Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace returns to cinemas this weekend in dingy, retrofitted 3D form, brought to you in association with Yodafone (good God) and the George Lucas Retirement Fund. It would be fair to say age hasn't been entirely kind to the film - or maybe I was just overly generous to it first time out. (Or, a third and more plausible reading yet: that these films will seem less impressive the further away one moves from one's childhood - which is why it remains so sad that so many grown men, including the countless Hollywood executives searching for the next big toy franchise, are still hooked on this infantile hokum.)
Menace always was the point in which a franchise once overseen by a young man who saw space as a busy, infinitely expanding frontier, a locus for adventure, was taken up again by a greying middle-aged businessman more concerned with meetings, conferences and taxation hikes. For many in the audience, of course, it was also an unhappy first encounter with Jar Jar Binks, pratfalling houseboy and one of the screen's few amphibians to function, to the best of his limited abilities, within a broiling desertscape. Poor Jar Jar: to fixate on his relentless "Massir"-ing is to overlook how, from its consonant-interpolating Oriental aliens to its hook-nosed traders, the whole film is more unworldly (plain racist, some have said) than otherworldly. Corporate thinking often is.
As digital spectacle goes, Menace pushes forth ones and zeroes as far as the eye can see through its cloud of lazily stereoscoped murk, but it would be wiped off the screen within a matter of years by the hybrid, semi-organic imagery of the Lord of the Rings movies. The Pod race, Lucas's homage to the chariots of Ben-Hur, has a certain scale, granted, and now comes complete with a spot of 3D gimmickry, as the young Anakin thrusts a screwdriver out into your face, mid-race. But it can't match the attack run on the Death Star in A New Hope, because victory or defeat here doesn't count for anything; it's just another of the set-pieces the film shuttles between to divert us from a lunchbreak-level goodies-versus-baddies saga with some inanely tedious intergalactic conference-centre business attached to it.
The first demonstration of the once-untouchable Lucas's ability to create intricate and elaborate worlds and then do almost nothing whatsoever of interest within them, it remains corrosive, and the humans, perhaps inevitably, come off worst; even those individuals selected to voice the Ching-Chong Chinaman and Stepin Fetchit routines of the extraterrestrial life hardly sound like Equity's finest. (It'd have surely been cheaper to hire innocently xenophobic seven-year-olds from the nearest playground.) Menace is only worth seeing again if you want to observe the start of Ewan McGregor, Samuel L. Jackson and Liam Neeson's descent into anything-for-a-cheque career hell, and to see - in the role of Queen Amidala - The Worst Ever Natalie Portman Performance. Still, at least the sequels give us Hayden Christensen to look forwards to.
Star Wars: The Phantom Menace in 3D is in cinemas nationwide.