Well, here goes. I think I’m about to blow any artistic credibility I might have ever thought I had with the following admission.
Oh, don’t get me wrong, it’s by no means the best of the six-film cycle (that of course would be The Empire Strikes Back, as everyone knows!) In fact if you push me I would even agree that it does indeed come at the bottom of the rankings for the six films, but that says more about the strengths of the others than about this one being a steaming pile of execrable outtakes. It certainly doesn’t change my view that it’s a perfectly fine, enjoyable film, a solid three stars out of five at least. It’s one that I can cheerfully watch again and again without flying into a furious rage or an apathetic torpor, which seem to summarise the bi-polar reactions of most Star Wars fans to this film.
So why does it inspire such loathing? It looks great. It has some terrific sequences (the opening arrival of Qui-Gon and Obi-Won on the Trade Federation’s space station; the podrace; the assault on the palace, the space battle and the awesome duel with Darth Maul toward the end.) Sure, it can get a bit talky in between times and there’s a little too much slapstick humour, but overall it nicely conjures up the feel of one of the 1930s Flash Gordon serials which took you on a journey through different cities and species on an alien world. I’m not even among those who loathe Jar Jar Binks – he’s not nearly so bad as the sodding Ewoks in Return of the Jedi as far as I’m concerned, and he does provide some sorely-needed humorous relief in the later part of the film. No, the only really troublesome figure here is the slave-owning scrapyard Fagin who is so nastily stereotypically anti-Semitic that it really does make me squirm.
The film does make things harder for itself by trying to be too clever at times – the switching of the queen and her decoy (how? where? when? why?!?) is very unclear, for example. And I have always wondered how many people missed the fact that the trustworthy Senator and the evil Sith Lord/future Emperor were all one and the same? The film hardly tries to hide it, but then again it doesn’t make it plain for those who need it spelled out, either, and if you miss it then you have lost a huge chunk of the ‘phantom’ part of this phoney war. Anyone who dismisses Phantom Menace as being a boring film about taxation of trade routes (and that’s certainly a horrible phrase with which to start an opening intro crawl, Mr Lucas) has evidently completely missed that what really goes on here is a rather clever plot by which said Senator gets everything he wants and wins completely, while everyone else is obliviously celebrating victory in a meaningless distraction affair.
Only Yoda seems to have an intuition on what’s going on. And Yoda is one of the few changes to this film for the Blu-ray release, where the previously-used puppet is replaced by a digitised version. Purists might hate that, but judging from the pictures I’ve seen of the original prequel puppet this is a welcome alteration: something went very wrong in the puppet moulding facility on the day that unlamented and rather freakishly scary mutant Yoda was spawned. Otherwise I wasn’t aware of too much tinkering, but then I’m not really that much of a purist when it comes to these sort of things.
As for a review of the Blu-ray release, let’s start with the easiest part, the sound: it’s terrific. Seriously, Star Wars was always pioneering in its use of sound (and Lucas went on to set up the THX cinema sound system after all) and you wouldn’t expect anything less than perfection coming from your loudspeakers. No worries: you get it.
Picture quality is slightly more tricky. For the vast majority of the time, I was wowed by it – truly. Pretty much all of the CGI and exterior scenes were just dazzling in their sharpness, clarity and detail, a couple of shots so vibrant and packed with information that it’s almost impossible to look at them without slicing your eyeballs open with it all (that’s meant as a good thing, by the way!) It has just the right amount of contrast and the black areas never overwhelm the frame during darker moments. Some critics have said that it looks too artificial, too “video game”, but I recall that it had that feeling at the cinema on release – because this was one of the first films to be mainly shot on a green stage with the sets created in digital post-production, so that’s probably just a matter of the technology of the day not being quite up to the highest levels of modern HD rendering today. Although for the record, I still thought it looked great.
However there were some scenes that oddly didn’t quite come up to that standard. Mostly they seemed to be location close-up shooting work; Qui-Gon seemed to particularly suffer from looking soft and lacking detail in several shots that I noticed, which was odd. Some reviews have suggested that it’s because of excessive digital noise reduction techniques, and it may well be – I don’t have the technical savvy to comment on that. Personally I was starting to think there might be something something about the actor’s make-up that didn’t work in high resolution and had to be slightly concealed (his hairpiece looks distinctly ropey even as it is.) But really, how picky is this getting now?
Overall I thoroughly enjoyed my first dip into the Star Wars Blu-ray experience. If I’m honest, I have to admit that I hadn’t intended to start with Phantom Menace – I’d meant to take out the original film, chapter IV: A New Hope, and instead absent-mindedly took out the first disc from the set without thinking. But I’m glad I did, it’s a good way to start the viewing.
And I still don’t get why everyone’s quite so vehemently against Phantom Menace.