Reviewed by Maitland McDonagh

Okay, folks — settle down. It's not the Second Coming and it's not the end of cinema as we know it. It is a prequel that feels especially dependent on its sequels (made and unmade) for interest. Set 30 years before the

events that unfold in the much-loved STARS WARS trilogy, it chronicles the deprived childhood of Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), who grows up to be Darth Vader, and the travails of teen Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) of Naboo, who must save her planet from destruction while weighed down by a

series of brow-burdening headdresses. In Amidala's corner: Jedi knights Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his cheeky apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), who will, of course, mature into Luke Skywalker's wise mentor. Against her: devilish-looking Darth Maul (Ray Parks), a passel of toad-like

aliens who take their marching orders from Maul's hooded boss, and the apparently benevolent Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), who must be two-faced scum because he's due to metamorphose somewhere down the line into the Emperor of the evil Empire. There's plenty to look at: The movie's crammed

with goofball aliens, futuristic hardware and elaborate costumes, some of them truly stunning in their intricacy. The lumbering banality of the dialogue, ameliorated in places by the efforts of actors like Neeson and McGregor, is painful but hardly unexpected — the trilogy is full of

wince-inducers. But it's a bit disturbing that along with the simplistic heroics of old-fashioned space operas, this film has also picked up their unexamined racism: Why, for example, do the duplicitous toad aliens speak and dress like Chinese people? And how did comic-relief Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed

Best), a lizard-like creature notable for his affable cowardice, come to sound Rastafarian? It's a kiddie movie rejiggered for childish grown-ups, of whom there are enough to make it a hit. How such childishness has become a virtual secular religion is hard to imagine, and far beyond the scope of

movie criticism.