Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace (UK - BD)
Click here to read Chris' review of the first instalment of Lucas' space saga...
It all starts here, with the (chronologically) first instalment of George Lucas’ space saga. Given the massive hype surrounding the release of The Phantom Menace there can’t be many people out there who aren’t at least partially familiar with the film, but here’s a brief synopsis just in case you’re too young to remember or have been living in a hut on Dagobah for the last decade.
The credits outline the basic 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, prompting the Supreme Chancellor of the Galactic Senate to dispatch two of his ambassadors to resolve the dispute. 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 has no intention of negotiating and sends battle droids to kill the Jedi. After an intense battle the Jedi retreat, only to discover an entire invasion army poised to attack Naboo. Stowing away on a Federation landing craft they head to the planet to seek out Naboo’s young queen, Amidala, who is sure to come under fire from the Federation.
The ensuing adventure takes the viewer 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 causes trouble wherever he goes - and a young slave boy named Anakin. Anakin is very strong in the Force - the mystical energy field that binds all living things - and is able to assist the Jedi in their quest to foil the Trade Federation and restore order to the galaxy. Old enemies also return in the shape of the Sith, practitioners of the dark side of the Force who thirst for galactic conquest and theaten the very existence of the Jedi Order.
The Phantom Menace was released in the summer of 1999 to extraordinarily high public expectation, but it wasn’t long before this turned to widespread public indifference. The years of anticipation that preceded its release had hyped the film to such an extent that disappointment was almost inevitable. A number of controversial characters and plot developments didn’t help matters, but the film did become the second highest grossing movie of all time behind Titanic so someone must have been paying to see it.
Prior to this Blu-ray viewing I hadn’t watched the film in a long time, largely because it’s probably the weakest entry in the series. In fact I’d go as far as to say that it has some fairly major flaws. The biggest problem I have with the film is the reliance on slaptick and toilet humour. The original trilogy had comedic moments but these were largely free of the immaturity that plagues The Phantom Menace. The antics of CGI creation Jar Jar Binks are downright annoying here, which is something that even George Lucas himself appeared to acknowledge by reducing his screen time significantly in the next two instalments. If only they’d toned the character down just a little he would have been a tolerable addition to the cast in the mould of R2-D2 or C-3PO. I had hoped that these elments would be more bearable after years away from the film, but if anything they're even more annoying.
Pacing is also an issue, with a number of scenes that are far too protracted for my liking. The pod race, much of the Gungan stuff, the talkie political elements... all seem to drag on forever and there’s a real slump in the middle of the film. However, to be fair to Lucas he did warn us many years before work commenced on the prequel trilogy that the new films were going to be more about political intrigue than all-out space battles. The 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 just wish the journey had been a little more exciting at times.
My final moan relates to the acting, some of which is so wooden I almost felt the need to coat the TV in creosote. Granted the original trilogy wasn’t Shakespeare, but some of the dialogue and delivery in this film are downright cringe worthy. The much-maligned Jar Jar Binks is a heavy offender - with much of his dialogue being either incomprehensible or just down right irritating - and Jake Lloyd (who plays the young Anakin) puts in a performance that pretty much guaranteed he’d wouldn’t have a film career after Star Wars. Although I don’t like to rip on child actors Jake Lloyd earns his ‘Mannequin Skywalker’ moniker and I can’t help but feel that the prequels would have benefitted from making Anakin closer to the age Luke was in ANH. The symmetry between he trilogies would have been a nice touch and it would also have made the inevitable romance with Padme (spoilers!) more believable. Ewan McGregor (Obi-Wan Kenobi) looks 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 Guinness is pretty good though. Natalie Portman is also a marginalised and struggles under the weight of her elaborate costumes and necessarily stilted delivery.
Anyway enough of this fault-finding, let's talk about some of the positives. While the standard of acting is variable overall both Liam Neeson and Ian McDiarmid deliver pretty decent performances considering the material. However, the undoubted star is the man with the fewest lines of all - 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 in Maul’s heart as he wields his deadly dual-bladed lightsaber against the Jedi in the final show-stopping confrontation. It's just a pity that Lucas killed him off.
On the whole the special effects are also good, especially when measured against the computer effects of the time. The integration of CGI characters with live action actors is generally believable (at least as far as any such interaction is), although oddly for a character with so much screen time Jar Jar is sadly the least convincing member of his race. However, the battle droids that make up the bulk of the film’s cannon fodder look great, as do all of the various spaceships, vehicles and technology found throughout the film. As ever it is John Williams’ sensational score that sticks with you long after the closing credits, particularly the magnificent ‘Duel of the Fates’, which has to rank as one of the finest pieces in the entire saga. Speaking of 'Duel of the Fates', that particular piece of music accompanies what is possibly the best lightsaber duel in the whole saga. In fact The Phantom Menace contains a number of thrilling lightsaber battles that feel more energitic than anything that came before or after.
The version of the film presented on this disc is the third iteration of the film, with changes over and above those found on the 2001 DVD release. These range from subtle things like a new Jedi super-speed effect and a better looking viewscreen, to very obvious changes like the replacement of the freaky looking Yoda puppet with a CGI variant. This is actually a really positive addition to the film and provides continuity between the prequels (and to a lesser extent all six films). But enough of me rambling on. I'm sure you all have pretty strong opinions about the film one way or another and are really here to discover how well it has translated to Blu-ray, so let's crack on with the technical appraisal.
It might come as a surprise, but The Phantom Menace was the film I was most eager to revisit with this Blu-ray release. Unlike the other prequels The Phantom Menace was shot on 35mm film and I was quietly confident that the Blu-ray would finally do it justice on a home format. Years ago my less critical eyes actually thought the DVD release of the film was okay, but as time has passed and I've become more familiar with various visual deficiencies it's now painful to watch. The transfer is terribly grainy, in a clumpy, unattractive way, and there is a ton of edge enhancement (even more so on the R1 release). The colour timing is really off, with the pervading pink tint that makes the whole film look odd, and it's also very soft and mushy with little in the way of fine detail. As for the film artefacts, oh dear... Of course it's an ageing DVD so judging it by today's standards isn't entirely fair, but even HDTV broadcasts of the film have left a lot to be desired in my experience.
In light of the above issues you can imagine my excitement when I learned that the film had been restored for this Blu-ray release. Unfortunately the results aren't quite what I was hoping for, but thankfully the positives are actually fairly numerous. One thing that becomes apparent relatively early on is that this 2.35:1 widescreen (1080/24p AVC) transfer has been opened up somewhat to reveal more of the image than any previous home video or TV version. I say relatively early on as the opening scenes actually display less information, but after about five minutes the frame opens up and remains that way for the majority of the picture. The other thing you'll notice is that most of the distracting heavy grain has been eliminated, which brings it in line with the other prequels visually. Although the anamorphic photography ensures a soft overall look there are plenty of shots that exhibit detail far beyond that of the DVD. Colour has also been much improved from the standard-definition offering, with the ugly pink tint banished to the Great Pit of Carkoon where it belongs. Blue skies are now just that, instead of some horrid reddish colour, and numerous scenes have been retimed for added visual impact. Best of all the horrendous edge enhancement that plagued previous releases has been all-but eliminated.
Sounds good so far, right? Yes, but unfortunately there are still a number of visual inconstancies and problems that prevent this from being a great transfer. While the aforementioned softness appears to be inherent to the filmed source the new, cleaner look appears to have been accomplished by way of filtering. DNR has almost certainly been applied, often in very liberal doses, eradicating detail and turning some shots into waxy affairs. It’s never as bad as the very worst offenders, but it’s still excessive at times. While the altered colour timing is generally a boon some scenes look oversaturated, and the current trend of contrast boosting occasionally results in black crush and blooming. It's a real pity, because without these entirely avoidable problems this could have been a fantastic transfer. As it stands it's merely a good effort, insomuch as it's the best looking version of the film available by quite some margin even with the aforementioned flaws. Those with smaller screens or those less obsessed with visual imperfections will likely find this to be a very pleasing image, and even I have to admit that parts of the film look wonderful, hence the score.
Whatever the reservations I have about the visual quality of the film they don't carry over to the aural elements. To put it simply, The Phantom Menace sounds sensational on Blu-ray. I remember being impressed by the Dolby Digital 5.1 EX track on the UK DVD release all those years ago, but the Blu-ray's DTS-HD Master Audio 6.1 track is better in every respect.
As the sounds of John Williams' iconic opening title music fade the distant rumble of a Republic cruiser can be heard before the camera pans down to the ship and the noise of the engines gets even louder as it passes by. The use of the surround channels during this sequence is excellent, with the ship seemingly flying right over your head! The opening skirmish with the battle droids is also a sonic delight, with blaster bolts whizzing around the soundstage as the hum of lightsabers cutting through air and steel is heard. The lightsabers themselves are worthy of special mention as they've really been beefed up since the DVD release, adding a different dimension to the duels. You can almost feel the crackling energy as the blades meet and the distinctive hum is now more of a roar. This is particularly true of Darth Maul's dual-bladed saber, which sounds like a laser-powered chainsaw!
The Jedi's arrival on Naboo (just before they meet Jar Jar) also sticks in the mind, as the native wildlife stampedes across the soundstage as it flees the Trade Federation troop carriers, which themselves make a thunderous noise as they traverse the landscape. The climactic battle on four fronts is absolutely fantastic, with the juxtaposition between the ground-based warfare, orbital dogfights and and lightsaber duel making for a thrilling experience. In fact there is always something going on in this mix, be it all out action as described above or more subtle ambient effects like those found in the forests of Naboo and the underwater city of Otoh Gunga, or the bustling streets of Mos Espa and overcrowded skies of Coruscant. These gentler moments are really atmospheric and what sets the Star Wars universe apart from lesser sci-fi franchises sonically.
The clarity of the effects is much improved over the DVD release, with the greater dynamic range afforded by the lossless audio really paying off. The low frequency effects now pack quite a punch in everything from the aforementioned lightsaber duels to podracer engines and the myriad explosions. Dialogue is also perfectly balanced in the mix, never once becoming buried under the constant assault of the effects. I was also happy with the relative volume of John Williams' music, which I had feared would be marginalised in favour of the more bombastic elements of the soundtrack. Thankfully it's present and correct for the whole of the runtime, serving up one delightful piece of music after another. From the chilling, creepy music that signifies the presence of the Sith to Anakin's whimsical theme and beyond, its is great stuff and my favourite of the prequel scores. This really is a fantastic soundtrack that goes a long way towards compensating for some of the visual shortcomings.
The only disc-specific extras are a pair of audio commentaries. The first is the old DVD track featuring George Lucas, Rick McCallum and others production staff. It makes for generally interesting listening, with each participant giving their perspective on the production, although it does tend to focus on the technical aspects of the production rather than story elements. Lucas is his usual monotonous self, but thankfully the others are livelier as they prevented me from falling asleep! It would have been nice to hear the reasoning behind some of the plot decisions.
The second commentary is one of those patchwork efforts stitched together from various interviews with cast and crew. Pretty much all of the major players are here, from Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor, to Natalie Portman and Ian McDiarmid. Even Ray Park and Jake Lloyd get a look in. It's a bit of a disjointed affair but there actually a lot of interesting information to be gleaned from it and it's always nice to hear some of the lesser-known actors' thoughts.
There are no other extras on the disc, but additional content relating to The Phantom Menace can be found on disc seven of the nine included in the 'Saga' set. You can find details of those extras by returning to the main page that brought you to this review, or by clicking here.
For my money this is definitely the worst of the Star Wars films. Time hasn't been particularly kind to it and what was clunky and annoying in 1999 is still clunky and annoying in 2011. With that said, for once Lucas' additions are positive ones, particularly CGI Yoda. While I was slightly disappointed that the transfer traded one set of visual problems for another I have to concede that it's still the best the film has looked on a home format. The audio is absolutely top-notch however, which comes as no surprise given that it was the most impressive aspect of the ageing DVD. Dedicated extras are not particularly impressive but there is more content to be found on the prequel bonus disc (which is covered in the review of the 'Saga' boxed set). All things considered I'm relatively happy with what we have here, even if I know it could have been better.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Chris Gould
Suitable for all
Release Date: 12th September 2011
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 6.1 English, Dolby Digital 5.1 French, Dolby Digital 5.1 Portuguese, Dolby Digital 5.1 Spanish, Audio Description Dolby Digital 5.1 English
Subtitles: Danish, Dutch, English, Finnish, French, Norwegian, Portuguese, Spanish, Swedish
Extras: Audio Commentaries
Easter Egg: No
Director: George Lucas
Cast: Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd, Ian McDiarmid, Ray Park, Ahmed Best, Pernilla August, Hugh Quarshie, Oliver Ford Davies, Terrence Stamp, Brian Blessed, Frank Oz, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker
Genre: Action, Adventure, Fantasy and Sci-Fi
Length: 136 minutes
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