a.m. in the IFC, Dublin. Admission is £5.