Such intangibles as motive aside, however, the monolith remains. How was it?
It was a great Star Wars movie. Notice that I did not say just a great "movie". Within the genre that Lucas alone has created and sustained, it is a keeper.
Why? Because "The Phantom Menace" is not about the fact that Lucas rehashes lines like, "I have a bad feeling about this", or about the fact that none of the characters/actors have even half the vitality of a Han Ford or a Princess Fischer. No more than it is about Industrial Light and Magic's ability to create entire protagonists from bits and bytes. It's a Star Wars movie, and like its characters, inhabits a cinematic universe where the normal laws of nature don't apply.
One doesn't go to see a Star Wars movie for good acting, clever dialogue, or interesting character development, any more than one watches a John Wayne movie for these reasons. One goes to be enraptured by the endless visual creativity that fills every nook and cranny of each scene. One goes to be on the edge of one's seat during improbably fast dogfights and exotically high-tech races. One goes to cheer the fast thinking of the good guys as they engage in one tension-filled gun fight after another. One goes to be awed by the vastness of outer space as seen through the lenses of Industrial Light and Magic.
Is this formulaic? Yes. Is it purely entertainment? I don't think so. For what separated Star Wars from the onslaught of other high-budget high-tech sci fi flicks that followed in its wake (Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rodgers, et al.)-all movies, incidentally with much less clunky dialogue and, in the case of Star Trek, much more original plot lines-is the series' mystical higher purpose, for lack of a better term. No matter what your opinion of Lucas' fictional, hybrid brand of faith, synthesizing as it does a number of both far-Eastern and Western ideas, and no matter how reductive it sounds in the mouths of the Jedi characters, there is no doubt that it, the characters' spiritual quest, is foremost in Lucas' mind. They may be consciously engaged in it, in the case of Luke and his father, or unconsciously working for or against it, in the case of Han and his friend Lando, but the story never really focuses on anything else thematically. The love interest between Han and Leia, for example, never constitutes more than a secondary plot line, and certainly the carnal side of their affections is never indulged for the sake of the movie goer.
So what you are left with is a film that actually does speak in mystical terms in a serious way, all while drawing you enthusiastically into the struggle engendered by these mystical forces. And it works. Or at least so sayeth millions of movie goers spanning multiple generations. And speaking of generations, it is here that I'd be willing to bet on Lucas' final act as a metaphorical Skywalker/Vader. He has made it clear in several interviews that, although the final three episodes exist on paper, he doubts he'll have the time or desire to complete them himself. Which means that he, like Qui-Gon Jinn, will have to rely on the time-honored tradition of apprenticeship to see it through. And so to my way of thinking, the most interesting aspect of the next two episodes will be to see who the next "chosen one" is, and how this apprenticeship evolves.
In the meantime, we critics will continue to try to prove that the pen
is mightier than the light saber. The review I read while waiting for the
previews in the darkened theatre predictably rated "Phantom" a
"D". Which is to miss the point of the series. If you're interested
only in great film, you should probably spare yourself the two-hours. If
however you're interested in great storytelling, in the classic sense, then
you wouldn't want to miss this chapter.