A few months back, when it debuted on Blu-Ray, I re-watched Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999). After watching Red Letter Media’s epic take down and deconstruction, I assumed I would never be able to watch the film again with any shred of interest or emotional investment. Well, I was pleasantly surprised. The Phantom Menace – a film loved by young Generation Y members (the audience in my theater applauded the 3D version), viewed with mixed emotions by older Generation Y members, and loathed by pretty much any Star Wars fan older than thirty – is not a great movie on a par with the first two films in the original trilogy…but it’s not as awful as Episode II (2002). For every weakness the film has (including extensive discussions regarding taxation, Jar-Jar Binks, and Jake Lloyd), the film has some extraordinary sequences, most notably the Podrace and the “Duel of the Fates” triple climax. Surely, I assumed, 3D had to make this mediocre movie better. Well, you know what they say about the verb “to assume”…it makes an ass out of you and me.
To briefly summarize the plot, for those of you who have blocked/repressed/forgotten this one: Jedi Knights Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) investigate a trade blockade of the peaceful planet Naboo, which is represented by Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman). The traders attack the Jedi and leave them for dead on the planet’s surface, after which the Jedi pick up an unwelcome companion in Jar-Jar Binks (voiced by Ahmed Best) and rescue Amidala. Complications arise when the protagonists get stranded on Tatooine and meet up with Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd). Add in about an hour and a half of dialogue regarding trade disputes and taxation and that’s the film in a nutshell.
The many criticisms of The Phantom Menace, which even make the task of writing a plot summary rather difficult, are infamous now. The film doesn’t have a clear cut protagonist with characterized motivations (Anakin is too young to understand what the hell is going on, and Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan make incredibly stupid decisions), large plot holes exist (how the hell does baddie Darth Maul track down the protagonists?), and the acting and dialogue are as creaky as the structure of a Victorian-era home. Unfortunately, neither George Lucas’s obsession with using digital technology to revise his films nor the conversion to 3D have alleviated any of these issues.
The main attraction in this incarnation of The Phantom Menace is obviously the 3D, which is a mixed bag at best. I’m not sure where the line between poor conversion ends and poor theatrical presentation begins (I saw it at the AMC in Santa Monica). The picture appears dirty, poorly focused, and showcases weak color balance (probably a theatrical problem) that, frankly, made my eyes close for brief moments of relief. Yet, Lucas and his conversion team never really take the 3D of The Phantom Menace to the extreme. They use the technology to add more depth to the image. Normally, this approach is ideal. However, considering the coma-inducing content of the film, I would have loved to see lightsaber blades flying out of the frame and Podracers exploding before my eyes. We never get these scenes and considering my experience at least, I would have preferred to watch the film on Blu-Ray. Funnily, Episode II, the worst of all the Star Wars movies, might be the best one to see in 3D because the action sequences (especially the opening chase scene) seem better tailored to the technology.