Stars Wars I – The Phantom Menace

It’s really difficult to enjoy the new “Star Wars” film without remembering all that came before. A virtual smorgasbord of visual splendors, “Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace” manages to be both original and familiar, which creates a beast with more conflicts that the one stirring inside Darth Vader.


Arriving 22 years after the premiere of the original “Star Wars,” “Phantom Menace” is writer-director George Lucas’ showcase of how much far special effects technology has advanced. Indeed, the mostly computer-generated film is dazzling and exciting, filled with wonderful new worlds and characters.

Unfortunately, all that technology eclipses any chance of emotional ballast the film had. It’s easy to root for the goods guys and hiss at the bad guys, but you really don’t care about them. Characters are introduced and dispatched as if the film were a big screen video game.

Not that “The Phantom Menace” is a bad film. Far from it. It delivers the bang for your buck, but it is not the sort of film that endears itself to you. You desperately want to warm up to the characters, but they’re merely signposts on the road to Industrial Lights and Magic, Lucas’ visual effects dynasty.

The real problem with “The Phantom Menace” is that Lucas has to reinvent the series, plus he has to top the previous installments in the series. That means introducing new characters, only to have them get lost in the digital transfer. We all know Lucas can pull a rabbit out of a hat, now what he needs to do is concentrate on giving it more depth.

Visually, “The Phantom Menace” is a real treat. It takes us to new worlds where anything and everything is possible. There’s an underwater city that glistens and glows, where giant sea creatures lurk in dark caves, ready to feast off anything that comes within distance.

Even though “The Phantom Menace” takes place thirty years before “Star Wars,”, most of the action takes place in the same galaxy. This allows writer Lucas, whose script is serviceable at best, to introduce familiar characters into the mix, lending a sense of nostalgia to the proceedings.

Two Jedi Knights, master Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and a young apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) have been sent to the planet Naboo to help Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) fend off advances from the evil Trade Federation.

When negotiations fail and the Federation sends in soldiers droids to secure the planet, Jinn, Kenobi, the Queen and her entourage escape, but when their ship is damaged, are forced to land on a dusty planet run by crime lord Jabba the Hut.

It’s here where “The Phantom Menace” begins to connect with its roots. Jinn runs into young Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), an eight-year old slave who works in an interstellar junk yard. Jinn immediately senses something special about Anakin, who creates a disturbance in the force. If you’ve read this far, then I don’t need to explain what the force is, or who Anakin becomes later in the series.

Anakin lives with his mom Shmi (Pernilla August), and is the product of a virgin birth. Hole smokes! This information leads Jinn to believe that Anakin is the chosen one, the individual who will bring harmony to the universe.

In order to secure Anakin’s release from his flying lizard boss, Jinn bets on the youngster to win the upcoming pod race. This sequence, which has the participants zooming around treacherous canyons and deadly obstacles while strapped to thundering engines is the highlight of the film. While the outcome is more than obvious, this sequence is actually gripping and exciting.

From there, it is off to a planet that is actually one large city. Think Los Angeles in the future. It’s here where Jinn approaches the Jedi Council (including Yoda) about the prospects of training young Anakin. Always the wise one, Yoda senses a major conflict in the child, and refuses to allow Jinn to proceed.

“The Phantom Menace” ends up back at Naboo, where Queen Amidala’s army and the underwater amphibian race the Gungan prepare to do battle with the Trade Federation droid army. It’s a battle that takes place both on land and in space, allowing Industrial Lights and Magic to flex their visual muscles. While these ground and aerial battles visually exciting, they too lack an emotional punch. Since most of the participants are either computer generated or lack depth, we really can’t experience loss when they die.

With “The Phantom Menace,” Lucas seems to be catering more towards a younger audience, and fails to bring a level of sophistication to the story or the characters. The computer generated comical sidekick Jar Jar Binks seems more like an action figure creation than a genuine character. He’s there to make the kids laugh with his slapstick antics, but he grows tiresome even faster than the furry Ewoks.

The film also lacks real menace. The villains are weak, but I presume they, like the rest of the new characters, will need time to reach their full gallop. “The Phantom Menace” is represented by Darth Sidious, who remains somewhat of a mystery while Darth Maul does his bidding. Even then, Maul (Peter Serafinowicz) looks more like Marilyn Manson than someone capable of beating a Jedi Knight.

As director, Lucas manages to keep the film moving. “The Phantom Menace” is never boring. You constantly marvel at the technology, and appreciate the way Lucas manages to mix myth and mayhem. There really isn’t a bad performance in the film. Neeson fares best as the wise Jedi Knight Jinn, while McGregor does nicely as a young Alec Guinness. Young Jake Lloyd shows promise as Anakin Skywalker, and is especially good in his scenes with Natalie Portman as the Queen, who is a stand out.

David Tattersall’s cinematography is exceptional, the perfect blend of live action and computer generated images that never ceases to amaze, while Gavin Bocquet’s production design and Phil Harvey’s art direction are both Oscar worthy. Ben Burtt and Paul Martin Smith’s editing is a major plus, seamlessly piecing together what must have been a nightmare in the editing room. John Williams returns as composer, delivering a score that touches on old themes.

Ultimately, I believe that “The Phantom Menace” suffers from what I like to call the “Superman” syndrome. I didn’t like the first “Superman” film with Christopher Reeves. It felt leaden and lacked great villains. The second film was on the mark, and then I realized that the reason I didn’t like the first film as much was because it bore the burden of having to set up the story, introduce the characters and the premise.

That’s how “The Phantom Menace” feels. The next chapter, due in 2002, won’t carry the burden of having to explain everything. Lucas and company will be able to kick the next film into hyper drive from its first frame.

COMPLETE CHECK-UP

VISION: 20/20

2.35:1 Widescreen

16:9 Enhanced

As one would expect from George Lucas, the digital transfer of the film is amazing. The images are as sharp and vivid as they can be, with excellent color saturation that never bleeds or fades. Every frame is a work of art. The colors are true, the flesh tones are realistic, the earth tones warm and inviting, with impenetrable blacks and pure whites. Absolutely a first class presentation. The attention to detail and depth of field is incredible, with every computer generated blade of grass and underwater air bubble a vital part of the overall tableau. You couldn’t ask for a more definitive picture.

HEARING: Excellent

5.1 Dolby Digital Surround EX

2.0 Dolby Digital Surround in English & Spanish

Crank up the volume and prepare to blast into a world of incredible stereo imagery. Perfect rendition of the film’s theatrical presentation, with exploding basses, squeaky clean high ends, and a pitch perfect dialogue soundtrack that keeps every word up front and center. Overall stereo mix is digital perfection, including an amazing front sound stage that sets the tone for the rest of the sound package. Front to rear spatial separation sounds as exact as I’ve ever heard, with imaginary objects whizzing by my head. Rear speakers kick ass, while ambient noise is so realistic it’s almost annoying at times. Musical cues are crystal clear, while surround effects will put you in the middle of the action. Outstanding effort.

ORAL: Good

Closed Captions in English for the Hard of Hearing

COORDINATION: Excellent

Disc One:

Commentary with director George Lucas, producer Rick McCallum, sound designer and co-editor Ben Burtt, Industrial Lights and Magic animation director Rob Coleman and visual effects supervisors John Knoll, Dennis Muren and Scott Squires. The commentary is scene specific, but it doesn’t feature all of the gentlemen in the same room. Their comments were recorded and pieced together. While the audio levels are a little distracting, the commentary never is. It is filled with the sort of information anyone interested in the Star Wars franchise would possibly want, plus enough detailed background info to make watching the film again a must. The filmmakers don’t waste our time pointing out the obvious. Instead, they focus on the task at hand, and thanks to the numerous voices available, we get an in-depth look at every aspect of the film. Except for Lucas, most viewers won’t know who is talking. To solve this problem, the audio commentary comes with subtitles. Talk a class act.

Animated main and scene access menus, plus THX fine tuning.

Disc Two:

Seven deleted scenes with documentary feature. The creators of the DVD allow you to access the deleted scenes individually or included in a brand new documentary featuring Lucas, McCallum, directors Francis Ford Coppola and Phillip Kaufman, plus cinematographer-director Walter Murch. The deleted scenes aren’t just snippets found laying around but more than 20 minutes of additional footage completed exclusively for the DVD. Some of the additional scenes are minor and subtle, but two scenes, a second lap in the Podrace, and a close call near a waterfall, are actually memorable. The commentary makes arguments why they were excluded, plus the documentary includes technical background on how the scenes were completed for the DVD. Amazing stuff.

“The Beginning,” a extensive, full-access hour-long documentary edited down from over 600 hours of footage shot exclusively for the DVD. This isn’t your usual electronic press kit or Entertainment Tonight extract. Instead of getting up close and personal, documentary filmmaker Jon Shenk pulls back to capture the art of filmmaking at its most raw. With more than 600 hours to choose from, we get a little of everything, from the opening salvos to the final premiere, with all of the happiness and heartache in- between. Shenk allows us to become the fly on the wall, attending meetings and rehearsals without any conflict. While the objectionable language has been bleeped, this is as real as it gets. The only way to get this close to the real thing is become a Lucas team member.

Two multi-angle storyboard-to-ani matics-to-film sequences including the Submarine and Podrace lap 1 sequence. Use the multi-angle button to click back and forth between the original storyboard, the ani matics, or the final film. Or you can watch all three on one screen.

Five mini-documentaries covering all aspect of the filming, including storyline, design, costumes, visual effects and fight scenes. Quick PR pieces about the making of the film, averaging around seven minutes each.

The complete 12-part web documentary on the making of the films. Originally broadcast over starwars.com during production of the film, the documentaries provide even more insight and behind-the- scenes details on the making of the film. Like the featurettes, the web documentaries are broken down into various segments of the filmmaking process, from the first moment George Lucas puts pencil to paper, down to the final mixing sessions and the premiere. A lot of thought and time went into these informative (each one runs around seven minutes) behind the scenes slices of life. While some of the material is a little repetitious (especially after sitting through all of the documentaries and featurettes), none of it is ever boring. If you’re like me, you’ll find yourself waiting for one to end so you can start the next. And hour and a half later, you know all you need to know about the film. There’s a lot of history here.

The “Duel of The Fates” music video featuring composer John Williams and clips from the film.

A decent selection of candid cast and crew photos in a nifty Production Photo Gallery, with added captions.

The extensive poster and print PR campaign from all four corners of the world. The poster gallery, including posters from all around the world, allows you to click up or down to get a closer look at the artwork and text.

The complete line-up of teaser and launch trailers, plus a healthy assortment of seven television spots, with five of them delivered as “Tone Poems” from the film.

Several hidden Easter Eggs (the deleted scene area is a good place to start looking).

Outstanding main menu animation and use of theme, plus easy navigation.

PROGNOSIS: Excellent

You must admit when George Lucas takes his time and does something right, you can’t deny the craftsmanship. The DVD is everything it should be and more.

VITALS:

$29.99/2-Disc Set/Rated PG/133 Minutes/Color/Region 1/Snapcase

ATTENDING RESIDENT: John Larsen

PATIENT: STARS WARS I – THE PHANTOM MENACE

BIRTH DATE: 1999

HMO: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

PATIENT HISTORY:



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