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The Phantom Menace was released in the summer of ’99 to extraordinarily high public expectation, but before long this had become widespread public indifference. The years of anticipation that preceded its release had hyped the film to such a degree that disappointment was almost inevitable. However, it wasn’t just the weight of expectation that caused the film to under perform, but also a number of highly dubious character decisions and plot elements. Still, the film did become the second highest grossing movie of all time behind Titanic (I’ll never understand how that happened), so someone must have been paying to see it.

This DVD provides the opportunity to re-visit the film a couple of years on without the marketing hysteria that surrounded the initial release. I have only seen the film a handful of times since ’99, mostly because I have become such a DVD devotee that I find it objectionable to watch anything on VHS now. I hoped that this would afford me a more objective view of the film.

At last, Star Wars on DVD!

Feature


There can’t be too many people out there who aren’t familiar with the film, but here’s a brief reminder. The credits outline the basic elements of the plot; the taxation of trade routes is in question and the greedy Trade Federation has set up a blockade around the peaceful planet of Naboo. The Supreme Chancellor of the Galactic Senate has dispatched two of his ambassadors to resolve the dispute, and this is where the film begins.

Upon arriving on the Federation ship, the ambassadors are swiftly identified as Jedi Knights, the guardians of peace and justice throughout the galaxy for countless generations. Unfortunately the Federation have no intention of negotiating and dispatch battle droids to kill the Jedi. After an intense lightsaber battle, the Jedi retreat, only to discover an entire invasion army poised to attack Naboo. Stowing away on a Federation landing craft the pair head to the planet to seek out Amidala, the young queen of Naboo, who is sure to come under fire from the Federation.

The ensuing adventure takes you on a journey to many fantastical locations throughout the galaxy, introducing you to many weird and wonderful characters along the way. Chief among these are the Gungan Jar-Jar Binks (an annoyingly clumsy amphibian who just seems to cause trouble wherever he goes) and a young slave boy named Anakin. Anakin is very strong in the force, the mystical energy field that binds the galaxy together, and is able to assist the Jedi in their quest to restore order to the galaxy.

Impressive... Most impressive.
It is clear after watching this film again that it does have some fairly major flaws. The biggest problem lies in George Lucas’ use of ‘comedy’ relief. There are a number of characters, most notably the CGI Jar-Jar Binks, who are just downright annoying, even two years on. If only they’d toned the character of Jar-Jar down just a little he would have been far more tolerable than he is here. Hopefully Lucas has something more than the role of slapstick sidekick in store for the character in Episode II, or he could seriously damage the series as a whole. One thing that does give me slight hope is that Jar-Jar appears to mature over the course of Episode I, and he will hopefully continue to do so in the next instalment. Please George.

The film also has a few pacing issues, with certain scenes being too protracted for my liking. To be fair to Lucas, he did warn us a few years back that the new Star Wars films were going to be more about political intrigue than all-out space battles, and The Phantom Menace is really all about the beginning of the Emperor’s rise to power. It’s a scene setting film, one that had to be made in order get from point A to point B as it were. I for one will be very interested to see where Lucas takes us in the next instalment of the series, the dubiously titled Episode II – Attack of the Clones.

My final moan has to be about some of the wooden acting and appalling dialogue. Sure, the original trilogy wasn’t Shakespeare, but some of the lines in this film will make you cringe. Jar-Jar Binks is a heavy offender, with much of his dialogue being either incomprehensible or just down right irritating. Jake Lloyd (who plays Anakin) is also grating and I could have gone the entire film without his yelps of ‘yippee’!

Much was made at the time of the supposed racist overtones of Jar-Jar Binks, but I’m surprised that more people didn’t take offence to the blatant oriental accents that the Neimoidians (of the Trade Federation) were given. It’s like something out of a Benny Hill episode!

Double 'ard b@$!ard!
Anyway enough of this moaning, let's talk about the good points. On the whole the acting from the principals is competent, with Liam Neeson and Ian McDiarmid delivering the standout performances. Ewen McGregor isn’t too bad as Obi-Wan, although he does look a tad bored with the whole affair, but perhaps this is because he has little to do until the final act of the film. His imitation of Alec Guiness is pretty good though. Natalie Portman is fine, if a little under-utilised as Amidala, and there are a number of cameos by some familiar faces from the series. Without doubt Ray Park, as the dark side apprentice Darth Maul, is the absolute show-stealer. His portrayal of the Sith Lord is intense, exciting and leaves you wanting much more. With just a look he is able to convey the pure evil at the heart of Maul, as he wields his deadly dual-bladed lightsaber against the Jedi in the final show-stopping confrontation.

On the whole the special effects are also fantastic. The integration of CGI characters with live action actors is mostly seamless, although oddly for a character with so much screen time Jar-Jar looks the least convincing member of his race. The battle droids that make up the bulk of the film’s cannon fodder look sensational, as do all of the various spaceships, vehicles and technology throughout the film. As ever, John William’s score is magnificent and the sound effects all faithful to the original movies.

Video


From the opening titles to the closing credits The Phantom Menace looks very good, in spite of what some people are saying. The CGI intensive nature of the film lends itself very well to DVD and has allowed for an image that is very sharp and finely detailed, with balanced, natural skin tones. As mentioned earlier, the battle droids look stunning, as well as convincing in ways that a lot of CG isn’t. In fact most of the characters in the film look great, although some of the Gungans can look a little artificial from time to time. However this is no fault of the transfer, it’s more to do with the fact that it’s harder to convincingly animate living, organic things than artificial battle droids.

Right, now you need to take a left at the big tree, go straight on for a couple of miles, and you're there...
The famous scrolling yellow-on-black credits are now exactly that, rather than a washed out yellow against grey. The varied locations are all rendered in exquisite detail, with fabulous colours that are accurately reproduced on this DVD. Whether it is the lush greenery of Naboo, the incredible planet sized city of Courascant, or the arid deserts of Tattooine, the quality of the video is excellent.

The Phantom Menace is of course presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and is anamorphically enhanced to provide an image that is just about as good as anything I’ve seen before. That said, some people have complained of excessive edge enhancement, which I have to admit to noticing when I really looked for it. I sit about twelve feet from my 32" widescreen set and the edge enhancement wasn’t distracting, but those with very large screens may disagree. I have seen direct comparisons between the R1 and R2 discs, with the R2 disc emerging as the clear winner due to less obvious use of edge enhancement. It's a real pity that edge enhancement seems to have been used so excessively, as ultimately it drags the video score down.

Audio


Perhaps the single most important aspect of the Star Wars universe is the sound, and this has been given even greater attention than the video. From the first notes of the opening theme you know you are going to be in for a real treat, as John Williams’ score blasts from the speakers in full Dolby Digital 5.1 EX. When the title music fades the distant rumble of a blockade-runner can be heard, and as the camera pans down to the ship the noise of the engines gets even louder. The use of the surround channels during this sequence is excellent, with the ship seemingly flying right over you!

Anakin hosts a game of "Galactic 15-1"
The opening battle with the droids is also a sonic delight. Blaster bolts whistle around the sound stage as the hum of lightsabers cutting through air and steel is heard. The lightsabers sound amazing, and the first time I heard one ignite it sent a shiver down my spine! During this sequence the surround channels are once again used to their full potential, and there is a suitably satisfying rumble from the LFE channel when Obi-Wan uses his force powers to hurl a number of droids through the air.

There is always something going on in this mix, be it all out action as described above, or the more subtle ambient effects like running water or the delightfully creepy music and chanting that accompanies the on screen appearance of the Sith. Even with all of this going on the actor’s voices are never once lost in the mix, and the dialogue remains firmly in the centre of the action.

Of course, you can’t comment on the audio without mentioning the score, which sounds better here than it did in my local multiplex. John Williams remains faithful to the music of the original trilogy, while varying certain themes slightly to accommodate the differences between the two time periods. There are some majestic pieces of music to accompany the queen’s arrival on Courascant, the seat of galactic power, as well as some familiar sounding Jedi signature tunes. Best of all is the astounding Dual of the Fates, the music that accompanies the climactic confrontation between Jedi and Sith towards the end of the film.

I really cannot praise the audio highly enough; it is almost perfect in every way. The only down side I can think of is that there is no isolated musical score or DTS option. This is a real pity, but I guess you can’t have everything can you?

Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace

Extras


The first disc contains a commentary track featuring George Lucas, Rick McCallum and others involved with the production. This makes for interesting listening, with the various participants giving their perspective on the production. Lucas himself is very monotonous in his approach, so it helps that the others are livelier. It stopped me falling asleep on occasions! In general the track is good, but it does tend to concentrate more on the technical aspects of the production rather than the script elements. It would have been nice to hear the reasoning behind some of the plot decisions.

The second disc houses most of the bonus features, as is becoming the norm for most high profile releases. Before I go on to the content, I want to say something about a ‘feature’ that is becoming increasingly common on discs. I am talking about copyright notices. I appreciate that companies want to put these on the disc, but do they really have to be so frustrating? Before you can access the menu of the second disc you are forced to sit through over a minute of these warnings, without the means to fast forward or skip them! This is almost as bad as those patronising adverts featuring Simon Bates that used to appear on VHS tapes years ago, except you could fast forward those!

Still, rant over and on to the material. Both discs feature awesome animated menus, with scenes and music from the film playing in the background. Each individual menu is also themed around a specific location from the film. In one menu a row of Astromech droids use their holographic projectors to display the menu items, and in another the Jedi battle Darth Maul in the Theed reactor. It’s all very impressive stuff. Some menus also contain easter eggs in the form of amusing animations that pop up at certain intervals.

Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace
The special features on this disc differ to those found on many other releases, mostly because you’ll actually want to watch the features here more than once! The main menu is divided into four categories: Trailers and TV Spots, Deleted Scenes and Documentaries, Featurettes, Web Documentaries and StarWars.com and finally Animatics and Stills Galleries.

The trailers and TV spots feature just about everything that was used to promote Episode I in the run up to its theatrical release. Included are the teaser and theatrical trailers, the Duel of the Fates music video (which features video from the film interspersed with video of John Williams conducting the orchestra), tone poems and a couple more TV spots. The tone poems are the most interesting item in this section, as each features a character from the film voicing over a few of their scenes. They all follow different themes from the movie and are named One Love, One Truth etc. I especially like Darth Maul’s tone poem; he actually has more lines here than The Phantom Menace!

The deleted scenes are the best I have ever encountered. Rather than show a series of rough, unfinished scenes from the cutting room floor, George Lucas had his people go back and finish the deleted scenes. The result is footage that could be (and in some cases has been) reinserted into the main feature.

The first documentary deals with the deleted scenes. The reasons behind the omissions of the various scenes are discussed in greater detail with people such as George Lucas, Rick McCallum, Francis Ford Coppola, Phillip Kaufman and Walter Murch. The second documentary is entitled 'The Beginning' and is basically a fly on the wall affair chronicling the making of the film from its inception to its world premiere. This goes far beyond the boundaries of the normal documentaries found on lesser discs, with material taken from design meetings, cast auditions, rough-cut screenings, editing, lightsaber try-outs and much, much more.

Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace
The web documentaries are those posted on Starwars.com during the course of The Phantom Menace's filming and post-production. These make very interesting viewing. This section also includes a few featurettes, and each of these deal with a different element of the production. The most interesting is the featurette detailing the training that the actors had to go through to perform the amazing lightsaber duels in the film. Ewan McGregor really got into the fights, giving Ray Park a run for his money at times! The web links consist of a link to the original Star Wars website, as well as a link to a new, DVD exclusive website. You can only access this site with a copy of the film (the site checks to see if the DVD is in your drive before it lets you in, which adds to the collectable nature of the release). The website is a little sparse at present, but you can expect it to fill up as the various episodes find their way onto DVD. At the moment there are only a few stills from Episode II, but there is a large notice telling everybody to come back at a specific date, presumably for the Episode II trailer!

The animatics are comparisons of early stages of two scenes - Submarine and Podrace - with the finished articles. You can view a number of scenes at various stages of completion, or view all stages of work in a split screen mode. It's great to watch the pod race sequence go from early drawings to full CGI. The stills gallery speaks for itself, in that it is a series of still production photos.

The final extra is a behind the scenes look at the making of the Star Wars: Star Fighter game for the PS2. This is fine for what it is, but I doubt anyone will give it more than a second look.

Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace

Overall


The Phantom Menace is a difficult film to review. I so want to be able to give it 10/10, but I can’t. Even though I am a huge Star Wars fan the film just doesn’t deserve it. It isn’t as bad as some people make out though (younger kids and girlfriends will love it, at least if they’re anything like mine). Although it’s a disappointment as a film, as a package it’s outstanding and everything is as polished as you would expect from Lucasfilm. The video is very good, the audio is of reference quality and the stunning extras will have you coming back time after time. The DVDs are also both picture discs, with Darth Maul’s face on one and the Jedi/Sith battle on the other, which is a nice touch. The only real fault with the presentation is that it comes packaged in a standard amaray case, not in a fancy gatefold one as is more common with special editions.

The omission of an isolated score is a bit of a blow and it would have been really nice to listen to the film in DTS, but that is a personal preference. Still, this is a fine release, which more than does the film justice. Now if only the film itself had been better... On balance though, this is well deserving of anyone's money and I fully expect it to go on to be one of the biggest selling DVDs of all time. Highly recommended.


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