Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace Review

A long, long time ago, three science-fiction/fantasy films of the late seventies and early eighties redefined motion pictures and how they were made, and the phenomenon these films created has yet to die down. The trilogy of films, named the Star Wars trilogy, and containing Star Wars: A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi were fabulous successes that broke box office records even on their re-releases. Many fans were unsure however, as to why the films were titled Episodes IV, V and VI respectively, and what about the first three episodes? Writer/Director of the films, George Lucas, often maintained that he would revisit the Star Wars legacy and produce the first three episodes when a time came where movie special effects were advanced enough to be able to cope with his visionary scripts. That time came a full sixteen years after the last film was made, and George Lucas announced in 1999 that he will start production for Star Wars - Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. Anticipation was intense, hype was incredible, and standards were set impossible high. The film came and went, did massive box office in the summer of 1999, but critics and fans were divided. However, Lucas never faced stiffer criticism than on his decision to not release any Star Wars films on DVD. Huge petitions spread around the world from angry fans demanding that the new mass market home entertainment medium be given the chance to harness a Star Wars movie. Lucas had always resisted temptation, which was surprising given how he cynically re-boxed and re-released the first three movies on VHS every few years. However, rumours started to spread that the first DVD release would be The Phantom Menace, and after tremendous pressure, Lucas agreed to release the film world-wide in the third week of October 2001.

What of the film itself? Naturally, being the first episode in a six episode series, The Phantom Menace concentrates mainly on establishing characters and situations. Fans of the first trilogy of films will be slightly disorientated due to the plot, as the first episode doesn't possess many similarities or connections to the later trilogy. However, with regards to actual synopsis, The Phantom Menace commences with an ensuing conflict between the powerful Trade Federation and the peaceful planet of Naboo. Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his younger apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) travel to Naboo to warn Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) of the dangerous possibilities that could occur if wrong moves are made. Soon enough, planet Naboo is invaded, and the two Jedis help to evacuate the planet with Queen Amidala and her trusted court. They are taken to the desert planet of Tatooine. Whilst there, the two meet a young slave boy named Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), and it quickly becomes apparent that the boy is rich with the magical 'force' that fuels Jedis with their powers. After much manoeuvring including a Ben-Hur-esque Pod Race, the two Jedis free young Anakin and enlist his help in fighting the war. The duo also have to contend with some Dark Jedis who are behind the invasion. The mysterious Darth Maul (Ray Park), and his evil, scheming Master Darth Sidious, who is still a 'phantom' to the Jedis.

With its famous opening textual introduction crawl to the tune of John Williams' landmark score, The Phantom Menace begins ominously enough, with the very unexciting talk of trade routes being taxed and planetary relations being strained. However, the visual abundance of the film soon kicks in, and from then on The Phantom Menace is a rollercoaster ride of entertainment, even if it doesn't meet the epic scope of say, The Empire Strikes Back. The plot is more jokey than the three previous films, and more clearly geared towards kids, and this has caused many adult fans to slip through the net. However, once you accept the annoyances of characters such as Jar-Jar Binks, and the unnecessary franchise tie-ins of such pointless diversions such as the Pod-Race, The Phantom Menace can actually fit in with the Star Wars universe. With many major stars in cameos, such as Samuel L. Jackson and Terence Stamp, The Phantom Menace has a more heavyweight cast then its predecessors. Despite this, it has to be argued that Ewan McGregor looks suitably bored as Obi-Wan Kenobi, which possibly is due to the amount of blue screen work involved in the film. Liam Neeson is perfectly cast as the wiser, older Qui-Gon Jinn, and he is to The Phantom Menace what Alec Guinness was to Star Wars: A New Hope. Young Jake Lloyd is acceptable enough as Anakin Skywalker, although he is to be replaced by older Hayden Christiansen for the next sequel, entitled Attack Of The Clones. Ray Park looks menacing as Darth Maul, although the character is only used sparingly and doesn't have much to say, which is quite a shame, when compared to the evil of Darth Vader. Natalie Portman shows immense promise as Queen Amidala, and her celebrity status will surely grow beyond Carrie Fisher's Princess Leia.

The directing by George Lucas is average, and there are never any signs that suggest that he can meet the standard of his peers, such as Spielberg, Richard Marquand and Irvin Kershner. Lucas is too focused, or even preoccupied by special effects, as opposed to story or acting, and this places too much of a heavy emphasis on visuality in The Phantom Menace. Unfortunately, due to the tremendous amount of special effects sequences in the film, the quality is variable to say the least. Some of the CGI shots are very obvious to spot, and already look dated two years on. The war scenes all look too 'drawn', as if they are fighting on a battleground situated somewhere between Teletubby land and Marioland. All of the CGI characters also have too much of a 'drawn in' look, and their interaction with real-life characters is never convincing enough. Because of the thin story-line, John Williams, usually one of the most gifted film composers, delivers a below-par soundtrack, especially compared to his previous Star Wars efforts.

The Phantom Menace is no match for the previous Star Wars trilogy, but still has much to offer, if only to wet the appetite for later instalments. Without the hindsight of seeing Episodes two and three, it's hard to draw a link between the previous trilogy and Episode One. The heavy reliance on CGI effects may take its toll in future years, and don't be surprised if a re-done special edition emerges one day. That said, it's very hard to deal with the abrupt conclusion of The Phantom Menace, as the wait for more Star Wars is hard to bear.

The picture is absolutely flawless, and presented in anamorphic widescreen 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Stunningly colourful visuals with nice, natural looking primary colours are exhibited perfectly, and the picture, much like the audio, can surely serve as reference quality. Some have criticised the transfer due to the apparent edge enhancement, but a closer inspection suggests this to be more to do with the already dated CGI blue-screen visual effects that the film employs.

Many Star Wars fans are angered by the dubious and perhaps cynical ploy by George Lucas to withhold a DTS mix from the release. However, upon listening to the 5.1 Surround EX mix, most fans' anger will be extinguished, as the sound mix is a tremendous sonic assault to the ears, particularly in scenes such as the pod-race and the epic war scenes. The dialogue is lightly recorded at a lesser volume than usual, but this is only a minor detraction. A 2.0 surround mix is also included, and this alone complements the film well, but the 5.1 mix will be the one used to convert non-DVD enthusiasts.

Academy Awards 1999

Academy Award Nominations 1999
Best Visual Effects - Rob Coleman, John Knoll, Dennis Muren, Scott Squires
Best Sound Recording - Tom Johnson, John Midgley, Shawn Murphy, Gary Rydstrom
Best Sound Effects Editing - Tom Bellfort, Ben Burtt

Menu: Menu screens for DVDs continue to grow from strength to strength, and The Phantom Menace has wonderfully animated menus that tie-in with the film majestically and yet are still extremely varied. Particularly exciting is one menu in which a lightsabre duel is occurring in the top right corner.

Packaging: Bog-standard amaray casing with inner attachment for the second disc. Comes with booklet containing a guide to the extras contained on the DVD and also the chapter listings. You would think Lucas and Fox Video could have produced something more distinctive for a Star Wars release. Also, don't be surprised if this disc is re-released every two years with slightly different extras and packaging.


Commentary With George Lucas and Crew: Given the fact that seven crew members and no cast members contribute to the commentary of The Phantom Menace, you would be forgiven for thinking that the listening experience will be an over-technical, dry affair. Surprisingly, the commentary is quite enjoyable. None of the crew appear to have recorded their commentaries at the same time, and this helps as the producers of the DVD have cut-and-pasted their comments into one commentary, which means that only the interesting anecdotes are heard and also no pauses occur in the audio. The commentary features writer/director George Lucas, producer Rick McCallum, sound designer Ben Burtt, ILM animation director Rob Coleman and ILM Visual Effects supervisors John Knoll, Denis Muren and Scott Squires.

'The Beginning' Documentary: An hour long documentary that shows just how epic and daunting a task such as making The Phantom Menace actually is. Supposedly edited from over six hundred hours of footage, the documentary depicts such events as casting the film, shooting the film and most importantly, or at least most importantly to George Lucas, managing the vast array of special effects that form a big segment of the film. Interviews from all of the major cast and crew are included, and R2 consumers should be warned that, unlike the R1, the documentary is slightly edited for swearing, although this isn't as problematic as it sounds.

Deleted Scenes With Optional Documentary: This DVD version of The Phantom Menace contains seven deleted/extended scenes with an optional wrap around documentary featuring Lucas and his Crew discussing why the scenes were left out. What makes the deleted sequences so special is the fact that the filmmakers have actually gone to the trouble of completing the sequences that weren't necessarily finished when the decision was made to leave them out. Even better, the scenes are in Dolby Digital 5.1 and anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen.

Multi-Angle Storyboard-To-Animatics-Film Sequences: An interesting feature, exploring the three stage process of designing a sequence, from storyboard level, to animatic and live test level to finalised film level. Two sequences, the 'Pod Race Lap 1' and Submarine scenes are shown in each of these processes, with the option to change the angle and switch between the different process levels. Scenes are still presented in anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen. A small introduction from the crew of The Phantom Menace explaining the processes of animatics is also included, and very helpful.

Twelve-Part Web Documentary Series: The Phantom Menace released a series of twelve small featurettes on during the making of the film, in order to feed hungry fans with any fly-on-the-wall access they could get their hands on. The series won awards, and is an interesting alternative look at the making of the enormous film. This is fascinating viewing, considering that it was mostly shot before the film was finished and all faults were yet to be ironed out.

Five Mini Featurettes: The five featurettes all cover various different departments of the production, such as 'Visual Effects', 'Fights', 'Costumes', 'Design' and 'Story'. The featurettes all last approximately ten minutes, and are useful in the sense that they cover more detail and explore with greater depth the various elements of the film's production that aren't covered as extensively in 'The Beginning' documentary.

Exclusive Photo Gallery With Captions: Some behind the scenes photos with captions and a user-interface that can navigate between each still. Most photo galleries are fillers on DVDs, and even though they are nicer to have than to not have, they are appreciated more when armed with captions, such as the ones on The Phantom Menace.

Poster and Print Campaigns: Still photos of the poster and print campaigns used to promote the film, with a user-interface designed to aid navigation between each still. Some nice artwork, although you'd be seriously pushed to choose this extra over some of the others.

Trailers And TV Spots: Interesting teaser and full release trailers are included for The Phantom Menace, along with seven TV spots that corroborate the fact that much publicising has gone into bringing the film to the widest audience. The trailers are presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, whilst the TV spots are presented in 1.85:1 non-anamorphic widescreen.

'Duel Of The Fates' Music Video: A music video featuring clips from the film spliced with shots of composer John Williams performing, all backed with the 'Duel Of The Fates' theme from the original score. For a Star Wars film, this extra is nice to have, even if it doesn't look or feel like a conventional music video. Presented in non-anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen.

Star Wars: Starfighter - The Making Of A Game: A small promotional featurette produced to briefly explain the close links between the film and the video game, that was so successful that a sequel game is in the pipeline.

DVD-Rom Weblinks: For those who own a DVD-ROM, various weblinks are contained on the DVD, with exclusive information. In a few weeks time, a weblink will be available which shows a trailer for Attack Of The Clones, and already other features such as a chat-room and unreleased stills etc. are available. Weblinks via DVD's are still sometimes a hassle, but the smoothness of the experience is improving.

The Phantom Menace is a treat for the eyes and is delightfully entertaining, if a little detrimental to the overall impact of the Star Wars universe. Picture and audio quality of the disc is superb, and the extras are extremely in-depth and are heavily in abundance, with over six extra hours of items to view. Based on this alone, Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace is a classic DVD and possibly the most important release to grace the DVD medium so far.

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