Sunday 12 February 2012

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace 3D

Death In Menace

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace 3D
1999-2012 US
Directed by George Lucas
Screening at UK cinemas.

It’d be pretty impossible to relay to you my almost lifelong relationship with the Star Wars saga, which began when I saw the very first movie on its initial cinema run at the age of 9, way back in 1977. I could easily write a series of novel length reviews on the subject... which wouldn’t include the hundreds of drawings and articles I did for fun as a kid, and based on the first three films in the series (which I guess now has become, chronologically within the timelines of the story at least, the second trilogy) and which I collected in ring binders, one (or sometimes two) for each film.

It’s hard to explain how much of a cultural phenomenon Star Wars was back then to youngsters these days. They’ve never experienced it themselves... sure there have been huge blockbuster movies with bigger openings but their shelf life and the way in which they are consumed by the home video marketplace changes the impact of these films. When Star Wars came out it was in the days before home video and there was nothing like it at the cinema! Sure, there was a whole slew of bandwagon rip-off films that we all saw and enjoyed, including films which weren’t rip offs but needed the success of Star Wars to open up the marketplace to be able to make these films possible. So yeah, we had stuff like Battle Beyond The Stars, Star Trek The Motion Picture, The Black Hole and other similar films which either sought to recreate the thrills found in Lucas’ original movie or do their own thing in the zeitgeist created in its wake. But you have to understand that... until The Empire Strikes Back came out three years later... well, as I said... there was nothing like it.

What that meant to kids at school is... you went out on your playground breaks and lunch hours and you talked about Star Wars. You went home and maybe played in the street with the other kids... and you talked about Star Wars. You went on visits with your parents to family homes dotted around the country... and you talked about Star Wars. And you kept talking about Star Wars for 6 years solid (until the ewoks and the hammy acting in the third movie kind of put a crimp in it). Okay, so maybe some of the girls were talking about Grease but, trust me, when they weren’t talking about Grease they were talking about Star Wars.

When The Phantom Menace first came out in 1999, I remember staying up until four o’clock in the morning the first night the tickets went on sale in London because the demand for tickets was so great that within 5 seconds the computers overloaded and went down at the various box offices for the phone bookings... it took several days for them to get back up and for people to find out if they were successful in getting a ticket or whether they’d have to try and rebook. This was, of course, after Lucas had released those dreadfully dumbed down cuts for the 20th anniversary of the original trilogy... and gutted the heart of that original trilogy as you would a dead fish (I was so happy when the original prints were made available in a limited edition DVD as an “extra” for six months or so... finally the real movies had resurfaced).

So I’ve heard and read a lot of crap about The Phantom Menace over the years... including the criticisms of just the title when that was revealed while it was still being made. Frankly, people who don’t like The Phantom Menace must be half crazed to not realise what a great triumph it was. This was easily the best and the darkest of the prequel trilogy... but I remember a lot of the people who went to see it at the time were just not well versed enough in Star Wars lore to realise just how subtly dark it was. It’s right up their with my favourite Star Wars movie The Empire Strikes Back, a film which I find has a similar tone, and I couldn’t believe the criticisms people were hurling about at the time. Had these people just not seen the original trilogy, I asked myself at the time.

Let me set the record straight because, although George Lucas has let me down a lot over the years with both his treatment of the Star Wars and Young Indiana Jones franchises (the initial masterpiece episodes of which have been similarly recut to buggery), The Phantom Menace was not one of the problems. If you want to level criticism at a movie in the Star Wars canon which did let the side down appallingly it was the next chapter, Attack Of The Clones... but I’ll save that article until the 3D version of that turns up at the cinema (sometime next year I believe?).

Okay... despite the multitude of whining complaints at the time of the announcement, The Phantom Menace is a perfect title for a Star Wars film. Sure, it didn’t sound “cool” at first but, you know what? It’s a perfect title for a movie series which aspires to be the old Universal Flash Gordon serials (something the movies give away in almost every scene)... and if George Lucas had been able to afford to buy the rights to Flash Gordon when he was trying to get them in the mid-70s, there never would have been a Star Wars movie made. Typical Flash Gordon serial chapters include such awesome titling as: The Planet Of Peril, The Tunnel Of Terror, The Destroying Ray, The Black Sapphire Of Kalu, The Symbol Of Death, The Purple Death, Doom Of The Dictator... the list goes on. The Phantom Menace does not look out of place in that context does it? It was a big deal at the time though and I couldn’t figure out why people just couldn’t see the appropriateness of such a title.

Then, when the film came out... I was blown away. It was dark... really dark. Why then, were people coming out of the movie thinking it was an uplifting experience? This is where the bad stuff starts... you know, right from the outset, that Senator Palpatine is the bad guy right? I mean, ever since 1977 every kid who had read an article on the Star Wars stories knew the background story... from Emporer Palpatine (the clue is in the name guys... you know... Palpatine?) to Darth Vader’s fight with Obi Wan against a volcanic back drop where Darth fell in the lava... every kid knew that since 1977. And seriously... any kid who’d read Alan Dean Foster’s Splinter Of A Minds Eye back in 1978 had probably figured out by the time that Empire came out in 1980, that Yoda was referring to Princess Leia when he said... “No, there is another...” Since she had kinda Jedi powers in the 1978 novel (I understand the novel has been rewritten to conform for it’s reprints in later years... but I still have my original knocking about somewhere... can’t fool me!).

The Phantom Menace is all about politics (not a subject I understand myself) and it basically is all just about the way Palpatine (who is already a Sith) brings about the collapse of the Old Republic and manipulates Queen Amidala to move him into a position of power to rule the galaxy by bringing in a vote of no confidence against Terrance Stamp’s character. This was serious stuff and it hurt to watch it! I couldn’t believe some people only suspected Palpatine at the end of this movie. Seriously people? It’s that much of a jump from Senator Palpatine to Emporer Palpatine in people’s eyes? Holy moley. I hope people take time to re-evaluate this dark little corner of the Star Wars saga now it’s back in cinemas. I once saw a Steve Martin sketch where Paul Simon asked Steve Martin if he thought a downbeat song was more effective in an upbeat tempo and arrangement and that’s basically what The Phantom Menace is, to be sure... a very downbeat movie with an upbeat tempo and arrangement. Like I said... it was so dark it was almost painful to watch.

What wasn’t painful was... everything else asides from the politics. Jar Jar was maybe a little too "full on" but basically he performs the same function as someone like Mantan Moreland used to serve in the Sidney Toler Charlie Chan films... you either accept it or you don’t. If you can’t accept it... don’t rant about it and give everybody else a hard time. Not a fan of the character but not a hater of him either... and I do enjoy doing the odd Jar Jar Binks impression still... so bear that in mind if you ever find yourself in the pub with me.

My two favourite things in the movie, and thankfully Lucas has left them in tact, are as follows... Queen Amidala and the way she carries herself when she is in full Naboo Royalty make up really does, in this film, feel like an homage to the princess in Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress. Maybe not in intent... well yeah, certainly not in intent, she’s by no means a spoiled brat... but the way she moves and kinda intones her lines is amazing. Great job.

But the thing that really had me jumping out of my seat the first time I saw it... and it’s still (thankfully) in there... or the tone of this article would be a lot more negative, was the look and sound of the viewscreen communicator with which Amidala talks to the Viceroy on the Trade Federation ship at the start of the movie. It’s basically the dead spit in both visual and audio content of the ones used in at least one of the original Flash Gordon serials (which are also homaged in other ways such as screen wipes... which Kurosawa also used to use... and art deco “ray gun” designs). It absolutely knocked me for six when I first saw the movie and I wanted to leap up and shout at the audience... “Did you see/hear what he just did? Did you? It’s amazing!”... but I didn’t. I’m a shy retiring type of person... and wouldn’t do that in a cinema... possibly.

Okay... seeing this movie in converted 3D for the first time was... okay. It’s pretty much like every other converted for 3D movie you see... it’s just like looking through and old view master toy with moving bits (used to love that toy)... it’s totally unnecessary and, quite surprisingly in the case of this particular movie... really doesn’t add anything to the experience I’m sad (very sad) to say. I was so looking forward to this... and I really wasn’t disappointed because, hey, it’s The Phantom Menace on a bigger screen than usual... but honestly... bits of it are just not working in 3D. I was particularly unimpressed with the pod race, for example, which seemed to me to be playing more like it was just in 2D for pretty much the whole sequence.

Also... purists note... this version is not the same cut as the original theatrical release... it’s closer to the subsequent home video VHS and DVD releases in that it has that 5 or 6 seconds where Annakin stops dead and glares hard at Terrance Stamp. I’d always assumed that bit had been put in on the home video versions because Stamp's character was going to return as a villain in a later episode. The fact that he doesn’t makes this little moment a bit of an oddity and I don’t know why Lucas didn’t just take it back out. It’s become a bit of a red herring and nobody usually remembers it anyway.

And anyway... the audience is all too busy listening to John William’s kick ass score to be noticing subtleties like that. Talking of which... Williams’ style had changed by the time he’d come to write the score for the second trilogy. It didn’t quite sound like the original stuff... fortunately though, the score was still brilliant and does kind of still slot in place with the Star Wars sound... so you won’t hear anything bad about it from me (until we get to Attack Of The Clones and the electric guitar moment... shudder). If memory serves me correctly, Annakin’s theme is an inverted, slowed down version of The Imperial March... so it’s a nice score to get to grips with if you can and it still retains enough Korngoldian homage in it’s make-up to keep the magic going. Oddly enough, his new score to Spielberg’s TinTin movie sounds much more like an “old-school” Star Wars soundtrack than his stuff on the prequel trilogy does... but it’s Wiliams and it’s brilliant and it’s good enough for most Star Wars fans... I’m certainly not complaining.

Well... I’d like to be writing another 6 or 7 pages on this stuff but I really shouldn’t. It’s getting late, I’m getting tired and by now you’ve probably got the general gist of where I’m coming from. But just in case you haven’t... here’s a short summary...

Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace 3D... great film, underrated, 3Ds a bit rubbish but at least you get to see it at a cinema... don’t heistate for goodness sake... it’s The Phantom Menace! Go see it today!
Star Wars at NUTS4R2

 Episode 1: The Phantom Menace 

Episode 2: Attack Of The Clones

Episode 3: Revenge Of The Sith 


Rogue One 

Episode 4: A New Hope

Episode 5: The Empire Strikes Back

Episode 6: Return Of The Jedi 

Episode 7: The Force Awakens 

Episode 8:  The Last Jedi

Episode 9: The Rise Of Skywalker


  1. If SPLINTER has been "rewritten" to conform to anything, nobody bothered to tell me about it.

    1. Hi there.

      Golly sir, you honour me.

      Sorry if my aside to your work is somehow innaccurate. I've not read the re-issued version which came out (I think sometime between the two trilogies?) but I do remember reading at the time from a couple of places that it had had some changes made to retroactively fit what has been going on with the Star Wars saga since its original publication. It made sense to me that they would do something like that and I never read the reprinted version (I still have my original tucked away somewhere).

      I just scoured the net to find some back up to that and I can't find anything now... which troubles me because more than one source was telling me that at the time. So my apologies to you, sir, if that is indeed the case. You were one of my childhood writing heroes so I certainly wouldn't wish to offend.

      By the way, I'd also heard it rumoured (probably around the same time?) that you had ghost written the original Star Wars novelisation which was credited on the actual books to George Lucas... is that true?

      Anyway, thank you so much for stopping by to read my review... and for taking the time to leave a comment on it. That's really given me a thrill.

      All the best to you.