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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

'Phantom' a High-Tech Failure




"Star Wars: Episode One: The Phantom Menace," opening on July 30 at Pushkin Hall, is probably not the worst movie ever made. Probably. But it is without doubt one of the most dull, turgid, confused, witless, embarrassing assemblages of celluloid ever foisted upon the paying public.


No amount of hype, eager anticipation or high hopes for a grand entertainment in the classic "Star Wars" style can disguise the fact that this is a shockingly inept and unimaginative film. From its murky, leaden plot to its stilted dialogue to its morally repulsive premise (the divine origin and cutesy childhood of the galactic mass murderer, Darth Vader), "Phantom Menace" is a failure in every respect - except, of course, financially.


"Visionary" writer-director George Lucas has been accused of the desire to do away with live actors altogether someday, replacing them with digital fabrications. He comes close to achieving this goal here. For he doesn't just waste the talents of such gifted actors as Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor and Natalie Portman - he insults them and flings them away in contempt. Their characters are merely ciphers encoded into the gauzy computer mesh that overlays the entire film.


It's obvious from the very first scenes that Lucas, who hasn't directed a film since 1977, simply doesn't know what to do with human beings anymore. Almost every non-action scene is completely static: characters simply stand there, stiff as posts, delivering lines lumbered with portentous banalities. There is not even an attempt at attaining the kind of personal spark that flew back and forth between the original Star Wars characters.


Instead, all the film's energy and attention has gone into the special effects. These are, of course, the finest money can buy - and they are, literally, overwhelming. Where the original series teased the imagination with glimpses of strange worlds and fantastic creatures, we now get a screen crammed to bursting with obsessive, computer-generated detail. But this inert grandeur doesn't thrill or inspire; instead, it bludgeons the viewer and deadens the senses. "Phantom Menace" is Hollywood's answer to the Palace of Soviets - except Lucas, unlike Stalin, actually got his monstrosity built.


The film also exhibits unbelievably blatant ethnic stereotypes, resurrecting racist tropes that haven't been seen on the screen for 50 years. The main villains of the piece are grubby traders who speak with outlandish Asian accents that recall the "Fu Manchu" Chinese and "evil Jap" accents from World War II propaganda films. Then there is Jar Jar Binks, the unbearably irritating "comic relief" character, and the very embodiment of blackface "comedy" - cowardly, craven, jive-stepping and jabbering in pidgin English: "Me-suh is you humble suhvant!"


There is also a hook-nosed, slave-owning, money-mad merchant who oppresses poor little Darth (still known here as Anakin Skywalker) and his saintly mother. (She's a virgin, you see, who has given birth, we are told, to the "chosen one." How's that for an original plot twist?) No doubt this ill-treatment explains why Darth will go on to murder millions of people throughout the galaxy - it seems those hook-nosed, money-mad people are to blame again. So what's next? "Star Wars: Episode Two: The Pogrom Begins?"


Fantasy without imagination, technology without feeling, racial degradation, crackpot spirituality - yes, "Phantom Menace" is indeed an epochal event. For in its long, tedious, painful progress, it sums up the whole of the 20th century.


Maybe Lucas is a visionary after all.


"Star Wars: Episode One: The Phantom Menace" shows Aug. 1 to 15 at 11:30 a.m., 2, 4:30, 7 and 9:30 p.m. in the Big Hall of the Cinema Center on Krasnaya Presnya, 15 Druzhinnikovskaya Ul. Tel. 205-7306, 255-92237/9692. Metro: Krasnopresnenskaya, Barrikadnaya. Dubbed.