A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…
Star Wars on DVD. That should be enough for anyone. If it’s not, keep reading.
I don’t think a Facts of the Case section is necessary with The Phantom Menace, because frankly, who hasn’t seen it? Does it really need to be analyzed and broken down once again? Of course not. However, it is one of those films that met with public derision and disappointment for which I feel obliged to act as an apologist. For those of you unfamiliar with that word, not often used outside of religious circles, my dictionary defines it thusly: “a person who writes or speaks in defense or justification of a doctrine, faith, action, et cetera” Since the day my review was published, I have felt like an apologist for Renny Harlin’s masterpiece of aquatic horror, Deep Blue Sea. When the DVD is released in November 2001, I will once again write as an apologist in defense of Tim Burton’s Planet Of The Apes, which I have already safeguarded from attack via email, on the alt.movies.tim-burton newsgroup, and in the discussion boards on my Burton fansite, The Tim Burton Collective. But I digress.
I was born in 1975. I was eight years old when the last Star Wars movie, Return of the Jedi, had been in theaters. While other boys my age were into G.I. Joes or He-Man, my obsession as a kid was Star Wars. My family didn’t go to movies often when I was a kid, but I have three vivid, distinct memories of seeing movies at that age. The first was my mom reading my sister and me the story of the Ark of the Covenant from our picture Bible before taking us to see Raiders of the Lost Ark (we walked out at the face-melting scene, and it would be a good ten or so years before I would see that movie again). The second was walking down the aisle coming back from the bathroom during the climatic lightsaber duel in The Empire Strikes Back. The third was my dad covering my eyes during the Rancor attack in Return of the Jedi because he thought it was too scary for me. (Hey, I was the kid a couple years later who had nightmares after seeing Ghostbusters on video.) I had a huge collection of action figures and vehicles, which I now kick myself for selling as a teenager for about $10 because I thought I was too old for them. I probably spent the money on that $8 Gregg Jeffries rookie card, which is now worth about 75 cents while the action figures would be worth a mint. My friends at school or at church would pretend we were the characters, and I was always Han Solo. Before I started second grade, my parents wanted to homeschool me (this was before homeschooling was fashionable), and had to take me to the district superintendent to prove I was a smart kid. I had a copy of the Star Wars novelization with me, and he asked me to read from it. I opened it to somewhere around the Mos Eisley scenes, and did just fine reading it to him until I stumbled across the word “grotesque.” For my tenth birthday, the only thing I wanted was for my parents to rent Return of the Jedi on VHS, even though there was a waiting list two pages long at the video store for the one copy they had just received.
Fast forward 16 years. The Phantom Menace was released in 1999, meaning that I was 24 years old. I was a college graduate, had been married for close to a year, and was working as a tech support geek for an ISP. There had long been talk — like, since Empire — that George Lucas would come back to finish the Star Wars saga. I think it was 1997 when the original trilogy was re-released to theaters in their spiffy new special editions, and it was around that time that word leaked out that Lucas had started work on the new trilogy. I followed the production every step of the way, from the first spy reports talking about the plot, to a couple grainy pictures from a French magazine of the duel between a Jedi and a fierce black creature with horns, through a “virtual edition” of the film pieced together from spy reports and leaked pictures. I read the Star Wars newsgroups religiously, boldly reading any post marked as a spoiler. The November before its release, I drove to the nearest metropolis (Portland, Oregon, 120 miles away) to see Meet Joe Black just so I could see the trailer for The Phantom Menace a few days before its general release. I stood in line on a rainy night in front of Toys ‘R’ Us to get in at midnight for the first chance to buy the new action figures. I waited eight hours to buy my tickets for a showing on opening day, and then another couple hours on the release day to get good seats. I think I had tears in my eyes and a big grin on my face when I heard the fanfare at the front of the first Star Wars movie in 16 years.
And then I saw the movie.
Walking out, I was jazzed just because I had seen it. I had finally seen a new Star Wars movie. I saw it two more times while it was in the theater, once the Friday after its release, and once a couple months later when it moved to the bargain theater. With each successive viewing, the more I talked about it with fellow fans — and the more I saw the other big movie of 1999, The Matrix, which I saw five times that summer — the more my enthusiasm waned. What was wrong with The Phantom Menace has been discussed to death on the Internet. What was right about it can be summed up by evoking the short descriptions of two scenes: the pod race and the lightsaber duel. If I could conjure up one more worthy scene, it would almost fulfill Howard Hawks’s admonition that a great movie contains three good scenes and no bad ones. Well, unfortunately, George Lucas’s hubris, his pride in his legacy and the might of his Industrial Light and Magic effects house, got in the way of writing a good story, of utilizing the most talented cast yet for a Star Wars film, of making it all coalesce into something great. The result is a movie that is merely okay, not even good, and far from great.
That preceding paragraph flies in the face of my declared status as a Phantom Menace apologist. It’s the sad, hard truth of the film that I have come to accept. My apology for the film is thin, perhaps, but apt: The Phantom Menace, for all its flaws, is still Star Wars. Like there is no denying that The Phantom Menace is weak, there is also no denying that the original Holy Trilogy has its flaws. Jar-Jar is a digital Wicket with a hackneyed Jamaican accent. Anakin is the whiny Luke of A New Hope, only a few feet shorter. Weak CGI effects differ from weak practical effects only in the mind. The list of the original’s flaws can go on. Star Wars has never been about great filmmaking — if you want that, turn to Lucas’s mentor and friend, Francis Ford Coppola, with his Godfather and Apocalypse Now. Me, I’d rather take Star Wars, for it creates something that the child inside me still longs for…magic on the silver screen. That magic can be found aplenty in The Phantom Menace. After two years, watching it again on DVD, I found myself wrapped up in the story and the excitement, just like I had been the first time. I have a feeling this will be one of those discs that I watch over and over, like The Fifth Element or The Quick and the Dead, because I get such a kick out of the movie not because they’re great films, but because I have fun watching them.
[Editor’s Note: The following paragraph, as well as the Scales of Justice, have been updated to reflect more accurately on the quality of the video transfer on this DVD. My thanks to reader Jerome Saliga for pointing me to Rjoern Roy’s analysis of this disc’s video quality.]
It may have taken far longer than the fans wanted, but the DVD of The Phantom Menace was worth the wait. Prepare to have your ass kicked. The film is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. Despite the extreme amount of digital work on the film and that it was presented in digital theaters, the DVD transfer was transferred from film. It has an amazing filmlike quality; very rarely can you spot scenes that look digital, which is an important accomplishment for both the Industrial Light and Magic effects artists and the technicians who performed the transfer. Colors are very accurate, and there are no source defects or digital artifacts spotted. However, the image is a bit soft (but it was like that theatrically) and it does exhibit an excessive amount of edge enhancement. Granted, it took someone pointing me to specific examples to see it, but it is definitely visible throughout the film — look at chapter 5 (the landing of the Trade Federation’s transports) or chapter 13 (when Qui-Gon and the others are walking to Mos Espa) for extreme examples of the haloing effect of the “enhancement.” Curiously, it is either difficult to spot or downright nonexistent during the pod race, the very scene most people are going to use to exhibit the disc’s quality. How distracting it is to you will depend on your sensitivity and the quality of your display device; personally, I have watched the film many times without it causing me half the annoyance of Jake Lloyd crowing “yippie!”
Audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 EX. The mix is very active and very enveloping. Panning and directional effects are used to excellent results. Low-end frequencies are given to all channels, and your subwoofer will get a workout that would put Jack LaLanne to shame. It’s a bombastic track for a bombastic movie. I dare say the disc is worth having for the audio alone, which is rare and difficult for me to say. If there is one technical aspect of The Phantom Menace that is worthy of attention, it is the sound design. Sound designer Ben Burtt has an amazing knack for creating aural landscapes. Half the enjoyment of the pod race is listening for the different sounds of the racers. Crank it up!
Aah, the extras. Starting with the first disc, you get a commentary track with George Lucas, producer Rick McCallum, sound designer and editor Ben Burtt, animation director Rob Coleman, and visual effects supervisors John Knoll, Dennis Muren, and Scott Squires. Most of the tracks are recorded separately Criterion-style and combined into a seamless track. The only gaps are where the actual dialogue, sound effects, or music are demonstrated. The track can be a little dry, and Lucas comes across as too self-assured in his storytelling ability, but taken as a whole it is an instructive look at the film, both technically and in the context of the Star Wars “mythology.” A nice touch: one of the subtitle tracks is used to show the name of the current speaker, which is handy when there are seven participants.
Moving along to the second disc, there are several sections: Trailers and TV Spots; Deleted Scenes and Documentaries; Featurettes, Web Documentaries, and StarWars.com; and Animatics and Still Galleries.
Trailers and TV Spots contains two trailers — the teaser and the full theatrical trailer — plus the “Duel of the Fates” music video, five “tone poems,” and two TV spots. The trailers are both anamorphic widescreen with Dolby Surround audio. The music video is full-frame with stereo sound, and the tone poems and TV spots likewise. I’m not normally excited about trailers and TV commercials on DVDs, but these are different. These were part of an unnecessary hype machine that raised the hopes and expectations of fans to heights that could never be equaled by the final product. These aren’t just commercials; they’re part of the Star Wars experience.
The Deleted Scenes and Documentaries section is the one that all Star Wars fans will want to look for immediately. The seven deleted scenes are available separately or as part of a documentary. These aren’t just your normal deleted scenes. They are the same quality as the finished film, and are presented in anamorphic widescreen with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. The scenes were completed specially for the DVD with great care and at great expense. The documentary that ties them together is very informative, explaining why scenes are cut from films, why these particular scenes hit the floor of the virtual editing room, and what had to be done to restore them. Some of the scenes were re-inserted into the film, while others Lucas chose to present here alone. All of the scenes are from the first half of the film, many from the pod race. For the astute Star Wars fan who knows just what scenes were in the original script and filmed but not put in the movie, you will miss a few scenes. The shot of Obi-Wan rising from the Naboo swamp, reminiscent of Apocalypse Now, is not here. You don’t get to see R2-D2 fall off the landing platform on Coruscant, only to rise back up to it using the retro rockets we never knew he had. There’s not the extended fight between Qui-Gon and Darth Maul on Tatooine.
The other main feature in this section is an hour-long documentary entitled “The Beginning.” It was culled from 500 hours of footage shot during all stages of the production, and is easily one of the most honest looks at the making of a film you are likely to find.
In the Featurettes, Web Documentaries, and StarWars.com, you get…featurettes, web documentaries, and StarWars.com. The web documentaries are a 12-part series that was presented on the official site. They range from about three to five minutes, and give unique looks at the making of the film. There are five featurettes, all around eight minutes long. They are more traditional, more like the featurettes that we are used to on DVDs. The link to StarWars.com is supposed to open up the exclusive website for owners of the DVD. I should note that, despite that I am a computer technician by trade, I could not get the InterActual software to work. Your results may vary, of course. On two successive reboots of the system (running Windows Millennium Edition on a Pentium II with 768MB of RAM), the software consistently crashed and locked up my system. I could find no way on the DVD to launch the exclusive website apart from the InterActual software. Also, I do not appreciate that the software requests an excessive amount of personal information for its registration, and even if you cancel the registration, still attempts to establish an outbound Internet connection to report back to the company. I find this an invasion of the user’s privacy, and that’s just not cool. That, however, is a digression and only reflects poorly on the InterActual software, not Fox or Lucasfilm’s efforts on the DVD.
In the Animatics and Still Galleries section, there are animatics for the first lap of the pod race and for the submarine sequence. These give you a chance, using multi-angle presentation, to see the storyboards, animatics (rough computer animations), the completed scene, or all three at the same time. Dozens of photographs are available in a gallery, nicely presented with captions to explain what you are seeing. Galleries are also available of the posters and print ads used to advertise the movie. A four-minute piece of the making of the “Starfighter” PC/PlayStation 2 game is available, which is little more than an advertisement for the game.
I think that pretty much covers the content. However, I would be remiss if I did not discuss producer Van Ling’s work on the design and layout of the discs. Ling has made many of the most immersive discs out there. However, they at times seem overdesigned, with too much emphasis on flashy menus and cool animation that added little to the experience. Yes, the menus here are flashy, but in a very immersive way. First off, when I say menus, I wish I could find a way to pluralize that pluralization. For the first disc, it is reported that there is three menu sets with different themes. Try as I might, I could only access the Tatooine and Naboo sets. The menus themselves make marvelous use of backgrounds. For example, in the Tatooine menu set, the chapter menus stick the stills for the chapters within nooks in the canyon walls. Meanwhile, the transitions between the menus give you the illusion that you are in a pod racer zipping to and fro through the canyons. It’s extremely impressive. The menus are all very easy to use — form and function finally converge on DVD! Also, keep your eyes peeled; if you leave certain menus on for a while, random little goodies will pop up. For example, on my PC while I’m writing this, I have up one of the menus on the second disc. Every so often, Watto flies on the screen and tells me (in subtitled Huttese) to buy something or get out of his store.
In conclusion, the unavoidable comparison. How does the Phantom Menace DVD stack up against other phenomenal two-disc sets? I have not seen the new Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs set from Disney, which I hear is excellent. The Phantom Menace does not contain the breadth of material as the Terminator 2: Ultimate Edition set, but the quality of the documentary and featurettes outstrips that set. Fight Club and Superman may give it a run for its money, but I think this disc has something that the supplemental features on those discs do not: rewatchability. “The Beginning” is worth watching several times — it is a fantastic look at the entire process of filming this movie. The trailers have only recently been eclipsed by those for The Fellowship of the Ring for jaw-dropping, oh-my-God-when-does-this-open? cause for anticipation. And the movie itself, well, it’s not perfect, but it still possesses that Star Wars magic, and I already know that it is going to be something that I watch frequently. Besides, it can and should now be everyone’s system show-off disc of choice, or at least used in rotation with Toy Story 2.