Star Wars, Episode I:

Imagine taking a stranger—a being from, say, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away—to see the new movie by reputed auteur George Lucas, the bureaucratically designated Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace. It would be like showing Magical Mystery Tour to someone who’s never seen A Hard Day’s Night, or offering a copy of Finnegans Wake to someone who’s never read Dubliners. For the first-timer, The Phantom Menace would be at best inexplicable. Of course, very few first-timers will see it. Like the seemingly inexhaustible run of Star Trek movies, Lucas’s latest is pre-sold; the audience will go home happy just to have caught a fresh glimpse of R2-D2.

During the recent, thoroughly stage-managed publicity blitz, the normally unapproachable Lucas has been at pains to note that his empire is a benign one; despite marketing plans that border on the Machiavellian, Star Wars is not a wholly owned subsidiary of the Dark Side. Indeed, the director’s new epic even invokes the legend of the man millions consider the best of all: In a move that earnest Christians may well consider sacrilegious—and the rest of us can only find pointless—the writer-director identifies his new hero, Anakin Skywalker, with Jesus Christ. (This son, of course, will later become the Vader, Lucas’ sham-Teutonic spelling of “father.”)

Despite its insinuated links to the Greatest Story Ever Told, The Phantom Menace is hardly convincing as a moral parable. It’s unmistakably a work of decadence, a feast of mannerism and ornamentation. In the computers of one of his other dominions, Industrial Light and Magic, Emperor Lucas has found toys that now interest him more than narrative and characterization. Presumably to reward fans who will see the movie again and again, the director has cluttered the frame with decorative detail and extraneous action (and outfitted the soundtrack with dialogue that’s only partially comprehensible on first hearing). The result is a vast pile of gilded gewgaws, the cinematic equivalent of the late-19th-century architectural fever-dreams that incited the Bauhaus stylistic insurrection.

This analogy is fitting, because The Phantom Menace recalls not only the much-imitated futuristic architectural fantasies of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis but also the work of Piranesi, who imagined a Baroque Italy that was even more extravagant than the real thing. While the Jedi council’s home, Coruscan, is decidedly Metropolitan, the capital of the threatened planet Naboo is Florence on steroids. Only humble Tatooine, the desert planet introduced in the first movie 22 years ago, hasn’t been overdesigned—and it’s the site of an over-long “pod race” that’s part video game, part Ben-Hur chariot race.

All this grandeur can’t disguise the fact that The Phantom Menace is effectively a remake of Star Wars, with a younger hero and a less distinctive villain. Like his son Luke, Anakin (bland tyke Jake Lloyd) is living on the backwater planet of Tatooine when he falls in with Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi. In this version of the tale—which I imagine you’ve heard is a “prequel”—Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) is still an apprentice knight, taking instruction from Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson). The Jedis’ most immediate enemy is Darth Maul (Ray Park), whose personality is mostly in his elaborate face paint—he looks as if he’s really peeved he didn’t get the gig as front man for the Prodigy.

The battle against the phantom menace—the mysterious, malevolent Sith, who will found the evil empire that Luke, Hans, and Leia will later defeat—involves the Jedi, old favorites Yoda, R2-D2, and C-3PO, and Naboo’s elected (hunh?) Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman). There are also some new comic-relief characters, all given insulting ethnic accents: Naboo’s lizardy conquerors sound vaguely Chinese; slave-boy Anakin’s owner, a body-shop proprietor who looks like an oversized housefly, might be Chicano; and Jar Jar Binks, a horse-fish-hybrid Nabooite banished from his underwater city, who helps the Jedi, speaks a semidecipherable lingo that suggests Jamaican patois. (It’s unclear why he was exiled, but my guess is that it had something to do with ganja.)

Nearly everyone who’s written about “Episode I” has mentioned Ben-Hur, but that film isn’t as crucial as The Searchers and The Hidden Fortress were to Star Wars. The new movie’s essential precursor is Who Framed Roger Rabbit, that breakthrough in combining live action and animation. Like that film, The Phantom Menace is heavily animated; 95 percent of the shots include at least some digital image manipulation. The technical accomplishment, however, doesn’t ensure narrative success. The contrast between human and virtual is jarring, and the actors seem to have been inspired (or uninspired) to emulate the flatness of their computer-generated cohorts. Not that Yoda, Jabba the Hutt, and the Ewoks were altogether convincing in the first three movies, but at least such players as Harrison Ford put up a good fight against Muppetification.

The film’s ungainly mix of actual and artificial only reinforces the aimlessness of Lucas’ wide-ranging cultural references. He borrows from striking cultures and periods, but the resulting mélange is hollow: Both Queen Amidala’s makeup and Obi-Wan Kenobi’s name appear Japanese, as does the samurai-epic array of robot warriors on a Naboo hillside. So what does it mean that Kenobi’s teacher has a name that seems Arabic? (A corruption of “Quran” and “djinn,” perhaps?) Surely nothing more significant than the fact that the residents of Italianate Naboo break into an African-style chorus at the movie’s end, the final empty flourish of John Williams’ hectoring score.

Lucas and his film-brat colleague Steven Spielberg are often paired as the technocrats who ruined Hollywood, establishing a new cinematic culture of pure sensation—and relentless mass marketing. Although he was once considered the shallower of the two, Spielberg’s been doing penance with films that address great issues of 19th- and 20th-century history. Lucas has been hyped as a scholar of myth, psychology, and comparative religion, but when he brings this knowledge to bear on philosophical dialogue, the result is hippie piffle like “Feel, don’t think,” “Fear is the path to the Dark Side,” and “Nothing happens by accident.” Actually, my guess is that the whole Star Wars phenomenon happened by accident. I don’t believe that Lucas originally intended to make three cowboys-in-space trilogies, or that he ever had enough ideas to sustain such a series. So it’s no surprise that, with The Phantom Menace, everything has stalled. Everything, that is, except burgeoning special-effects technology, the publicity machine, and the fans’ good will.

Those who doubt the Force of fandom should skip The Phantom Menace and head straight for Trekkies. There’s no comparison between the two in technical terms; director Roger Nygard’s film is amateurishly shot and edited. Still, Trekkies is funnier, smarter, and a lot more human than the summer’s pop-cult object of veneration.

The documentary focuses on fans of Star Trek, which is generally considered tackier than Star Wars because it began on the small screen. Still, the loony devotion the two inspire is comparable (and sometimes overlapping). In addition to soliciting comments from William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and another 15 or so stars of the original series and its successors, Nygard located a dentist who runs a Trek-themed “Starbase Dental” practice, a woman who wore her Star Fleet lieutenant commander’s uniform to court every day as a Whitewater juror, and eager participants at a Klingon-language camp. (It sounds a bit like Hebrew.) Some of these people dress their dogs, cats, or children in Trek outfits as well, perhaps creating a future market for Starbase Psychiatric.

“These people are foolish,” George “Sulu” Takei remembers thinking when he was first offered an honorarium to attend a Trek convention. Now on average three such conventions are held every weekend, and the market for Trek memorabilia remains vigorous. Although the various Trek series are still widely available on TV, their fan culture has clearly reached the point of being self-sustaining. One group of cultists is planning its own Trek film, while the small town of Riverside, Iowa, has declared itself the “future birthplace” of James T. Kirk. (The blessed event is due in 2228, and if it actually happens it will leave Anakin Skywalker’s messiahdom in the dust.)

Rendered with flashy but pointless camera angles and pans and edited to no particular schema, the documentary sometimes undermines the story it has to tell. When the movie rushes through an account of people who write Trek-themed erotica, it’s hard to tell if Nygard is embarrassed or just incompetent. These enthusiasts have voyaged to their own new and unknown worlds, and Trekkies just can’t keep up with them.

Although Daniel Lee’s Black Mask is nominally a sci-fi flick, its otherworldly settings are mostly on or near the docks of Hong Kong. Originally released in 1996 but now retrofitted for American audiences after star Jet Li made such a forceful stateside introduction in last year’s Lethal Weapon 4, this is HK action-film-making of exceptional visceral juice and relatively little brain power.

Hero Simon (Li) is a former member of the 701 Squad, one of those cadres of medically enhanced soldiers that governments are always creating and then trying to destroy in movies like this. Having escaped the liquidation planned by his mainland Chinese creators, Simon opts for peace and freedom: He moves to Hong Kong and takes a job as a librarian. His only connection to violence is a new but close friendship with HK supercop Rock (Lau Ching Wan), a tough guy who thinks Simon is a pacifist.

Then Simon’s old 701 cohorts reappear as part of a gratuitously cruel campaign to destroy the city’s drug dealers. This crusade is never fully explained, but it’s apparently just a way for the 701s to announce their presence—and their demands. It seems that their genetically altered bodies need a serum to stay alive, and they’re going to overturn all of society to get the stuff. Simon is forced back into combat to protect HK from his former cohorts, which means fighting his old pal Cailyn (Franco-Chinese-Canadian actress Francoise Yip, seen in Rumble in the Bronx). She might be Simon’s former lover, but neither he nor the movie has time to explain such sentimental matters. To protect his identity, Simon wears the titular mask, of which his co-worker Tracy (Karen Mok) cracks, “That Kato look is so retro.” (Since the dialogue has been dubbed, it’s impossible to tell if that joke was even in the original.)

The scenario allows for much brutality chic, including severed limbs and S&M, but Lee softens the violence stylishly with impressionistic, often blue-tinted light. Amid all the automatic-weapons fire and bomb explosions, the film underuses fight director Yuen Wo Ping, a longtime Li collaborator who went Hollywood this year with his work on The Matrix. Still, Ping and Li have two impressive showcases, one atop a trestle and the other involving a duel with live electric cables. It’s appropriate that a movie most notable for sheer dynamism peaks with a scene that is literally leaking electricity. CP