In May of 1977, I was three years old. We were living in Paris at the time. My Dad was on a supposed eleven-month assignment for his company. Two years later we were still there.

On January 31, 1978, I turned four and my world was changed forever by a film. That film was Star Wars and the viewing was my birthday present. I've been a die-hard science-fiction/fantasy fan, ever since.

Tonight, after waiting more than ten years, a new Star Wars movie finally opened. As I watched, I kept hearing echoes from that first time I saw it so many years ago, felt the same sene of excitement when the big yellow letters scrolled across the screen and wanted to turn to my mother and say in my now-adult voice, "Mommy, can we see it again?".

The Phantom Menace has alternately been maligned as "plotless," "soulless," and "a kiddie movie," by various critics

The only one that I have read so far that had anything mildly positive to say about the film, was the revered Roger Ebert.

It's reviews like this that make me believe that film critics are for the most part, cynical, jaded folk without an ounce of imagination or humor.

At any rate, for the amusement value, and because I came out of the theatre starry-eyed once more as a result of Mr. Lucas' work, here is my own spoiler-free review of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace

The lights went down, the music came up. Cheers erupted and filled the theatre. Across the screen, scrolled the by-now, magically familiar mile-high yellow text, in a much crisper format than any seen before.

Immediately a hush descended over the breathless throng as the opening scene burrowed its way into our sub-consciousnesses, becoming an indelible part of a tradition begun over twenty years ago.

Bearing all the earmarks of a Lucas production, The Phantom Menace is indeed a feast for the senses. The visual imagery is intense and poetic in almost every shot, the effects are dazzling, almost too much so in fact, but everything serves to bring the story to full, walking talking, breathing life.

Neither is the film lacking in heart or humor, as Jake Lloyd gives a commendable performance as young Anakin Skywalker. In his eyes can be read all of the mischief and enthusiasm of a small boy, as well as the desolation of loneliness and the inklings of a depth and maturity that are no doubt still to come. Though there were a few awkward spots, Lloyd's overall performance was quite strong.

The by-play between Anakin and his mother Shmi, as well as Anakin and the handmaiden Padmé are especially affecting. Keep an eye on his expressions in scenes where he is not the focus of the camera -- he does an admirable job of staying in character throughout.

Humorous touches abound, especially in the department of self-referential jokes. Unfortunately many of these may go over the heads of casual viewers who have only seen the "original" trilogy once or twice before. However, Ahmed Best as Jar Jar Binks turns in a performance of physical comedy that is all the more remarkable for the replacement of his features by an alien CGI-crafted head.

Speaking of the CGI, though there are places where Jar Jar sticks out like a sore thumb, he looks right at home in his natural environment. Not necessarily an unusual occurrence. I felt most aware of his "CGI-ness" in scenes that took place on Tatooine or Coruscant, the capital planet of the Republic, but when on Naboo, I had no problem believing that this creature was a natural denizen.

Once again, Liam Neeson proves his acting chops, bringing the contained Qui-Gon Jinn to life with a quiet dignity that gives the movie its spirtual core.

Both Natalie Portman and Ewan MacGregor are competent as Queen Amidala and the young Obi-Wan Kenobi, but their characters are only lightly sketched in here, the groundwork laid for their later development in Episodes Two and Three.

Pernilla August was the biggest surprise because she was completely unknown to me. She deftly manages to be both motherly and caring, yet resigned in the face of her son's fate. An enchantingly grounded, yet at the same time otherwordly performance.

Finally, though Ian McDiarmid was as creepy as ever in the role of Palpatine, I was very disappointed by Darth Maul. I expected him to scare my boots off. Suffice to say that there were only two instances where I felt even vaguely threatened and they passed very quickly.

The movie overall, has a number of rough spots -- I felt like a bit of judicious editing to prune a couple of over-long segments was in order to tighten up the whole. In other words, I had some issues with the pacing of the film and felt my attention beginning to wander from time to time. However just as I reached that brink, the scene would change and I'd be drawn last into the story again.

I also found that this movie needs the rest of the films to be properly appreciated, but at the same time, some if the bite is taken out of it because we DO know what is going to happen. A lot of the suspense and threat is lost to foreknowldge. Furthermore, this movie seems to be heavily canted towards its fan-base: some of the jokes and plot will be lost on any

The Phantom Menace is a worthy addition to the Star Wars saga, if only because it sets the stage so well for what is to come. All of the threads that weave the tapestry of the wider story are drawn out here, some more obviously than others. It will take multiple viewings for me to catch all of the subtle hints of Things To Come that are dropped.

In essence, this is really the first act of the play -- the characters are introduced, the stage set, the base elements of the plot put into motion. As groundwork, this is an admirable outing from Mr. Lucas. The only problem, is that I just can't wait for more.

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