[box cover]

Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace

Fox Home Video

Starring Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman,
Jake Lloyd, and Ian McDiarmid

Written and directed by George Lucas


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Review by Alexandra DuPont                    


I. "The Phantom Menace" Revisited; or, the Unbearable Dichotomy of a Disappointing Movie on an Extremely Swank DVD

I first reviewed the colon-addled Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace for this site just before the movie came out in May 1999. You can read what I wrote here.

I'm sorry to report that my opinion's changed precious little in the intervening two years and change.

The hype surrounding Episode I (and the ensuing Balkanization of Star Wars fandom when it didn't meet everyone's long-boiling expectations) will make for a fascinating sociological study at some point. There's certainly plenty of reference material lying around. In the 16 years after Return of the Jedi — which left the series' success ratio at an impressive 2.5/3, Ewoks notwithstanding — Star Wars had become holy writ, a sort of cinematic religion. Creator George Lucas had pulled off a remarkable, three-pronged artistic achievement with his original trilogy: He'd pushed the technical envelope of moviemaking with as much audacity as Melies, Harryhausen and Griffith; he'd blended Kurosawa, Joseph Campbell, Westerns and Flash Gordon to create a beautifully escalating modern fable; and, in pure business terms, he'd used his success to take control of his creation and become history's most successful independent filmmaker.

(And I'm not even mentioning his artistically risky triumph with The Empire Strikes Back — which was, after all, an elegant and symphonic but resolutely unhappy follow-up to what was at the time the most popular movie in history — or his brilliant, controversial, trailblazing forays into movie merchandising. Lucas is, for good or ill, the late 20th century's most influential filmmaker.)

Reading the above resume, it's easy to argue that, with Episode I, Lucas couldn't help but disappoint. Asking the director to one-up the mythology that had grown around him is a bit like asking Atlas to shot-put the world in addition to carrying it.

However.

I personally regard the "nobody could meet those expectations" arguments as a bit of a cop-out. Taken on its own artistic merits, The Phantom Menace — for me and pretty much every older fan I know, anyway — is a maddening mixed bag.

To be sure, time has tempered the white-hot rage of my initial review. I did box up most of my Star Wars collectibles — not unlike an abused wife tearing up pictures of her husband after she leaves him. But I did come to recognize that John Williams' music, which I sort of mercilessly slammed in my initial writeup, is actually quite lovely. More important, I recognized that Lucas' greatest talent — his ability to create fully formed worldscapes with rich, idiosyncratic histories — is still pretty damned impressive. Taken as pure Star Tours-ish travelogue and visual feast, The Phantom Menace's mise en scene is astounding. From the baubles of the underwater city to the Blade Runner-by-way-of-the-EPA stylings of Coruscant to the Flash Gordon Renaissance Faire that is Naboo, Episode I is incredibly generous with its production design. And between the "Pod Race" and the blazing final lightsaber duel and assorted effects shots, there are about 20 quality minutes scattered throughout the movie, seeds sprouting in compost.

But, as with The Godfather Part III, purtiness and a handful of quality moments simply aren't enough. As cinema, The Phantom Menace fails on several fundamental levels. My major critiques are in my initial DVDJ review , but the highlights bear repeating. The dialogue is entirely too expository and dull, telling rather than showing again and again and again. The plot, even by the self-contained standards of the Star Wars universe, is riddled with holes and begs a few too many questions. (One minor example: Why the hell did Qui-Gon bring Anakin to that hangar firefight? Don't they have babysitters on Naboo?) The forays into wacky, childish comedy are ill-timed, as if Buster Keaton's antics had been arrived at by committee. The adventure is so sanitized that there's never any real sense of risk. There is, dear Lord, a fart joke.

What's doubly frustrating is that the movie's worst moments are placed cheek-by-jowl alongside its best — making it tough to chapter-search The Phantom Menace to watch only "the good parts." That fart joke, for example, is right there in the otherwise dynamic pod race. Ewan McGregor and Liam Neeson, grounded and charming as Jedi Knights, spend much of their time interacting with the vocally flat Natalie Portman and/or the shrill, grating, ILM-generated Jar-Jar Binks. One remarkable ILM creation, Watto the flying junk salesman, is right there alongside wee, ill-directed Jake Lloyd. And in the film's rapidly cut, four-pronged climax, only one — the lightsaber duel — is more or less cringe-free.

But here's a kooky punchline:


II. The Episode I DVD is bloody exceptional.

In terms of presentation and design and quality of extras, the Phantom Menace two-platter set really is one of the better DVDs yet produced. It feels definitive; it grants you remarkable access to the filmmakers; it looks and sounds great; the menus are clever and for the most part not too cumbersome; and it's packed with deleted scenes and fascinating nonsense, with precious little waste or redundancy.

Shall we take a bit-by-bit tour of the discs? Let's do!


III. Some brief notes on the feature, which is, I suppose, a "director's cut"

It will surprise no one to read that (a) Disc One contains a flawless anamorphic transfer of the movie, and (b) it looks and sounds snazzy. (However, as with pretty much every CGI-heavy film, the computer-generated elements are somewhat more ... apparent on the small screen.)

What may come as a surprise is that this is a mildly expanded cut of the film — with maybe a minute and change added to the Pod Race (both in the introduction of racers and the race itself) and a brief "air taxi" tour of Coruscant added just after our heroes arrive at the city-planet. The original cut is nowhere to be found. I wonder if this makes y'all's videotape copies somehow valuable.


IV. So how about that commentary track?

It's good. Featuring seven well-prepared participants — Lucas, McCallum, sound-design genius/co-editor Ben Burtt, animation director Rob Coleman, and effects supervisors John Knoll, Dennis Muren and Scott Squires — the commentary is well-constructed, fast-moving and (alas) gossip-free. It's also almost entirely about how they pulled off the technical, not narrative, achievements, which is apt.

My only frustration with the commentary, in fact, lies with a few of Lucas' comments. While it's wonderful to hear a couple of tidbits about how the battle droids will evolve into stormtroopers over the next two films and how his Modesto car-culture upbringing played heavily into the Pod Race (easily the most personal and fully-realized part of the movie), the Flanneled One, while genial, also seems ever-so-slightly unaware that (a) many, many fans hate Jar-Jar Binks and (b) one of the things fans loved the about the Force was that it wasn't fully explained.

To wit: Here's Lucas talking about the silly scene where Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon first meet Jar-Jar (just after Jar-Jar has somewhat controversially declared himself to be Qui-Gon's "humble servant," I might add):

"This is actually one of my favorite scenes — especially in terms of Jar-Jar. This is the scene where we were really able to take a digital character and make him photorealistic and have him interact with the live actors in a way that seemed believable. ["believable"? — Ed.] It's one of the first scenes we actually did, and I still think it's one of the best."

And here's Lucas talking about the dread "midichlorians," which sort of quantify the Force biologically and in my mind represent a disastrous, unnecessary addition to Star Wars lore. Note how he feels his narrative mission these days is to explain everything:

"Bringing midichlorians into it as a device is something that existed from the beginning, but I never had the time to go into any explanation, because any time these rather larger concepts come into play — you know, 'How does the galaxy work? What is the Force?' — you have to be very sort of cryptic and deal in almost fortune-cookie descriptions. And it's very difficult to get a concept across. But I figured in this movie I could begin to bring out the concept of midichlorians and their job in being sensitive to the Force, and why some people are more susceptible to the Force than others — which is an issue that's in [A New Hope], but you never know why the Force is strong with some people and not strong with other people. What is the device that causes that to happen?"

To which I reply: Who cares? And here's another comment:

"We also get into this thing of 'What are midichlorians? How do they work?' Which advances a little bit the story of the Force and how does the Force work and how do we come to know the Force — which is part of Anakin's training in learning to become a Jedi, and to take the idea of the Force one step further. The midichlorians are sort of a side issue — not the metaphysical, spiritual side of the Force, but the more practical, biological, physical part of the Force, or how we come to know the Force — which has to do with the genetics of why some people are more attuned to the Force than others."

To be fair, this is an otherwise excellent, glib commentary — even if certain of Lucas' apparent blind spots make me sort of worried about Episode II.

Moving on to the marvelous Disc Two, we find the real gravy. I'm fairly certain I'll be watching the Phantom Menace "value-added" material far more frequently than the actual feature — a total reversal of my usual DVD-consumption habits. Here's why: Lucasfilm's promotional and behind-the-scenes materials, most of them released before Episode I, got me vastly more excited about (and nostalgic for) Star Wars than Episode I itself. And all of those promo materials — the Web documentaries, the trailers, the posters, the interviews — are on the special-features disc. Ergo, in many ways Disc Two pushes all the thrill buttons for me that Disc One tries to push. Frankly, there's more genuine drama, more unguarded moments, to be found among the behind-the-scenes material.


V. Under the "Trailers and TV Spots" menu ...

... we find the oft-downloaded "Teaser Trailer" and "Theatrical Trailer", which are, let's face it, excellent and effective examples of how to market a film.

There's also the "Duel of the Fates" music video (4:18), which intercuts clips from the film with composer John Williams conducting his repetitive, ersatz "Carmina Burana." (Make no mistake — as film music goes, "Duel" is powerful stuff, but I do feel compelled to quote the DVD Journal editor's remarks upon first hearing the piece: "Hey — John Williams knows how to count to eight!")

Here also we find seven TV spots. First there are the five "Tone Poems," in which characters narrate "profound" utterances over relevant film footage: "One Love," featuring Anakin's mother; "One Dream," featuring Anakin; "One Destiny," featuring Qui-Gon; "One Will," featuring Queen Amidala; and my favorite, "One Truth," which features Darth Maul saying some seductive nonsense about how fear attracts "the weak, the strong" ... and pretty much everyone else, apparently. There are also two "Adventure"-themed commercials — "The Saga Begins" and "All Over Again."

Oh, and if you leave the "TV Spots" menu on long enough, Darth Sidious appears onscreen and says, "We must accelerate our plans."


VI. Under the "Deleted Scenes and Documentaries" menu ...

... is where I'm guessing you'll be spending most of your time, young DVD consumer — for this is where the edition's two most compelling features can be found.

First, there's "The Beginning: Making Episode I" — a 1:06:15 behind-the-scenes documentary that sort of plays like the "Real World" of making-of docs. Reportedly culled from 600 hours of raw video, this remarkably low-spin feature has no voice-over narration or posed, talking-heads interviews — and there's also plenty of nervous navel-gazing (or, in Rick McCallum's case, profanity) as the filmmakers trot around the world trying to resurrect the Star Wars franchise.

I really can't over-emphasize what a terrific feature this is — and how much it makes you root for the men and women of Lucasfilm, including the supposed "corporate whore" Lucas, who comes off as a genial, bright, occasionally goofy guy who worries about (a) spending too much money and (b) making a crappy movie. (At one point on the palace set, Lucas remarks, "I made More American Graffiti and it made 10 cents. There's always a risk you'll destroy it.")

The documentary begins with Lucas pulling out thousands of storyboards (visibly overwhelming a younger, thinner, un-goateed John Knoll) and ends with a profane McCallum introducing the finished film to a packed audience of lightsaber-wielding geeks on opening night. Along the way, we see Ewan McGregor freaking out as he selects his lightsaber and films his fight scenes; McCallum schmoozing on the phone and cursing like a sailor; John Knoll being grouchy and cool and raising an attitudinal eyebrow as the pressure keeps mounting; Lucas trying to catch lightning in a bottle as he coaxes a "performance" out of wee Jake Lloyd; the Tatooine set destroyed by a sandstorm; Lucas getting pissed when he realizes he may not have needed to spring $100,000 on a rubber Jar-Jar suit after all; and Steven Spielberg checking out a battle droid on the Naboo set with Lucas at the crack of dawn, with Lucas promising the final droid/Gungan battle will be "War and Peace."

It should be noted that the documentary fades to black when the words "Star Wars" first appear onscreen at the nerd-packed screening, with the audience screaming ecstatically. This is an apt move, as that exact moment probably represents the peak of mature Star Wars fandom. Unless Episode II: Attack of the Clones and Episode III are somehow unbelievably brilliant, it's most likely downhill from there.

But "The Beginning" isn't the only reason to linger in this menu. There are also seven deleted scenes with completed effects — viewable separately or as part of a documentary that features interviews with Lucas, McCallum, directors Francis Ford Coppola and Phillip Kaufman, editor Walter Murch, and assorted ILM staff:

  1. The "Complete Podrace Grid Sequence" is a considerably extended cut of the opening ceremonies and revving-up of the Pod Race sequence — and it mostly serves to make the Pod Race look even more like Hanna-Barbera's "Wacky Racers" than it already does, if I may hijack a good friend's comparison. A few more racers are introduced, one of which has a family waving to him from the sidelines (the baby alien playing with toy pod-racers is a nice touch, BTW); there's an added shot of the eopie, good Lord, screwing its face up before farting in Jar-Jar's face; there's some extra revving of pod engines; there's a bit where three pit droids whack each other like the Three Stooges; and there's a POV shot of a little space frog about to get its head bitten off by Jabba the Hutt. Some of this footage was re-incorporated into the DVD cut of the film, as well. (Oh, and if you fiddle around in the "Deleted Scenes Only" menu, you'll find an "Easter Egg" in the menu for this scene, with Lucas and ILM staff talking about the sequence.)

  2. "Extended Podrace Lap Two" is probably the coolest of these scenes — featuring plenty of extra mayhem as Anakin moves up the pack after his delayed start. Among other additions, there's a second racer pit stop; a shot where an alien sticks his head out the side of his pod and gets a bug in his face; two instances of Sebulba shooting flames out of the sides of his pod engines at fellow racers, a la the wheel spikes in Ben Hur; and Anakin losing control of his pod briefly when one of the connecting cables comes uncoupled. (There's another "Easter Egg" in the "Deleted Scenes Only" menu for this sequence, as well.)

  3. "The Waterfall Sequence" is a extraneous little bit in which Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan and Jar-Jar have to escape their "bongo" sub before it goes over a waterfall. For those who felt Jar-Jar didn't engage in every tired form of slapstick short of slipping on a banana peel, you'll be happy to hear that he trips and falls into the water while shrieking like a Dutch schoolboy. Silly Jar Jar! (In the deleted-scenes documentary, BTW, we talk with the beleaguered ILM employee who cobbled this scene together on his computer using many more elements than you'd expect. It's very clever and impressive.)

  4. "The Air Taxi Sequence" is a lovely little tour of Coruscant that Jar-Jar and Anakin take en route to Palpatine's office. It's beautiful and brief, and I can totally see why Lucas put it back in the movie.

  5. "Dawn Before the Race" is easily the worst of the deleted scenes. It features Kister riding up on a hastily-rendered eopie at sunrise, and Padme coming down the stairs and waking up Anakin, who apparently fell asleep outside while working on his pod racer, which Threepio and Artoo are still polishing. This scene fails on several levels: It's probably the worst example of Natalie Portman's weak vocal delivery during the Tatooine sequences; it's cause to call Child Protective Services on Shmi; and Threepio looks like he's about to fall over.

  6. "Anakin's Scuffle with Greedo" features Jake Lloyd getting into a fight with, yes, a wee Greedo, who accuses him of cheating. (I'm surprised Lucas didn't re-cut the scene so Greedo punched first.) Qui-Gon breaks it up, telling Anakin to "tolerate his opinion." It's not a particularly well-staged bit of business, but it would have been nice to see this small bit of Dark Side foreshadowing in the final cut.

  7. "Farewell to Jira" is relatively useless — featuring as it does Anakin saying farewell to the old lady running the fruit stand — but it does contain one bit that I really wish Lucas had left in the film: Qui-Gon slashing one of Maul's probe droids, realizing that they're being followed, and taking off running for the Queen's ship. It's mildly exciting, and it explains why Qui-Gon and Anakin are jogging when Maul attacks them. (With any luck, the talented wag who made the "Phantom Edit" will work this into a "Phantom Edit: Special Edition," hm?)


It's also worth noting that you can see additional deleted snippets — most notably from the final space battle and lightsaber duel — at the end of the deleted-scenes documentary. (They cut footage out of the lightsaber duel? Why?)


VII. Under the "Featurettes, Web Documentaries and StarWars.com" menu ...

... you'll find much of the clever online material that got us so excited about this film before it came out.

There are, of course, the 12 "Web Documentaries," ranging from about 4 to 8 minutes in length apiece: "All I Need is an Idea" (taped in 1994, featuring Lucas starting work on the Episode I screenplay in his office); "Thousands of Things," which focuses on Doug Chiang's design sketches; "Home Sweet Home," covering the building of Anakin's hovel; "Boys in Paradise," featuring the hard-core Brits of the props department; "This is a Creature Film," in which Star Wars makeup legend Stuart Freeborn visits the creature shop and is presented with a Yoda bust; "Prime of the Jedi," in which we train with fight choreographer Nick Gillard; "Assistant Directors," which profiles, um, assistant directors; "Three Thousand Anakins," in which we see screen-tests and visit the first cast read-through; "It's Like War Now," profiling Rick McCallum; "Costume Drama"; Bad Droid Karma," documenting in humorous fashion the myriad problems with the remote-controlled R2-D2s; and, finally, "Movie Music," which shows John Williams conducting the score (and which doesn't show Lucas hacking Williams' final reel of music to ribbons as he re-edits the film continuously before release).

There are also five "Featurettes," which breezily dissect the "Visual Effects" (8:36), "Costumes" (8:07), "Design" (7:14), "Fights" (7:51) and "Story" (8:14) of the film. Favorite moment: Discovering how unbelievably soft-spoken Ray Park is. (To the DVD producers' credit, BTW, there's very little footage recycled among all these various making-of documentaries. It's a real meal, and it's never dull.)


VIII. And under the "Animatics and Still Galleries" menu ...

... you'll find multi-angle storyboard/animatic/final-film dissections for "Podrace Lap One" and the "Submarine Sequence," with an accompanying "Introduction to Animatics" feature; an "Exclusive Production Photos" gallery; a "Print Campaign" gallery; "Posters" in various languages; and, in this DVD edition's only nod to cross-platform advertising, a 4:00 featurette called "Star Wars: Starfighter: The Making of a Game" — which is in itself interesting because it features renderings of Obi-Wan's Episode II starfighter in action (apparently being hit by Force lightning, if I'm not mistaken).

Oh, and if you linger in this section's main menu too long, Watto flies out and says, in Huttese, "Hey, offworlder! Pick something or get out of my shop!"


IX. Any other Easter eggs?

Other than the deleted-scenes eggs listed above, there are a couple that I'm aware of, thanks to The Digital Bits:

  1. For one thing, you can access three different menu schemes on Disc One — patterned on Tatooine, Naboo and Coruscant. To access the Naboo menu, during the Attention warning screen, press "Audio". To access the Tatooine menu, during the Attention warning screen, press "2". To access the Coruscant menu, during the Attention warning screen, press "10+", "2", "2".

  2. There's also a DVD credits/"blooper reel" feature. To see it (and I'm quoting from the Bits here), go to the Options menu page and press "10+", "1" and wait for the pause as the player accepts the input. Then press "3" and wait for the pause. Finally, press "8". Your reward is a collection of such wacky, ILM-crafted hijinks as a Jawa Sandcrawler zooming along the pod-race route, Jar-Jar asking Qui-Gon to release his tongue after a take is over, and Artoo smashing into props and people on the set. One thing that's sort of affecting here is that on a couple of the dinner-table outtakes, everyone cracks up — and the actors come to life in a way they didn't in the movie itself. It makes you wish Lucas had played a little looser with his actors.


And that, for pity's sake, is that.

— Alexandra DuPont
dupont@dvdjournal.com


(Final rating extensively mitigated by high quality of DVD extras)




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