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Twenty-two years later, technology finally catches up with George Lucas' imagination.

The Force Is Back, By George!

The suspense was killing us. We'd read the early buzz on the Internet. "Disappointing" seemed to be the word used most by ardent fans and some critics when writing about "Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace."

Sitting in the middle of an invitation-only screening of the film in D.C. last week, I could feel the atmosphere clouded with fear. Yes, fear. Fear that this long-awaited first installment of the much-hyped new trilogy from the Jedi Master of them all, George Lucas, would suck. Well, fear not.

"Episode 1: The Phantom Menace" is a creature feature, overflowing with imaginative droids and odd polyglot species. It's a thrill ride of computer-generated epic proportions that will one second have you holding your breath as speed-of-light pods race around the sandstone rock formations on the desert planet Tatooine, and the next, will take your breath away with the underwater hidden city of the Gungan or the bustling futuristic metropolis of Coruscant.

It is not, however, the seminal original. While "Star Wars" (Episode IV: A New Hope) was a heady mix of classic heroic storytelling and state-of-the-art special effects wizardry, "The Phantom Menace" opts for eye-popping effects over character development. Action without the investment of an audience's heart is just a big-screen video game. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Except that not knowing what to expect from "The Phantom Menace," most of us incorrectly expected the best — another "Star Wars."

At the screening, the biggest applause came within the first seconds of the film. Just seeing the now-familiar opening "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away ..." was enough of a trigger to send most of us back to 1977, instantly recalling the joyous thrill of the original. We all read silently as the plot basics scrolled up the screen: "Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic... ." Ohhh, that's good. Two Jedi Knights have been sent to Naboo to help the young Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman), who is being pressured by members of the Trade Federation to sign an unjust treaty.

Those two Jedi Knights just happen to be Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor). Relying on his advanced senses, Qui-Gon realizes that things are not as they seem. Soon, he and Obi-Wan have drawn their light sabers and are battling Federation droids that look something akin to robotized whippets on two legs. Escaping from the palace, the two find themselves in the lush forest of Naboo, just ahead of the Federation's droid occupation force. Out in the wilds are another strange inhabitant of Naboo: the Gungans. Part horse and part man, these pink creatures have long ears that flow past their shoulders and two yellow eyes that stick out on stalks. Qui-Gon has a close encounter with one such Gungan named Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best). Jar Jar is the perfect foil for the two serious Jedi, a braggart of comic proportions. Compromising his own safety, Jar Jar leads them to his hidden underwater city where they plead their case with the Gungan leader for some sort of transport back to the Queen's palace. They succeed, but end up having to take Jar Jar along. They rescue the young Queen, steal a Nubian spacecraft and head for the Galactic Republic city of Coruscant so the Queen can get the Senate to stop the Federation.

But wait. Just when things appear to be going right, the Nubian craft needs repairs. So they land on Tatooine, a dusty, arid planet on the Outer Rim that is not governed by the Republic. In fact, the desolate place is really just a galactic black market ruled by criminal creatures the Hutt. Guess who their leader is? Yes, a younger, but not leaner, Jabba.

Also on this planet is a talented young slave named Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd). Qui-Gon recognizes the Force in him instantly. Together, the two concoct a daring plan to pay for the necessary parts to fix the Nubian and win Anakin his freedom.

To tell you more would ruin the experience. And "The Phantom Menace" is more than worthy of experiencing. There are still huge battles to be fought between droids and Gungans, between Naboo fighter pilots and Federation droids; between Queen Amidala and her retinue and the Federation masters. And, of course, there is a to-the-death light saber battle between the Jedi Knights and the devil-like Lord of the Sith, Darth Maul (Ray Park).

Along the way, we also learn the origins of C-3PO and R2-D2, the Messianic conception of Anakin, and the Jedi Council's early assessment that young Anakin may be the chosen one — or the anti-chosen one.

While Lucas does a credible job laying out the groundwork for the next two episodes in his "Star Wars" prequel trilogy, "The Phantom Menace" suffers from being too far-thinking. Even though Lucas has Qui-Gon warn the young Obi-Wan not to focus on the future so much that he ignores the moment, Lucas does not heed his own advice. Many of the characters in "The Phantom Menace" seem nothing more than elaborate devices on which to hang the costume designers' and creature designers' amazing creations.

Most of the dialogue is terse and flatly delivered, being used solely to set up the next fight, flight or plight. And with a leading character so young, it's no wonder much of the action and dialogue seems geared for today's video-game reared kiddies.

While I might have wished for more from Lucas and company in the storytelling department, I can honestly say that "The Phantom Menace" often had me on the edge of my seat. I grinned and clapped at the first mention of spunky little R2-D2. And yes, I had a tear in my eye at a tender scene between Anakin and his understanding mother.

I may have wanted "The Phantom Menace" to be another "Star Wars," but truly, how could it be? With anything momentous and special, there can only be one first

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