|Star Wars - Episode I: The Phantom Menace|
|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 22 March 2005|
Digital special effects seem to advance with the speed of spaceships in hyperdrive. No sooner have we marveled at one breathtaking technological achievement than another whooshes past, taking the lead. This thought may occur to viewers of "Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace," now on DVD two-and-a-half years after its theatrical release.
When "Phantom Menace" first opened, its technical craftsmanship was a complete blast. It’s still excellent, and the fact is that if the computer mages at ILM hadn’t done their stuff, what came after would be impossible, but it tends to stand out just a little less these days. The trouble is that, especially on a repeat viewing, once you’ve adjusted to the fabulous imagery and terrific directional sound, things like lackluster dialogue become more noticeable.
Having said all that, George Lucas’ first outing as a writer/director since he penned and helmed the original "Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope" fulfills most reasonable expectations one might have. This statement, of course, is subject to how the first movie affected you when it came out. Oddly enough, "Phantom Menace" may play best to those who are up on the cultural mythology of "Star Wars" but don’t have an enormous emotional investment in the series. If the first one, on its initial release, changed the way you saw movies, be fair – that experience is no more likely to be reproduced than first love. However, if "Phantom Menace" is not required to be the cinematic equivalent of the discovery of penicillin, it has a sense of joy and adventure that make it very enjoyable.
Does anybody really need to know the plot (and is there anybody who hasn’t already seen it at least once)? For the record, we get an opening informational crawl that tells us the planet Naboo is suffering under an embargo from the evil Trade Federation. We then meet Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) as a young Jedi knight, apprenticed to Jedi master Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson). Both are supposed to confer with Trade Federation representatives, but when they survive an ambush, they realize that Naboo’s young Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) needs to be spirited off her planet, lest she be murdered for refusing to sign an unwanted treaty. The two knights, the Queen and her attendants wind up lying low on the desert planet Tatooine, where they encounter the little boy Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), a name that will be of significance to the viewers, though not the characters.
Those who want to know how sweet, helpful little Anakin (nicknamed "Ani" by his pals) became the very different character we know he grows up to be are going to have to wait for Episodes II and III. Although a major character dies here, the tone is if anything a shade lighter than the original "Star Wars" – nobody goes through major personality changes this time out. "Phantom Menace" is full of action, adventure, color and, blessedly, a strong sense of whimsy.
The movie never really calms down, albeit on repeat viewing, the lulls are more noticeable. Every scene transition finds the camera already in motion and virtually every frame teams with strange new species, all moving with realistic fluidity. There are explosions, battles between machines and organic lifeforms, a political chamber the size of a planet filled with spaceships, underwater glowing cities and menaces in the deep, along with vividly thrilling lightsaber duels, all woven neatly into Anakin’s inevitable journey from slave boy to Jedi apprentice.
The picture quality is generally gorgeous, with both the sharp, ultra-smooth imagery we expect in the shots of ships soaring through space, magical wide shots of unusual habitations and some lovely, surprising Maxfield Parrish coloring in vistas of cities and terrain, especially in the Gungan capital shown in Chapters 7-9. The CGI on a vast array of nonhuman characters is brilliant, with a standout being Watto, the buglike junk dealer introduced in Chapter 14 (which also arguably contains the movie’s best throwaway joke). The filmmakers’ care in their work extends to the smallest details – in Chapter 36, as droid battleships fly low over green fields, check out the way the grass bows under the tail winds.
Directional sound here is about as good as it gets. Any object, from a lightsaber blade to a huge spacecraft, moving from side to side or front to back is accompanied dutifully and precisely by directionally correct effects. This can be seen and heard as early as Chapter 3, when Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan have to battle some malevolent robots, with blades and metal parts flying about and sounding as though they are dropping to the floor in your listening environment. Chapter 12 has an impressive deep boom as a spacecraft hits high speed, while Chapter 15 starts a sandstorm in the rears with such ferocity that it momentarily sounds like something real is happening behind the listener (okay, I jumped). The pod race that occupies Chapters 20-22 is still highly exciting and is a great showcase for the directional sound – when a craft so much as banks left to right, the movement starts in the left main and travels across to the right, timed perfectly to the image. Chapter 40 is worth checking out for the fact that all hell breaks loose in four different places and Chapter 43 is a masterpiece of sound technique, giving us the hum of several lightsabers without fuzzing up the sound system, not an easy feat.
The "Phantom Menace" DVD is also considerably broken into 50 chapters, which enables viewers quick access to favorite moments. The two-disc set is loaded with extras, although some of these tend to duplicate each other – for example, footage in the various featurettes and the hour-long making-of documentary shows up in the web documentary segments. There’s a separate documentary on scenes deleted from the film which have been completed – in 5.1 sound, no less – for the DVD release. The scenes can also be accessed without the deleted scenes’ documentary, which runs toward the obvious in its observations, although it’s intriguing to see Francis Ford Coppola and Philip Kaufman weighing in as guest commentators. The sound work on the deleted scenes is impressive, with wonderful separation in the rears during the extended pod race sequences.
The film contains audio commentary by Lucas, producer Rick McCallum, sound designer Ben Burtt and technicians Rob Coleman, John Knoll, Dennis Muren and Scott Squires, which is informative, if dry, and plays over all five channels with the regular soundtrack running low but audibly beneath it.
From this reviewer’s standpoint, the most fun to be found in the supplemental footage is the material dealing with the fights, with Ray Park (who plays Darth Maul) and Ewan McGregor clearly on Cloud Nine. McGregor’s glee at getting to play in the "Star Wars" universe is downright endearing, especially when leaps into an airbag, then bounds up to express his enthusiasm with a phrase unlikely to find its way into the film’s PG-rated dialogue.
In some ways, "Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace" is reminiscent of some of the books in L. Frank Baum’s "Oz" series. We are broadly familiar with the terrain, but we are continually enchanted by the wonders contained therein.