Star Wars, Episode I The Phantom Menace 3D

Star Wars, Episode I The Phantom Menace 3D. Starring Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Writer and Director: George Lucas. 136 mins. PG (Mild violence).

This 1999 has just been released in 3D. So let’s start with the bad news. “The Phantom Menace” was never a great film. The special effects are terrific, and the 3D makes these even better. The musical score is as good as ever, the sound editing is first class and Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor’s performances are decent (and no more). But, as the film director’s manual says, “where’s the drama?”

It was always a gamble going to a pre-quel. There are no surprises in this film and the action is predictable and passe. And no matter how loud and long the critics say it is a very average film, even now in 3D it making a fortune, all over again.

“The Phantom Menace” answers the question “where did Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker come from?” This is their film. Qui-Gon (Neeson) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (McGregor) are Jedi Knights sent to sue for peace on behalf of the planet Noboo. In doing so, they encounter the evil forces of Darth Maul.

To win the fight they encounter a young boy, Anakin Skywalker, who Neeson recognises to be special. He saves the day, Darth Maul is done in and all live happily until the next film was made (if you can follow that confused chronological line).

I would like to interview George Lucas. I want to ask him two questions: Have you recently joined a 12-step programme? Are you a born again Christian?

It is only in light of these two spiritual traditions that I could come to grips with “The Phantom Menace” because this is a very curious film. It is a like computer generated medieval passion play about the hidden life of Jesus.

The history of the development of the New Testament is about questions arising about who Jesus was and where he came from. Mark, the oldest Gospel, tells us only of his public ministry, Matthew and Luke start with his conception and birth, John tells us of his pre-existence. George Lucas is firmly in the same tradition - where did Skywalker and Darth Vader come from?

“The Phantom Menace” does for the Starwalker clan what the Evangelists did for Christianity. And the claims for both are similar. We meet Anakin Starwalker as a nine-year-old boy. He is a slave in a remote desert corner of the Universe. It could be the Nazareth of the 21st Century. We are told at the outset that he “gives without any thought of receiving”, that “he knows no greed”, he has “special powers” and “sees things before they happen”. His mother confesses that “he has no father. I carried him, I raised him and I don’t know how he came to be.” Later we are told Anakin brings “hope to those who have none”, is the “chosen one” and that he fulfils “the prophecy about the one who would bring balance to the Force.”

I am always suspicious of ‘Jesus figures’ in the cinema, but George Lucas is recasting the Messiah for the 21st Century. In the next film, as we know, it all goes wrong.

Qui-Gon recognises Anakin as “greater than all the Jeddi” and effectively becomes the boys’ foster father. Anakin becomes an apprentice to Qui-Gon. He should have been called Joseph. After he dies, Obi Wan Kenobi promises to make Skywalker his disciple. Take a bow John the Baptist! It’s all there. This is a galactic morality play. Even Darth Maul looks like a  medieval devil.

And all the while this morality play serves up twelve step spirituality: “take it one day at a time”, “let go of the past and don’t live in the future” and believe in the higher power, or “force” as Lucas has it. Don’t get me wrong. I am not unhappy about any of this. In fact, I am admiring of it. Modern parables of the hidden life of Jesus, espousing the spiritual sanity of the 12 steps are to be recommended.  I only wish it were a better film.

The special effects cannot save us from poor dialogue, a predictable and dull plot, very ordinary acting from the Natalie Portman (Queen Amidala) and Ian McDiarmid (Senator Palpatine) and the constant internal commentary on the action of the film.

Whenever Christ comes again, I hope it will be a bit more exciting than this!

Fr Richard Leonard SJ is the director of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

20th Century Fox.

Out February 9 2012.