There is perhaps no better monument to geekdom than the Star Wars franchise. George Lucas’ sprawling epic and personal cash cow has leapt outside the bounds of movies and into television, novels, comic book series, and more. That doesn’t even count the loads of money brought in through toys and other merchandise. So Star Wars certainly has it’s fan base and it always will. But you don’t have to be a Star Wars fan to appreciated the monumental accomplishment that “Star Wars” was when it hit theaters in 1977. It was a ground-breaking film in regards to its visual style and special effects. The film spawned two sequels, “The Empire Strikes Back” and “The Return of the Jedi”, both of which were immensely popular with the fans.
But one of the greatest stirs within the Star Wars community came in 1993 when Lucas announced he would be making a new trilogy, a prequel to the first three films. They would connect directly to the original trilogy and complete Lucas’ vision for the saga. In 1999, “Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace” was released. There has probably never been a movie released that has been under more scrutiny and breakdown that Episode 1 when it arrived in theaters. Fanboys and critics alike looked for chinks and flaws while never being able to keep from comparing it to the original trilogy. This has made judging Episode 1 on its own merits almost impossible. But Episode 1 had a lot on its plate and while I did find it to be the weakest of the six Star Wars pictures, after seeing the re-release, it still grabbed me and brought me back to the universe that I have always loved.
Since Lucas’ intent was to connect the two trilogies into one cohesive saga, I was always curious to see how he would start everything. In Episode 1, Lucas sets everything in motion by focusing on, of all things, politics as the biggest weapon of manipulation used to bring about the tragic events that we all know will unfold. We also get a look at the Jedi in their prime. We spend most of the time with Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) as they go from political negotiators to planet liberators. A young Natalie Portman plays a Naboo queen who has a major impact on events. Another key part of the film is the introduction to Anakin Skywalker (played wonderfully by Jake Lloyd), a young child slave on Tatooine who we know later becomes Darth Vader. Lucas’ focus on Anakin in the first three films ends up reshaping the actual focus of the overall saga, and for my money in a good way.
As a whole, the structure of “The Phantom Menace” is pretty impressive. It was a daunting task to make three films that could connect directly to the previous trilogy and do so in a way that’s both cohesive and that survives the mythological scrutiny it faced from fanboys. Episode 1 does a nice job of putting the key characters in place while only occasionally getting bogged down in the almost mandatory setup scenes needed to launch the story. It’s nicely written and with the exception of a few hiccups, I found myself still pulled right back into the saga even after all these years.
Several new characters are introduced. Some of them work really well while others, not so much. The hatred for the Jar Jar Binks character was well documented and understandable. For me the problem wasn’t so much with the character, but with Lucas’ overkill in using him as “comic relief”. Lucas overplayed his hand and the result was an annoying and distracting character. On the flip side is the sinister Darth Maul physically played by Ray Park (his voice was done by Peter Serafinowicz). Not only was he one of the coolest looking Star Wars characters of all but his lightsaber fight with Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon still blows me away.
There’s no doubt that Lucas wants to show off the benefits of the new technology available to him in “The Phantom Menace”. In many ways it’s a good thing but in other ways it works against the film. I felt in some instances the movie becomes a barrage of “watch this” CGI moments. There are several scenes that could have easily been left out and the film would have been better for it. But there are also many scenes where the special effects present Star Wars in a new, more jaw-dropping light. The pod races on Tatooine is breath-taking and the space scenes are amazing. Most of the CGI characters move and fit flawlessly into the scenes with human actors. John Williams is back with an incredible score that gives us tiny tastes of the music from the original trilogy. Williams also creates new music that feels as though it want to interconnect with the original music as the story progresses. It works beautifully.
The one significant change for the re-release of Episode 1 is that the film is in 3D. The only problem is that it didn’t feel that significant at all. There are a few scenes where the 3 D works well, the pod races and space battles come to mind. There are also other instances where more depth is given to the scenes. But as a whole, the 3D isn’t particularly impressive. In fact, the 3D trailer that I saw earlier doesn’t reflect what you get from the full film. Now I’ll be honest, the 3D wasn’t the main draw for me. I mainly wanted to go and experience Star Wars on the big screen with my son. But if you’re going expecting a fantastic 3D experience you’ll probably be disappointed.
At the end of the day, “Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace” brought me right back into this magical universe that I’ve always loved. Again, Episode 1 is probably the weakest of the six films but I have a hard time railing on it as many others tend to do. It has it’s share of flaws but it also has it’s share of excitement and grandeur. But most importantly, it looks, sounds, and feels like a Star Wars picture and it sets the table for the rest of this glorious saga.