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Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace 3D (2012)

| February 10, 2012 | 0 Comments

Within the annals of Star Wars lore, or just movie history in general, the business of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace is something of a sore subject.  Here, in one sitting, is the single most anticipated movie in the history of the medium (try to think of one bigger) and the most distressing to a generation that grew up with the hip-cool of George Lucas’ original trilogy. They had waited 17 years for its creator to loop around to tell us the story of the rise and fall of one of the most memorable villains in movie history, and the results, for many, did not meet factory standards.

A decade after its initial release it may seem difficult to focus on the film more than on the public’s reaction to it, but that really depends on your point of view. Back in 1999, the film did not meet the overreaching expectations of a cynical audience, most of which were too young to even remember the elation of first seeing the original trilogy upon it’s initial release in a theater. For them (but not for me) their disappointment over The Phantom Menace made it trendy to make fun of Star Wars. Yet, your enjoyment of the new rerelease may depend greatly on where you stand with this series. What are you willing to forgive? Are you willing to drop your cynical hatred of Lucas’ infamous meddling and see the film with fresh eyes? It is strictly up to you.

Revisiting the film again as it rolls out into theaters in a new 3D format (the other films are scheduled to be released in 3D, one per year for the next five years), I am finally able to take a step back and review it from a distance without the anticipation or the negative feedback clouding my judgment.  I maintain the same opinion now that I had 13 years ago: This is a glorious science fiction fantasy, a visionary work that embellishes the kinds of ideals that science fiction were created for.  The colors are bright and vibrant, the visuals are breathtaking and the actions scenes, especially the three-way lightsaber dual at the film’s climax, still seem fresh. The craftsmanship is top drawer. The rest leaves something to be desired.

Where the movie works is in the technology. That’s George Lucas’ trademark.  The best quality of the Star Wars pictures has always been in displaying new worlds to explore and new sights to see.  It is clear that Lucas was light-years ahead of everyone else in terms of what went up on screen and I defy you to find one single frame of this movie that isn’t crafted – technically – with loving care. The locations are wonders to behold, especially landscapes like the Italian-style vistas of Naboo, the desolate rocky terrain of Tatooine and the glowing underwater pods of Gunga City. They show Lucas’ flair for imagining alien worlds that play as a lovely travelogue of places that only exist in the imagination.

Plus, as with all of the Star Wars pictures, there is a wonderful display of Lucas’ love of action scenes.  All of Lucas’ films from THX 1138 to American Graffiti to Star Wars to the Indiana Jones pictures and the recent Red Tails, contain at least one breathtaking vehicular chase. There is no denying that the pod race sequence, a death-defying race through the rocky terrain of Tatooine is thrilling. The advancement of those scenes, which now employ the innovation of computer generated imagary are far gone from the Death Star trench-run on the original. Plus, there’s something new in the advancement of the hand-to-hand combat. The lightsaber duals of the original film were based on classic swordplay. Here they seem based more on martial arts. Watch that lightsaber dual at the end again and you’ll see what I am talking about.

Where the movie falters is in the characters, and that’s something that no amount of technology can improve upon.  What made the original trilogy work was that we cared about the plight of our heroes.  They were well-defined within an action-packed setting.  Here, I still find the human characters to be a bit thin. We forgive young Obi-Wan Kenobi, young Anakin Skywalker, Senator Palpatine and R2D2 and C3PO only because we know that they are characters who will flower over the course of the series.  But new additions like Qui-Gon Jinn, Padme Amidala and Shmi Skywalker seem oddly empty as characters. Their personalities seemed dusted upon them lightly like dew.  They are mired in a plot that doesn’t have time for them to flower as complex human beings. Most disappointing is the relationship between Anakin and his mother, which you might expect to have a little more weight. When a gamble over the podrace leaves Anakin free and his mother a slave, she is forced to let him go. Yet there’s something empty about her reaction – her son is leaving her! The scene in which the two depart feels like little more than a student leaving his elementary school teacher at the end of the term.

Yet, while most of the human character seem thin, the one that surprised me this time around was Anakin. As played by Jake Lloyd, there is far more complexity to him than I had notice before. He, of course, is the lynchpin of this entire saga, a kid whose soul will be corrupted, plunging him down in to the depths of darkness before redeeming himself with the help of his son. Here we see him as a sweet-faced little kid, a boy who is industrious, and inwardly anxious for a better life. His young eyes burn with ambition and there are moments when we can see fleeting glances of the frustration that will someday consume him.

The supporting characters that really work are Lucas’ gallery of computer-generated aliens. As with his original triology, he packed the frame with 10 or 20 different kinds of creatures at the same time so the world seems to exist beyond just the central plot – we sense that the background characters each have a story to tell. The aliens in this film, for the most part, have dimensions. My favorite is the gravel-voiced Watto, a greedy creatures who looks like a strange cross between an aardvark and hummingbird. There’s Sebulba, a champion podracer with the face of a Great Dane who walks on his hands. There’s Boss Nass, a bulbous Gungan who flaps his jowls to finalize an agreement.

Of course, I must also address the elephant in the room. I cannot discuss the film without touching on the film’s chief blunder (and the chief reason that the film is a sore subject), the presence of Jar Jar Binks, surely the single most hated creation in film history.  Seeing the film again, I realize that time hasn’t improved him.  I maintain now what I have said all along: a little of him goes a long way and Lucas’ chief mistake was allowing him so much screen time that he seems to take over the picture.  Lucas, it appears, responded to the gnashing of fans over Jar Jar because his presence in the rest of this trilogy was limited – he got two scenes in Episode II and a fleeting cameo in Episode III. Also owing ot the fact that Lucas knows he’s made a mistake is the fact that Jar Jar has been completely left out of this rerelease’s ad campaign.

Even with that, the experience of seeing The Phantom Menace again was a chance to see it again with fresh eyes. I went in with an open mind, and an open heart. I find it to be a very good film, but not a great one. For everything that works here, I could find something else that doesn’t. The film is a mixed bag of successes and missteps. As for the 3D transfer, I cannot complain. Lucasfilm has always been at the cutting edge of new technology and I was happy that the movie wasn’t oversaturated with 3D effects. The movie is in 3D but you don’t really notice it until the moments when the movie really calls for it. Most especially well-done is that podrace. It is always a treat to have any Star Wars picture – even this one – back on the big screen. I could have done just as well without the 3D process, but I appeciate the effort. Seeing the film again makes me anxious to get reaquainted with the series on the big screen over the next couple of years. I have a good feeling about this.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.