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Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace - 4K Blu-ray Review

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Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace

Twice now, in different decades, Star Wars has resurrected itself and rewarded Lucas handsomely. With the recent sequel trilogy now behind us, the parallels between their reception and the era of the prequel trilogy are difficult to ignore. Both critics and the Star Wars fan base have major issues with the episodes made after the original trilogy, however, what is also undeniable is they do enough right to have the audiences always lining up for more…

Back in the early 90s, Lucas saw the tests of what ILM (his own company) had just accomplished in the realm of CGI. As soon as Jurassic Park hit cinemas around the world, filmmaking would enter a new era. Lucas now believed technology had caught up with his expansive imagination, and that he could realize whatever his mind good conjure.

"The artistry, the imagery, and the odd kernel of greatness still lay within. But ... it’s a redundant chapter in the saga"


 

Audiences were left in 1983 with an almost reverential love for the first three Star Wars films, and despite Lucas mentioning (several times) throughout the production of those films that he had an expansive story that could run for a dozen more films, only tumbleweeds in the Star Wars universe presented until the early nineties. Absence, as they say, makes the heart grow fonder. What we got initially were the Timothy Zahn novels (and if Lucasfilm reps ever read this, pool all animated Disney resources into this ‘Legends’ trilogy, and you will make a fortune again), then the special editions came out, and then word that in 1999 the story of the fall of Anakin Skywalker to the dark side would begin.

The world was primed and so very excited.

Based on that one line pitch: the creation of Darth Vader, we expected something dramatic and enthralling. What we were given was something spectacular, not only its visuals, but in its meandering, its lack of cohesion, its awfully muddled characters and its logical authenticity.

Set some 30 odd years before the events of A New Hope, The Phantom Menace starts us in the midst of a blockade of the planet Naboo. Two Jedi, Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his Padawan learner Obi Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) have been dispatched to settle the dispute between Naboo and the Trade Federation. Through betrayal, assassination attempts, and the invasion of Naboo, the two Jedi successfully escape with Naboo’s Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) and on their way through many misadventures back to the galaxy’s capital Coruscant, they discover a young slave, brave of heart, kind of nature, and off the charts strong with the force: Anakin Skywalker. Seeing this encounter as fate, Qui-Gon decides to bring him before the Jedi Council upon their return. The council is wary of the boy. Are their concerns justified?

If there is any one character’s through line in this picture its Neeson’s Qui-Gon, and he does a serviceable job, but it’s an odd character to give the lion’s share of the film to. We are here from Lucas’s initial pitch to see the story Obi Wan told Luke in A New Hope unfold. While they are both in film, neither of them is given anything beyond secondary character involvement. So Lucas, in essence, takes an entire film of this new trilogy to relegate the two main characters to the background, and fails to invest them to the audience. Are their scenes enjoyable? Some of them are. But they’re not the meat of this story, rending a great portion of The Phantom Menace’s narrative as uninteresting political bloat or admittedly spectacular but empty action scenes. The story was all wrong from inception. Lucas picked the wrong point in time to kick things off, and any needed scenes could have been relegated to ten minutes instead of a couple of hours.

Now Lucas always kind of claimed that he had the entire back story of Vader and Obi Wan from the early drafts of Star Wars. But apart from a few notes here or there and a loose vision of a fight between them near lava, what he delivered showed he didn’t. He ultimately relegated his two main guys to limited participatory roles.

What plagues Star Wars really came to the fore in this one: inconsistency in the tale. The timing, according to the ages of the two original characters in A New Hope, should make Obi wan around 40 in The Phantom Menace and Anakin not too much younger than that; yet Obi is a young adult and Anakin is a kid? Kenobi tells Luke in ANH that when he met his father, he was already a great pilot and a good friend? PM shows a young slave boy, sand bound and racing pods, and a complete stranger to Obi Wan. Are these nit-picks? I don’t think they are: they affect the narrative of the original films and they muddy its verisimilitude (its sense of authenticity).

Then there is character. I’ve already mentioned some of my issues with Anakin and Obi Wan, so I’ll cart blanche call the rest of them weak as well, but for other reasons. Amidala returns the inexplicable British accent that disappears without explanation later. She is stilted, and given a convoluted and unnecessary decoy subplot—as unnecessary as the accent. What time is wasted on these poorly written and executed contrivances could have been used to make a compelling character. Sidious (Ian McDairmid) has decent presence but is relegated to galactic Skype calls, which is about as cinematic as a Dixie-cup conversation. The bit parts are visually interesting, especially Darth Maul (Ray Park), but looking cool is not enough… this is curse and a common issue with Star Wars characters in the movies.

And then there is poor Jar Jar… I don’t hate this character, I never did. What I feel about him, I feel about most them: his role is badly written, inconstant with the character as presented versus what he becomes (A fucking General! Please!), with actions that defies all logic. Qui-Gon rudely calls him useless, but sadly that’s about what he is. What a wasted opportunity this character was, because the design of him is extraordinary, and being humorous did not have to mean he couldn’t show shades beyond that one facet. Had they shown him grow organically and react like a person would to insults such as Qui-Gon’s, then do something about it, it could have been great; it could have been a character speaking for bullied children, or an affirmation of listening to criticism and bettering yourself. Instead Lucas delivered a bumbling fish-clown… GREAT! Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace

You have a stellar assembly of actors that could not make the words or the actions of these characters ring true. They are cold, stilted and make choices that defy belief. You can make as many spectacular scenes as you like (and Lucas did in spades) but if you don’t care about the characters in them, it is hard going.

Negative, negative, negative, I know: but it ain’t all bad!

This film, for this reviewer, has hands down the best lightsaber battle of the entire saga. This is an impeccably choreographed and edited display of athleticism of the highest order. Ewan McGregor holds his own against an accomplished martial artist (Ray Park) with no CGI enhancement; they deliver a one-on-one, kinetic slugfest that’s yet to be beaten. The sheer variety of character designs, of digitally enhanced environments, of sheer imagination on display is why I love Lucas’s mind. It is the main reason Star Wars draws over and over: fantastical worlds and endless things to marvel at.

Then there is John Williams’ score: absolutely the best thing about the movie. Does it get any more blood pumping and evocative than Duel of the Fates? Not for my money it doesn’t.

Revisions were also done this movie. Originally, Yoda was a newly constructed (and horrific looking) puppet. Lucas decided to make him CGI to match the work ILM did on the next two episodes and it’s a fantastic improvement.

So there we have it, despite its mountains of problems, The Phantom Menace still made over 900 million dollars when it was released. But for the first time, audiences started voicing their dismay at what Lucas chose to offer. Despite my lengthy criticism of this movie, I don’t dislike it at all. There is enough in there for me to not mind the occasional revisit; it doesn’t invest or move me like the first three, but it’s great to look at: Lucas’s mind unbridled. The artistry, the imagery, and the odd kernel of greatness still lay within. But ultimately, if asked to sum up all those fantastic and sucky elements, I have to say it’s a redundant chapter in the saga. All the needed scenes could have been folded into ten minutes in a much tighter, much more compelling narrative.

2/5 stars

Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace

Blu-ray

Blu-ray Details:

Home Video Distributor: Disney / Buena Vista
Available on Blu-ray
- March 31, 2020
Screen Formats: 2.39:1
Subtitles
: English SDH, French, Japanese, Spanish
Audio:
English: Dolby AtmosEnglish: Dolby TrueHD 7.1; Spanish: Dolby Digital 5.1 EXFrench: Dolby Digital 5.1 EXJapanese: Dolby Digital Plus 7.1
Discs: Blu-ray Disc; three-disc set; DVD copy
Region Encoding: 4K Blu-ray: Region free; 2K Blu-ray: Region A

A little production information as we tackle the prequels. The Phantom Menace was shot on 35mm film stock, where as the other two went completely digital, and as a result had the possibility of having all live action elements rescanned at 4K. I don’t believe, unlike the original three, this has happened, though I could not confirm this opinion as of the writing of this review.

VIDEO:

Lazy job done here, folks. Heavy DNR scrubbing, likely from a previous release, that is done no favors at and up-scaled 4K resolution. Faces are waxy, fine details are robbed from all elements of the picture, and depth of picture is marred. There are (seldom) signs of poor edge enhancement and crush in darker scenes. It’s a pretty piss poor job to be honest. It’s not Bourne trilogy bad, which I mauled—see what I did there?—but it’s not good. Where it does shine is color: The HDR10 makes the colors pop like never before. The Queen’s outfits, Naboo’s waterfalls and vistas all look beautiful. The contrast, because of color, I assumed would be good, but the picture really quite flat. Blacks are weak, shifting into grey at some points.

AUDIO:

Bloody amazing. DOLBY Atmos 7.1 wastes no time in putting your speakers through boot camp. This textured, nuanced and bombastic mix is a delight from start to finish. Base thumps in battle scenes; explosions blast from the front channels and roar to the others all the way to back with thrilling directionality; dialogue is crisp and environmentally specific; John William’s score is breathtaking and subtlety really stood out just before Obi Wan goes head to head with Maul with Sith whispers. If only the picture was as breathtaking as the audio.

Supplements

4K gives you squat! Included blu-ray gives you previously released stuff.

Commentary

  • With George Lucas, Rick McCallum, Ben Burtt, Rob Coleman, John Knoll, Dennis Muren, and Scott Squires.
  • Cast and Crew

Special Features

  • Conversations: Doug Chiang Looks Back
  • Discoveries from Inside: Models & Miniatures
  • George Lucas on the Digital Revolution
  • "The Beginning" Feature-Length Documentary
  • The Podrace: Theatrical Edit
  • Archive Fly-Through
  • Interviews
  • Deleted/Extended Scenes
  • The Collection

Blu-ray Rating:

  Movie 2/5 stars
  Video  2/5 stars
  Audio 5/5 stars
  Extras 1/5 stars

Overall Blu-ray Experience

2.5/5 stars

Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace

MPAA Rating: PG for sci-fi action/violence.
Runtime:
136 mins
Director
: George Lucas
Writer:
George Lucas
Cast:
Ewan McGregor, Liam Neeson, Natalie Portman
Genre
: Sci -fi | Adventure
Tagline:
At last we will reveal ourselves to the Jedi.
Memorable Movie Quote: "But Master Yoda says I should be mindful of the future."
Theatrical Distributor:
20th Century Fox
Official Site:
Release Date:
May 19, 1999
DVD/Blu-ray Release Date:
March 31, 2020.
Synopsis: Two Jedi escape a hostile blockade to find allies and come across a young boy who may bring balance to the Force, but the long dormant Sith resurface to claim their old glory.

Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace

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