If looks were everything, the long-anticipated Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace would be an unqualified success. George Lucas' prequel to the blockbuster trilogy of Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi represents the pinnacle of visual-effects wizardry, a triumph of literally out-of-this-world production design and computer-generated dazzle. But somewhere along the journey, Lucas has lost sight of the human dimension of his epic tale of intergalactic treachery and courage. The special effects are much more dimensional than his gallery of pallid and thinly drawn characters.

For all its breakthrough technology, the success of the original Star Wars rested just as much upon the sly charm of the young Harrison Ford, the eager energy of Mark Hamill's Luke Skywalker, the formidable presence of the great Alec Guinness, and the amusing byplay of odd-couple droids R2-D2 and C-3PO. There's no one nearly as engaging in the new Phantom Menace. Liam Neeson is stalwart and rather humorless as Jedi master Qui-Gon; charismatic Ewan McGregor is stuck with mere sidekick duties as the young Obi-Wan Kenobi; talented Natalie Portman seems constricted as haughty teen queen Amidala; and ten-year-old Jake Lloyd, as Anakin Skywalker (future villain Darth Vader), acts like he's cruising through a video arcade rather than a galaxy fraught with danger. Factor in the most irritating "comic relief" character of the series, a bumbling, floppy-eared, lizard-like creature named Jar Jar Binks, and you have a movie with a serious audience-involvement deficit.

As the film begins, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan find themselves in the middle of an ambush by the mighty Trade Federation against the peaceful planet Naboo. The Jedi knights rescue Naboo's queen, Amidala, and take temporary refuge on the desert planet Tatooine, the home of Luke Skywalker in 1977's Star Wars. There, they encounter Anakin, a little slave boy with uncanny technical knowledge and fast reflexes whom Qui-Gon believes may be the legendary child destined to bring equilibrium to the cosmic Force. Anakin wins his freedom in the movie's most successful set-piece, a wild "pod race" involving primitive cockpits hanging from jet engines and careening through hazardous canyons. The gang, now including Anakin, narrowly escape the lethal, red-and-black-faced Darth Maul, and eventually conduct a raid on the Federation.

Along with its preordained following, Phantom Menace has enough ingredients to assure a certain level of blockbuster success: It's generally fast-paced and boasts several spectacular action sequences, and the design elements are, in a word, incredible. Lucas, production designer Gavin Bocquet and visual effects supervisors Dennis Muren, Scott Squires and John Knoll have realized three distinctive and highly imaginative worlds, with the biggest knockout being the traffic-clogged, skyscraper-filled, all-city planet of Coruscant. The movie is an orgy for the eyes, and that's not counting the scores of computer-generated creatures who interact so smoothly with the human cast.

Alas, the human cast may as well be computer-driven. You keep looking for the emotional center of the movie and never find it. The Jedi knights are too taciturn, the Queen too reserved, the Jedi boy-in-training too inexpressive. Facing this void, all the film's spiritual aspirations seem hollow. As narrative, Phantom Menace feels like a prelude to the next installments. For the sake of this powerful franchise and its rabid following, let's hope Episode II delivers on that Force-fed promise.

	--Kevin Lally