More so even than the beloved original three in the "Star Wars" series, "Episode I - The Phantom Menace" is built completely around visual spectacle, making it a natural fit for 3D and a fairly impressive bit of eye candy. This doesn't excuse the laughably wooden dialog, the worst comic relief character possibly in movie history, and the abundance of Lifetime-level emotional cheese, but the visual creativity shown is still worthy of kudos even if the story doesn't keep up. Considering that creator/director George Lucas has done plenty of tinkering and additions to his franchise over the years, here's one that actually seems to be worth it.
Many cinephiles have feared the prevalence of 3D and the ways in which it could corrupt filmmaking, but now that it's here it doesn't seem nearly so bad. Though I wouldn't want to see "The Artist" or "Raging Bull" converted to 3D, for the "Star Wars" universe we're talking about spaceships, imaginary universes and English-speaking aliens of all shapes and sizes. Adding the extra bit of depth in 3D only adds to the spectacle, and "The Phantom Menace" looks sharp and convincing from very early on. Because "Phantom Menace" wasn't filmed with 3D in mind, there are no gimmicks or 3D tricks, and the conversion really only serves to flesh out landscapes and scenery. If you were imagining an added scene in which Jar Jar Binks flings his tongue at the audience, fear not.
Once the opening credits float off into deep space, the story picks up with our heroes Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor) and Qui-Gon (Liam Neeson), two peace-keeping Jedi in charge of negotiating a dispute between the Trade Federation and a small planet called Naboo. Qui-Gon instantly smells that there must be trouble, and in no time they're squaring off against a swarm of battle droids. This isn't much of a concern, though, as the droids are just about the worst bad guys ever seen on the screen, as they shoot incessantly and never seem to hit anything at all.
After narrowly escaping a failed trade negotiation, Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon find themselves in the care of Jar Jar Binks (voiced by Ahmed Best), a bizarre-looking, annoying creature who is intended, I think, to resemble a stereotypical Jamaican. Though Jar Jar Binks creates many of the most cringe-worthy moments in the movie, he does provide George Lucas a reason to showcase an extravagant underwater city when Jar Jar leads the way to his hometown of Otoh Gunga. Looking like a city borrowed from the imagination of Jules Verne, Otoh Gunga is one of the more impressive worlds in the series and looks bold and mystical as it sits on the ocean floor.
And it's the various different cities and landscapes that stand out the most in the 3D version of "The Phantom Menace." With its rushing waterfalls, flowing gardens and precariously sitting castle, Queen Amidala's (Natalie Portman) dream-like Naboo looks like something that might have inspired Peter Jackson for his "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. Coruscant, the capital of the republic, looks like an uplifting vision of a future city, one where personalized spacecrafts routinely hover next to enormous buildings that literally do seem to scrape the sky. If part of the joy in watching the original "Star Wars" was to be transported to new places, there is plenty to like about the visual design in "The Phantom Menace."
Something that Lucas also mostly gets right in "The Phantom Menace" is the actual light-saber fighting. Though the space fights leave much to be desired, the light-saber jousting is well-choreographed and exhilarating, leading to one of the best action moments in the series when Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon battle sith lord Darth Maul. In 3D, the strong choreography of the big battle between good and evil pops on screen and John Williams' music helps bring the movie to its peak. With black and red face paint and horns, Lucas isn't exactly subtle in making Darth Maul a force of evil, but subtlety isn't exactly the point of the "Star Wars" universe and Darth Maul makes a fitting villain to launch the second "Star Wars" trilogy.
Of course, the biggest problem of "The Phantom Menace" remains with Anakin (Jake Lloyd), a character that was probably doomed because everyone knew he would grow up to be Darth Vader. Lloyd, who wasn't even 10 yet when "The Phantom Menace" was released, does what he can with painful dialog, but many of the emotional scenes remain too straight forward and hokey to be taken seriously. Even though the original "Star Wars" films had their fair share of eye-rolling sentiment as well, they at least had a rabble rouser like Han Solo to spice it up a bit. With "The Phantom Menace," the character development seems to be nothing more than a painful distraction to the digital world Lucas was trying to create.
Of course, Lucas never did get back the tone and excitement of the original "Star Wars" trilogy, something that movie lovers should have seen coming from a mile away. When "Phantom Menace" came out in 1999, it just didn't look or feel right compared with the first three, and Lucas appeared so obsessed with special effects that it felt more like a cartoon than anything else. Jar Jar Binks getting major screen time also didn't help the initial consensus, and "Phantom Menace" was easy to denounce. More than a decade later, we're much more used to action epics that completely rely upon digital enhancements, making it easier to appreciate the skill and imagination it took to create some of the worlds shown off in "The Phantom Menace." If only Lucas had stopped to make sure there was a screenplay that matched his visual imagination.
by RTT Staff Writer
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