Whatever you do, don’t blink. This fourth Star Wars film is the easily the most quickly paced of the lot. Too bad that’s not the only problem. Of course, I still think it’s worth seeing several times.

WARNING: This review may include spoilers!

There is a lot to like about George Lucas’ latest entry into the Star Wars canon, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. There’s also quite a bit to dislike, and the result is an oddly mixed reaction that probably makes this the weakest film of the series so far. That’s not to say that I won’t end up seeing it dozens of times though, and as a blazingly fast entertainment vehicle it’s certainly hard not to recommend.

The Good
The special effects are outstanding in almost every regard. The blend of computer generated images with live actors is virtually seamless with very few exceptions. Will you get transported into the universe Lucas has created? Yes, you sure will. Here comes another Oscar for the crew at Industrial Light & Magic.

The acting is also quite good. Liam Neeson as the stoic Jedi Knight Qui-Gon Jinn is exceptional; Ewan McGregor is a superb young Obi-Wan Kenobi even if he is under-utilized; Natalie Portman is a beautiful and capable successor (so to speak) to Carrie Fischer in the “strong female royalty” department; and Pernilla August as Shmi Skywalker is actually the best actor of the lot. Even the much-maligned Jake Lloyd is passable in his role at the 9-year-old Anakin Skywalker, though not by much. Ray Park’s Darth Maul is physically menacing, which sadly, is virtually all the part called for, but he did what he could with it nevertheless. Particularly when one considers just how much of this movie was shot with actors working against a blue screen or talking to empty space that would only later be filled with a computer-generated image, the group does an outstanding job.

There’s a lot of points picked up here for being creative as well. Lucas once again treats us to a grand tour of his imagination which, if this movie is any indication, must be a pretty crowded place. You get waterworlds, deep sea monsters, space battles, and enough battle droids to fill Madison Square Garden. Not that you’d want to, but anyway….

The Bad
It’s pretty evident that Lucas is rusty as a director because the pacing for the film is way too fast to establish any meaningful character development. Despite fine acting, we never get a chance to know the characters because they’re always in action. Movement is the defining characteristic of the film, and while that makes for lots of wide-eyed looks at the screen, it renders everything much less effective since there’s no slower counterpoint.

A good example is the lengthy pod racing sequence. It’s grand, high speed action but it’s also overly long. I would much rather have cut the pod race by a couple of minutes and distributed that time to slower, more character-based scenes. Even the incredibly over-the-top finale is devoid of the large emotional impact of previous Star Wars releases because of the pacing.

Indeed, Darth Maul never becomes the convincing villian he could have been because we never get the chance to see him mistreat minions or enemies the way Darth Vader got to all the time. At least Maul looks like a bad-ass, which I suppose is half the battle so far as product promotion is concerned.

The Ugly
Lucas, for all his work with the late mythologist Joseph Campbell, misfires badly when it comes to explaining the Force. The unwanted explanation of some people being born with microscopic biological symbiant beings called “midiclorians” smacks hard at the idea that the Force is accessible to all, and effectively kills the universal nature of the Star Wars mythology. Now the Force is something a person is born with, and that’s a terrible change from the pleasant vagueness of the original trilogy. Time to stop dreaming about being a Jedi Knight�either you’ve got it or you don’t.

Lucas is also stuck with a very limited comedic sense as a director/screenwriter. He tries numerous sight gags in The Phantom Menace only about half of which succeed. This success ratio is far too low, and while some comic relief is obviously essential, the misses are particularly damaging to the tone of the film and ultimately the series.

Jar Jar Binks, the central comedian for the film, is not nearly as annoying as earlier reviewers suggested. Instead, he’s incomprehensible. I couldn’t understand half of what he (or, to be fair, most of his Gungun race) were saying in their pidgeon English. Maybe The Phantom Menace DVD will have subtitles. (Sidenote: Those who believe the Gungun pidgeon English is a politically incorrect racial stereotype need to remind themselves that this science fiction. I have a hard time believing that Lucas is a racist, and even if he is, I didn’t see any proof of it here.)

One of the worst travesties actually occurred prior to the movie’s release. I hate to say it, but the QuickTime movie trailer gave away almost the entirety of the plot. For fantatics, this can’t help but be terribly disappointing, and I can only hope that Lucasfilm doesn’t make a similar mistake next time around. I mean, when Obi-Wan screams “No!” at the end of the trailer it doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to figure out what would have prompted such a reaction. Lucas should have given his audience a little more credit.

The Conclusion
In the end, Star Wars fans will have to take this for what it is: A solid-yet-flawed entry into the Star Wars universe. It does some things I really wish it wouldn’t and the pace is far too frantic. But there’s no question that The Phantom Menace is worth seeing not only as a cultural touchstone for the public at large; it also bears repeat viewing the Star Wars fan.