REVIEW: Star Wars: Ep. I - The Phantom Menace Adds Stunning Third Dimension of Meh

Movieline Score:

The re-release of The Phantom Menace opens with that exhilarating blast of John Williams's famous theme, the Star Wars title zooming off into the distance in 3-D before the familiar text crawl creeps across the starry backdrop, revealing the words we've all been longing to see back on the big screen:

"Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic. The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute."

Ah, yes. Rewatching this film (for me, the first time since it opened in theaters over a dozen years ago) really makes you admire the gutsiness of returning to one of the most beloved franchises of all time only to open with stalled galactic taxation negotiations. It takes you back, like some three dimensional Proustian sci-fi madeleine, to that feeling of slow deflation shared by so many back in 1999 as they fought to keep up their levels of enthusiasm as Episode I herked and jerked along. As an admirer of select Star Wars films but no serious devotee of the series, I don't have quite the complicated relationship with George Lucas experienced by some fans, the emotional complexity of which is generally only otherwise seen in memoirists writing lyric essays about their loving but abusive fathers. And from a business perspective, the Star Wars films are a great candidate for the callous but surely profitable enterprise of transferring classics to 3-D and dumping them back into theaters with pricier tickets. But The Phantom Menace, in any number of dimensions, is an exercise in disappointment, a film filled with enough callbacks to the first trilogy to remind you about what you loved about them without adding much of note in all the new material.

The 3-D looks fine, if subdued enough that you forget about it for long stretches. A few sequences do get a boost -- the fraught journey through a planet's sea monster-heavy core, for instance, and even more so the podracing sequence, which look particularly great in the Anakin's-eye-view shots as camera darts through the rock formations. But 3-D tends to highlight spectacle, and much of The Phantom Menace is anything but: Senate or Jedi council debates, wooden exchanges between Jake Lloyd and Natalie Portman that are meant to indicate some deep (and future romantic) connection, and the parade of bizarrely racialized aliens, including freakin' Jar Jar Binks.

The film features some greatly imaginative worlds and scenarios, from watery Naboo's hidden bubble-encased Gungan cities to the insectile droidekas to Tatooine's ludicrously dangerous sport of choice ("Looks like a few Tusken Raiders have camped out on the canyon dune turn!" as the crowd cheers). Darth Maul (played by Ray Park and voiced by Peter Serafinowicz) still makes a major impression, pacing like a caged tiger during a force field-mandated pause in his duel with Liam Neeson's Qui-Gon Jinn and Ewan McGregor's Obi-Wan Kenobi. Queen Amidala's outfits are still ridiculous and awesome, and Portman's trade-offs with Keira Knightley as the royal bodyguard/stand-in are easier to spot now that the latter's face has become just as familiar.

The rest of The Phantom Menace tends toward the dull -- not always the terrible (though early in the film a lot of the dialogue sounds like a badly dubbed Google translation of something originally written in a language other than English), but the legitimately wan and colorless. The film serves as a feature-length extrusion of exposition for what's to come in later installments, with a few livelier sequences inserted as payoff for sticking around this space opera. It's both a shame and unavoidable that Episode I was re-released first in this planned 3-D roll-out of the entire series, but if you're going to splurge on the extra for a 3-D ticket you might as well wait for A New Hope in 2015. Even if the conversion doesn't add all that much overall to the experience, as is the case here, that one's going to be much more fun to see on the big screen and with a crowd.

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  • JediPug1 says:

    Wow... There's nothing quite like reading a review by someone who's already predisposed to hate the film they're going to review. o_O

  • Patrick Hallstein says:

    But Obi Pug, how can she not be predisposed to judge a film she's already seen? She did like some of the 3-D, and specified which.

    Bringing them back to theatres may be simply callous, but classic literature is constantly being released but with new dimension it can offer -- updated font and covers; and since I'm quite okay with that, I'm prepared to obliviate the possible true motives and just be appreciative that a series people keep alive in their heads has been given the cosmetic adulteration we expect, and back for another formal visit in the theatres. This isn't quite a classic, true -- but perhaps consider it a warm-up for the release of Titanic, which very much is.

  • Poosh says:

    Anyone who reviews this movie without drawing on the fact that this movie was made for CHILDREN, needs to step back and take a look at himself.

    • Max Renn says:

      That tired old excuse is from another galaxy, far, far away. You really believe Lucasfilm didn't factor in the older fans of the original films? The Phantom Menace is an AWFUL movie and only die-hard Lucas fans will say otherwise. Bad and boring dialogue and characters, stupid and redundant scenes, and none of the magic of the original trilogy (including ROTJ). Yes, you're an idiot defending the prequel movies.

    • My Opinion says:

      Phantom Menace includes scenes about tax disputes, votes of no confidence and the legality of war. Are those scenes really for children?

  • paully says:

    Actually.. the 3 prequals are shot as if made for the age of Anikins POV. "Phantom" is a kids movie (Ani 8 yo), "Clones" a Teen film (Ani hot and heavy with the Princess, his first time you could think), and finally "Sith", Anikin is of adult age, with adult problems. Like finding a new mentor as he parts ways with Obi Wan.In the original Trilogy the 3 ages were represented by callow youth Luke, Worldly ruthless Han, and World Weary Obi wan.

    • The Cantankerist says:

      That might even have been the intention, Paully, but in execution the prequels (and, for that matter, ROTJ) come out as films made for demographics - cold, badly-worded, oddly-paced exercises in extracting dollars. You can talk about intentions all you like, but the results are there on the screen for all to see: they're kinda witless films (in every sense of the word). Star Wars (I'm afraid that's the title of the fourth film for me forever, sorry Mr Lucas - you don't get to come back later and say "What it was ACTUALLY called was...") is corny but great pop fun, Empire has surprising emotional resonance. But Jedi's already on the wane in the opening when Luke is suddenly a snotty braggart - character's out the window and nobody's game to tell Lucas "you can write this shit, but you sure can't say it". And the prequels were a significant step down from that.

      • Hiro the Eighth Samurai (and 14th Assassin) says:

        Very well said, Cantankerist.

        And I only have one thing to add: Return of the Jedi is also sunk by the Ewoks. But Lucas didn't really care at that point: the Ewoks were strictly a merchandising tool.