After a 16-year gap in its ongoing saga (and a 22-year directorial hiatus for creator George Lucas), the "Star Wars" series is back with all of its virtues intact. But are those virtues numerous enough to satisfy the monumental expectations of its army of devotees, whose nostalgic amnesia may prevent them from recognizing that any flaws they spot in "Phantom Menace" were likewise there from the beginning?
"No story! No script!" The complaints have already begun to pour in. News flash, young Jedis: The "Wars" films were never marvels of writing. Like its predecessors, "Episode I" manages to be both thin and convoluted at the same time, with major plot developments piled onto each other at a speed that defies comprehension, then left to simmer for extended stretches of narrative inertia. By the time the expected opening-credits crawl has receded into the stratosphere, its few paragraphs of explication already have you terminally confused. Forget about trying to follow who's doing what to who and why; prep yourself instead for a deep-space horse opera in which the heroes and villains will at least be blessedly easy to identify.
"Phantom Menace" has something to do with a military struggle between the unsavory allies of the interstellar Trade Federation and a put-upon race of aliens called the Naboo. Caught in the middle is Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman), a kabuki-faced Naboo ruler who fends off a series of laser-blasting assassination attempts as she traverses the galaxy to plead for diplomatic intervention on behalf of her people. One look at her, and we know she'll prevail: Despite the urgent danger of her mission, she's always attired in one of a series of ornate royal gowns whose highly accessorized ostentation could keep Joan and Melissa Rivers talking for months.
On her side are Jedi knights Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and the young Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor, doing a respectable Alec Guinness impression). In the course of providing light-saber protection for their charge, the duo take on a new protégé -- Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), an apple-cheeked waif who's destined to grow into the fearsome Darth Vader.
The planet-hopping narrative is merely an excuse for Lucas to test the limits of his inexhaustible visual imagination. From stately underwater cities to impossibly pristine marble palaces, "Menace" takes us to more unforgettable science-fiction environments than we've seen in the entire time the "Wars" series has been on vacation. Unlike the humble efforts of its many imitators, however, Lucas' universe is a rich palette of light and shade, in which alien landscapes are as likely to be bathed in glowing midmorning sun as forbidding darkness. You don't just watch scenes this infused with hyper-reality; you live in them.
Advances in computer-effects technology enable the director to expand his vision with a supporting cast of non-humanoids (both corporeal and mechanical) that flit in and out of the frame at regular intervals, their function purely to provide momentary amusement. It's a logical extension of the low-budget culture clash that made the cantina sequence in the first film such a watershed for the genre. This time, that collision of the familiar and the otherworldly is the rule, not the exception. There's no time to wonder what that cute little thing with the wings is up to before it's gone from the screen, never to be named or explained. Oh, well. You can always check the official website.
"Menace" is far from perfect, and the cracks in its surface are visible from a distance light years away. Jar Jar Binks -- a lop-eared, pratfalling sidekick who resembles a hybrid of Roger Rabbit and Gregory Hines -- is overused as comic relief, eventually wearing out his welcome with any audience member over the age of 8. Lloyd is in over his head as Anakin, able to portray none of the underlying anger that's meant to be the character's chief trait. Gosh-gollying his way through a succession of traumatic defining moments, he appears destined to one day assume the mantle of Hanson membership, not galactic despotism.
Every time those qualms threaten to overwhelm, however, Lucas throws his thrusters into overdrive and whisks us away into another priceless land of fantasy. Or at least one that's well worth our seven dollars, which is a far more noteworthy achievement than it sounds.
That may not be enough for the legion of Luke-alikes who have made a simple movie dynasty the cornerstone of their entire fortune-cookie philosophy. But if "The Phantom Menace" leaves them feeling cheated, they might want to dwell a bit on what they expected of it in the first place -- and if they shouldn't try looking for it somewhere else.