Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace 3D
Fox, PG, 136 minutes
U.S. Release: 10 February 2012
“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” This is one of the most famous introductions to a movie ever. It was first glimpsed in 1977 when the original Star Wars movie was released. As of this February, it can be seen again – as part of the re-release of “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace” in 3D. “The Phantom Menace” is the first Star Wars movie to be released in 3D. It first came out in 1999 to great anticipation, and now returns to theaters for the first time since the Star Wars saga ended.
Needless to say, The Phantom Menace is a movie that carries a lot of baggage. It was perhaps the most anticipated movie of all time when it first came out, 16 years after the previous Star Wars movie, and it became one of the biggest blockbusters of all time. From the start, however, it alienated Star Wars fans and created a schism between lovers and detractors of the film – along with the rest of the prequel trilogy – that persists to this day.
For those who don’t know, the story begins with the activities of two Jedi Knights. They have been sent to negotiate with the sinister Trade Federation, who are blockading the peaceful planet of Naboo as an act of protest against the Galactic Republic. The Trade Federation betrays the Jedi and attempts to kill them, but they make it to the planet and eventually escape along with the Queen and most of her entourage. However, their ship is damaged while running the blockade and they are forced to seek repairs on the remote planet of Tatooine, where they encounter a young slave named Anakin Skywalker.
As an origin story of sorts, The Phantom Menace takes its time setting up the various characters and factions at play. This continues when the action eventually reaches the Galactic Capitol of Coruscant, but after being stranded on Tatooine, the movie becomes caught up in the (in)famous podraces, inspired by the chariot race in Ben-Hur. Through a complicated series of bets Qui-Gon manages to secure the parts needed to repair their ship along with Anakin’s freedom. The main point, however, is to showcase the film’s big SFX set piece. Even after 13 years, this race still sands up as an excellent piece of spectacle, and it is even better on the big screen.
However, the plot eventually kicks back into gear as the Jedi and friends reach Coruscant. Much has been made of the “boring political dialogue” in The Phantom Menace and these scenes are among the most criticized. While no one would mistake them for exciting, I was never bothered by it. We are not told very much about the complexities of Galactic politics or the motivations of the various factions, but enough information is conveyed that the adventure can continue. Nonetheless, one questions the point of including scenes of parliamentary debate if their role in the film is so pedestrian. Either explain Galactic politics or leave it off-screen entirely.
The Star Wars movies are of course adventure stories, and no one expects anything too complex or thought-provoking from them. There is a place for movies that do that, and there are place for movies that are just plain fun. Nonetheless, like original trilogy, the prequels sometimes strive for some greater meaning. At it’s heart, The Phantom Menace is a good-vs-evil story, and for the most part the token attempts at moral ambiguity never really go anywhere.
However, one of the main themes of the entire trilogy is corruptibility, as embodied by Anakin Skywalker, and the third prequel film (Revenge of the Sith) does address this matter, though not with much subtlety. For the first film, however, Anakin remains pure. It is not until the ten year time-skip for the second prequel that he becomes more complex, which retroactively makes the events of The Phantom Menace seem almost superfluous. It has never been clear to me why The Phantom Menace was structured as a largely stand-alone film when its success was practically guaranteed, but as its own work it is free from both the positive and negative trappings of its successors.
Finally, since this is a re-release, the issue of 3D must be addressed. I saw this movie in RealD 3D and was completely underwhelmed. Lucasfilm resisted the temptation to add obnoxious pop-out effects (which have gone out of vogue since Avatar anyway), but the result is that, like most 3D movies, the effect is barely noticeable. What was noticeable, however, was the darkened and blurred picture quality, as well as the headache that 3D glasses usually give me.
I give The Phantom Menace in 3D three out of five stars. It’s worth seeing if you are a die-hard Star Wars fan and/or were too young to see the films when they first hit theatres, but there aren’t many other reasons to spend your money on pricey 3D tickets for this film, which has been available on home video for some time.