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All sizzle, no soul in 'Phantom'

The new "Star Wars" prequel is good enough, but only just. It's got the hardware but neither the characters, the imagination, nor the resonance one had hoped for. What fans will want to know, now that the hype can be replaced with actuality, is whether "The Phantom Menace" is sufficiently of a piece with the first three films to make it worth seeing. The answer is yes, but not by much. George Lucas, perhaps inevitably drawn back into the "Star Wars" gravitational field, has talked a lot about technological razzle-dazzle not being nearly as important as the characters and story. But the truth is that it's the visuals and the new screenful of computer-generated whiz-bangs and other toys that drive "The Phantom Menace." Character and personality take a back seat on this ride.

The kids toward whom the new film is frankly skewed will storm the malls and multiplexes to see Ewan McGregor's Obi-Wan Kenobi as a young hothead Jedi apprentice, how Obi-Wan's wise mentor, Liam Neeson's Qui-Gon Jinn, teaches him control, and how they both discovered Jake Lloyd's prodigy, Anakin Skywalker, before he even knew there was such a thing as The Force, much less a Dark Side of it. R2-D2 and C-3PO (before he got the skin job that made him gold and shiny) are on hand, too. We're also introduced to Natalie Portman's young queen Amidala, who becomes the mother of Luke and Leia; to Samuel L. Jackson's Mace Windu, whose role as a Jedi Council mainstay is so small you know he'll be back in later episodes; and to Ahmed Best's comic relief, Jar Jar Binks, a rubber-limbed amphibian Gumby figure who talks funny and walks clumsy and brightens the rather long and lightweight film a lot.

In short, there's a lot that's eye-filling in "The Phantom Menace" but not much that's brain-filling, and nobody is going to think of it as soul food. Its high point isn't even the space or land battles one has come to expect of "Star Wars." It's a chariot race right out of "Ben-Hur," except that it takes place on the desert planet of Tatooine, its chariots are jet-powered jalopy pods, and young Anakin looks like a World War I flying ace as he challenges the nasty champ in a contest whose ultimate winner will be Nintendo; pod race games will fly off the shelves as fast as laser swords.

Great pains were taken to make the gear in "Phantom Menace" look less sleek and evolved than in "Star Wars," a reasonable enough decision since it takes place three decades earlier. Jabba the Hutt, who figures briefly, even looks less blobby than the heavyweight we meet later. Looking at Lloyd's smart, tough, empathetic Anakin has the effect of making us dread what we know will later be his downfall. But the fact is that there isn't much emotional tug this time around. "The Phantom Menace" is bland, perhaps not surprisingly considering the difficulty of conjuring up the freshness and wonder with which the original burst upon the scene.

Although technically slicker, this installment isn't nearly as involving as "Star Wars" or "The Empire Strikes Back." (By the time "Return of the Jedi" came out, there was a noticeable drop-off in energy and inspiration - a trend that continues here.) There's no equivalent here of Alec Guinness's twinkling wisdom, Harrison Ford's unruliness, or the looming ominousness of the grown Darth Vader. Lucas has written better stuff here for his Industrial Light & Magic computers than he has for the people.

"The Phantom Menace" mutes McEwan's Obi-Wan and Neeson's Qui-Gon to the point where we grow detached enough to speculate on possible influences of the new film. When Qui-Jon and Obi-Wan visit Anakin's mother, learn about the remarkable circumstances surrounding the boy's birth, and ask her permission to take her son from slavery on Tatooine to a life as an apprentice Jedi knight, the moment seems to echo, intentionally or not, "Citizen Kane." Visually, the idyllic capital of Naboo, the peaceful planet ruled by Amidala and coveted by the trouble-making Dark Lord of the Sith, suggests a cross between Marin County and the patina-domed campuses of Stanford and the University of California at Berkeley. The elaborate sci-fi towers of the Federation's capital city of Coruscant suggest "Metropolis" passed through a computer. Darth Maul, the bad guy in the climactic laser sword fight, suggests a hooded wannabe from the rock group KISS. Lucas even has fun with "Monday Night Football" in the character of a two-headed announcer at the pod races. The big victory celebration seems like a halftime show.

Just as Steven Spielberg's "Jurassic Park" dissolved the line between movies and theme parks, so "The Phantom Menace" dissolves the line between movies and merchandising. It's its own giant exercise in product placement. It's hard to believe that McGregor's Obi-Wan and Portman's Amidala won't be given juicier material in episodes two and three. Even allowing for the inevitably overinflated expectations connected to this overinflated event, "The Phantom Menace" is more fizzle than sizzle. Although it at least avoids disaster, it brings to mind an exchange at Lucas's recent press conference in New York. When I asked the director what was at stake for him with this movie, personally and professionally, he replied, "Nothing." Perhaps that's the trouble with it.

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