Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace 3D review
|REVIEWS - MOVIES|
The Force is strong with this 3D post-conversion...
Thirteen years ago my friend Phil and I could barely contain our excitement as we sat in a dark cinema in Nottingham waiting for the first of the long awaited Star Wars prequels, the strangely named Episode One: The Phantom Menace (1999). Like many thousands, perhaps millions, of Star Wars fans around the world, our expectations and hopes were set so impossibly high that even if the man whose feet we worshipped, George Lucas, Emperor of the Empire, had made the best film in the history of cinema, it still wouldn't have been enough to satisfy us, and so somewhat inevitably we came away disappointed.
Fast forward to 2012, to a bitterly cold February night that would make Hoth seem balmy in comparison, and I'm once again sitting in a dark cinema, this time the world famous Empire in London's Leicester Square, waiting to see The Phantom Menace on the big screen for only the second time (though I have revisited it on DVD occasionally), but this time there are a few major differences.
The first, and the reason we're here tonight, is that The Phantom Menace is now in 3D. Having originally rejected celluloid's third dimension, it was only after his friend James Cameron, who it’s fair to say knows a thing or two about 3D movies, flattered him into reconsidering by reasoning that if there was one thing that would really help sell this brave new (resurrected but vastly improved) medium to the general public, it would be the conversion of his mildly successful space opera, that Grand Moff Lucas announced that he would be converting all six films to 3D, beginning with, logically enough, Episode One.
On hearing this news, there was a great disturbance in the force as a million voices cried out “Can't we just start with A New Hope, George?”, and mine, I must confess, was among them. There are, however, a couple of good reasons for beginning with The Phantom Menace, the most obvious being that when all is said and done it is now the first movie of the cycle, but also that, though the film itself was shot on 35mm stock, the vast majority of the effects are digital which must surely be a great asset in terms of the actual conversion.
The second of the aforementioned differences is that unlike the screening Phil and I attended all those years ago, the packed audience of which was almost exclusively made up of twenty or thirty something year old males who weren't in the least bit ashamed to admit to knowing the difference between a Twi'lek and a Trandoshan, tonight's screening had a large number of families present alongside us solitary reviewing types, and this wealth of children who were seeing Episode One on the big screen for the first time (and possibly just seeing it for the first time in some cases) gave me pause for thought regarding one of the film's characters, which we'll get to in due course.
Before the film began, however, it was clear that 20th Century Fox pulled out all the stops to make this multimedia launch an event to remember for the attendees. The 501st Squadron were out in force, with no fewer than ten stormtroopers (including one who really was a little short for...you know, and who was reminded of this fact several times while I stood near him, or her, though I'm pleased to say that I exercised great restraint in keeping quiet on the matter) and a rather impressive Darth Maul, albeit one who appeared to have indulged in a few too many of the Cantina's pies whilst on Tatooine.
"I'm happy to report that it works very well indeed, actually, and having seen a few 3D films since the dawn of the current renaissance, I can honestly say that it blew me away at just how good the conversion is."
A life size Lego R2-D2 and C-3PO flanked three Xbox 360s showcasing the pod racing segment of the upcoming Star Wars Kinect game, which I couldn't get near enough to play but which looked very promising and will surely be available in demo form on the console in the very near future. Best of all, though, and an inspired piece of marketing by 20th Century Fox, there were two photographers who were taking pictures of attendees holding double bladed Darth Maul lightsabres, which were then blended into to a nifty promotional photograph that we got to take away with us (and yes, of course I indulged, along with many of the other thirty and forty something year old children who were there).
So, what of the film, I hear you cry, and we'll get there in a moment, but as the lights went down at the advertised start time, there was one more surprise from Fox as the ten stormtroopers and Darth More (Pies) filed into the cinema, accompanied by Fox's head of marketing who announced a special surprise guest: C-3PO himself, Anthony Daniels.
After a brief introduction in which he delighted the audience by delivering his famous 'protocol droid' speech and subtly reminded us that he was the only actor to have appeared in all six movies, Daniels professed his pleasure that this was the third generation that was now getting to experience the Star Wars movies on the big screen, and then he was gone, replaced by the familiar Fox searchlight logo on the screen (in 3D no less) and the fanfare that still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up in anticipation to this day.
In stark contrast to the rabid anticipation I had shown thirteen years previously and which had precipitated a massive bout of disappointment after the credits had rolled, I was going into this screening with a much more realistic expectation - that the film would be good, but not great, and that the 3D would be an interesting experience.
On the first count I was spot on, as something I've always maintained is that there is a great movie hiding in The Phantom Menace's running time, but it gets overshadowed and somewhat tainted by the inclusion of obviously child friendly characters like Boss Nass (who even the mighty vocal talents of Brian Blessed can't lift above annoying) and everybody's favourite whipping Gungan, Jar Jar Binks.
Now I know it's become somewhat fashionable to criticise Jar Jar Binks, and I've done my fair share of it over the years myself, but not having seen Episode One for a good decade, I was determined to give him a fair reappraisal. However, within minutes of appearing on screen, not even the fact that graphically he looked fantastic even after all these years could prevent my irritation meter from reaching critical mass as I struggled to find anything of value in his “Meesa this” and “Meesa that”, so much so that if you were to put a blaster to my head and demand that I recite more than two lines of his dialogue I'd struggle beyond “blah blah blah”.
That said, the fact that this was the first time I'd watched the movie with children present forced me to accept something that I'd been trying to deny for years, something that due to the kids all laughing and yelling in all the right places when Jar Jar and Boss Nass were on screen I can no longer ignore – at heart, The Phantom Menace is a children's movie. There, I've said it, and do you know what, I feel strangely better for it.
So, now we've addressed the celluloid irritation that is Jar Jar Binks, it's only fair that we speak of the other thorn in the movie's side, albeit one that it can't really function without. I'm talking, of course, of the arboreal acting talents of Jake Lloyd, who is so wooden that if he stood still on the forest moon of Endor he would blend seamlessly into the background. It doesn't help that the script saddles him with endless overblown exposition for those members of the audience who are either struggling to keep up with the plot or have slipped into a coma while being subjected to Jar Jar ruddy Binks, but this coupled with his infuriating repeated shouts of “Yippee!” makes one wish that, though it would have cut the saga somewhat short, George Lucas had applied one of his now infamous, but sadly not infrequent, tweaks and had Mannequin Skywalker tossed into the Great Pit of Carkoon.
Speaking of tweaks, I noticed only one, albeit a significant one, but one that I think I'm actually in favour of. Bringing The Phantom Menace into line with the other prequels, Yoda is now fully CGI, and I have to say he looked much better for it. While I never want to see the Yoda we know and love in Empire given the CGI treatment, this new TPM Yoda is a vast improvement on the decidedly gaunt version that originally graced Episode One, and so while not being so radical as to eat my hat on this issue, I will take a very small nibble from the brim and concede that on this occasion, George was right (but don't tell him I said so).
"...Having seen a few 3D films since the dawn of the current renaissance, I can honestly say that it blew me away at just how good the conversion is"
Right, enough of the negatives, because as Yoda points out, hate leads to suffering and we’ve done quite enough of that while Jar Jar has been on screen, so let’s address the all important question here, namely how well does The Phantom Menace work in 3D?
I'm happy to report that it works very well indeed, actually, and having seen a few 3D films since the dawn of the current renaissance, I can honestly say that it blew me away at just how good the conversion is. Considering that The Phantom Menace wasn't shot in 3D originally, the depth of field on screen and the overall feel of the movie is superior to films like Final Destination 5 (2011) and Saw 3D (2010) that were specifically shot in the third dimension.
From the very start, when the iconic Star Wars logo appears on the screen to herald the famous title crawl (which really does go off into the distance now), the 3D is both all consuming and immersive. The detail on spaceships as they cruise by, or battle droids as they line up in their squadrons, is awesome. Not quite reach out and touch it quality, not yet anyway, but the 3D works so well that particularly in the more dialogue heavy scenes in the various palaces, spaceships and other locales in the film, the feeling of actually standing in the room with the characters is very convincing.
George Lucas has been saying in recent interviews that he considers the leap from 2D to 3D to be akin to that from black and white film to colour, even going so far as to suggest that black and white films are good but colour ones are great, and while I don't completely agree with his analogy – the impact of the likes of Citizen Kane (1941) and Psycho (1960) wouldn't be the same in colour, the latter having been proved conclusively by Gus Van Sant's virtually shot for shot 1998 remake – I have to concede that the third dimension genuinely does add something to The Phantom Menace's viewing experience, and nowhere more effectively than in the movie's pod race sequence.
Effectively the saga's take on the iconic chariot race from Ben Hur (1959), the addition of 3D to this set piece is nothing short of breathtaking as the camera flies around the desert racetrack at death defying speeds, so much so that at times I found my hands involuntarily gripping the arms of my seat as we hurtled towards hairpin turns, the sheer canyon walls almost close enough to touch. Had there been a wind machine in the cinema then I would have sworn I was actually on Tatooine.
Oddly enough, the other major sequence that I thought might benefit the most from the addition of 3D, the final showdown between Darth Maul, Obi Wan and Qui-Gon, didn't feel as immersive as I'd hoped, but then again this could be down to the fact that it's a beautifully choreographed and shot fight to begin with, so perhaps there wasn't much room for improvement. That said, most of the other battles, of which there are a few, worked very well with the added dimension, particularly the opening skirmish between the two Jedi and a battalion of battle droids on board the Trade Federation battleship.
In conclusion, then, taking into the account the well documented shortcomings of The Phantom Menace in terms of script and certain characters, it's my opinion that just about everybody is going to get something good out of seeing Episode One in 3D. For the diehard fans, it's another chance to see the best bits of the movie on a big screen once again, to chuckle to ourselves as we spot the in jokes – Warwick 'Wicket' Davis in the pod race crowd, the delegation of ETs in the Senate, the blink and you'll miss it appearance of the Millennium Falcon in the space traffic on Coruscant – and to recapture, for a few minutes, that long lost sense of awe at anything in the Star Wars universe that has long since departed as the magnificence of the pod race in 3D assaults our senses.
For everybody else, and particularly for parents with children, it's a cracking family film, one that the kids will lap up for the comic relief of, well, you know who, and the grownups will appreciate for the frequently impressive 3D effects, and specifically the pod race sequence.
Yoda once said, “Do or do not. There is no try.” In terms of the 3D, George Lucas has most definitely got the job done here, so go and see it, if only because we need him to make enough money to continue the conversions until at least The Empire Strikes Back. AT-ATs vs Snowspeeders in 3D? You know you want it!
Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace 3D is on general release now.
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