There are movies and there are movie events — and then there’s Star Wars. Widely considered the father of the modern sci-fi blockbuster, George Lucas’s Star Wars blasted its way onto movie screens in 1977 and has remained a fixture in the American cinematic consciousness ever since. The universal appeal of the story and the sheer power of Lucas’s imagination drew audiences young and old into the film’s elaborately fanciful world as no movie had before. In 1980 and 1983, the saga continued with the release of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Together, the three films follow the destiny of Luke Skywalker, played by Mark Hamill, and an unlikely band of rebels caught up in the interstellar struggle against the evil galactic Empire. In the end, the Empire is defeated and Luke is confronted with the revelation that Vader is actually his father, Anakin Skywalker.

Now, George Lucas takes us on a journey to the beginning of the Star Wars saga — actually, before the beginning — in one of 1999’s most eagerly anticipated movies.

The Phantom Menace is the first of three “prequels” that will recount the events leading up to Star Wars, including the rise, seduction and eventual downfall of Anakin Skywalker. It is based on 19th Century French author Honoré De Balzac’s novel Les Paysans, which is one of 90 books in a larger collection Balzac called La Comédie Humaine. Lucas takes some liberties withthe original story (the introduction of robotic characters, for example), but the substance and texture of Balzac’s novel remain, although in a somewhat neo-Victorian, yet hip form.

When Menace begins, Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) is a 9-year-old farm boy on the desert planet Tatooine — lovingly photographed by cinematographer David Tattersall in subdued autumnal hues, creating a visual mise en scène eerily reminiscent of the dramatic ‘head in the box’ sequence in Seven. Clearly, Lucas is drawing a parallel between the father, Anakin, and the son, Luke, who was a naïve and restless young farmer on the same planet at the beginning of Star Wars.

Unaware of the crisis engulfing the galaxy, Anakin enjoys the life of a typical 9-year-old boy. Through a series of cutbacks, Lucas contrasts the increasing turmoil incident to the expansion of the Empire’s brutal power with Anakin’s almost pastoral life on Tatooine. In a particularly brutal and poignant sequence, Lucas juxtaposes a spirited game of kickball with the brutalization of a downed rebel pilot at the hands of Imperial stormtroopers. In this series of emotionally wrenching scenes, Lucas demonstrates a sensitivity and restraint that invites comparisons to Fellini and Cameron.

The larger forces at work in the galaxy soon invade Anakin’s peaceful world when his parents are arrested under suspicion of sympathizing with the Rebellion. Left to fend for himself, Anakin is quickly targeted by a pair of hapless intergalactic thieves. The resourceful Anakin is able to thwart their ill-conceived schemes through a series of cleverly devised tricks and traps. Although this episode is somewhat removed from the central story, Lucas is able to tie it in later and demonstrate its impact on Anakin’s development through a series of flashbacks.

Following his adventures with the thieves, Anakin returns to school where he is stalked by a band of Imperial schoolyard ruffians (led by a buffed-up Joaquin Phoenix, Space Camp, 8mm), who torment the diminutive youth. The plucky Anakin tries to defend himself, but is outmatched by the bullies and is nearly beaten before being rescued by a brash young Jedi warrior named Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor, Trainspotting). The two become fast friends and Obi-Wan begins to train Anakin in the ways of the Force. When the Empire threatens Tatooine, Obi-Wan is forced to flee the planet and invites Anakin to join him. In an especially touching moment, Anakin is forced to choose between his friend Obi-Wan and his beloved pony. Anakin follows Obi-Wan and the two begin a mentor/mentee relationship that becomes the nucleus around which the film’s story and characters revolve.

Once Anakin and Obi-Wan leave Tatooine, the story rockets ahead at a truly dizzying pace. In an attempt to throw the Empire off their track, Obi-Wan disguises himself as an elderly Pakistani woman and the two set off for the Rebel camp. Once there, the film begins an uninterrupted rush toward a thrilling and occasionally violent climax.

On so many levels, Menace is an unqualified success. Although at times visually derivative of the 1994 James Spader classic Stargate, Menace is a sci-fi standout. The special effects are believable, but not overpowering, and the action sequences are absolutely electrifying. Lucas demonstrates a mastery of the genre by combining sentiment and sensation in an almost seamless, imaginative whole. Outstanding supporting performances, including Samuel L. Jackson as Jedi Knight Qui-Gon Jinn and Dana Plato as Janet, together with a story that is emotionally compelling, without resorting to unnecessary pathos, make this one of the most satisfying sci-fi films in years.