Even if memories of the movie itself waiver in the couple of years since I've seen it, I'll certainly fondly remember the "experience". I remember running towards a selected theater, hoping to get into the first show of "Star Wars: Episode 1" and finding that I'd be able to get into the third show. Standing in line with a few hundred other people, by the time I'd actually gotten in, the line stretched several city blocks. The theater manager discussed some rules of the showing, joked about how this isn't "The Matrix" and the show began.
Obviously, audiences had high expectations for a continuance such a highly-regarded and loved trilogy of pictures, but I sincerely doubt that any picture could have lived up with the 24/7 hype that surrounded this latest entry into the series. Unfortunately, "The Phantom Menace" was a mixed effort - there are several outstanding moments that suffer from elements that severely take away from the enjoyment of what the film actually does well.
The film stars Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor as Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi, who are visiting a ship to negotiate a trade agreement. They're attacked and, of course, negotations are over. The film's political plotline is really one of its weaker aspects, both too complex and vague at the same time.
The main problem is Jar-Jar Binks, a fully-animated character who Lucas apparently thought would attract a kiddie audience. Instead, the character practically ruins every scene he's in with his goofy movements and dialogue. Jar-Jar jokes still figure into pop culture two years later, as you can usually see references to him on the improv sitcom "Whose Line is it Anyway?".
Essentially, the plot and characters seem less important in "Episode 1", which does do a fine job visually astounding the audience with marvelous special effects and finely rendered cityscapes. On the other hand, the ears of the audience may have mixed feelings, as although the film's sound design is absolutely astounding, the film's dialogue is occasionally rather weak.
Performances are okay, but there's really no example of the kind of energy that Harrison Ford brought to Han Solo, for example. Ewan McGregor's fine as Obi-Wan, but Liam Neeson seems oddly dull; Natalie Portman, who's easily one of the best of her generation of actresses, does have a few good scenes, but not much else to do. Although this isn't the biggest example of it, this film seems to be more concerned with the visuals and massive special effects than characters and plot, and as a result, I didn't find myself quite as interested in the events of the film.
Still, it's obvious that no expense was spared in the film's look and feel, as the film's cinematography is often beautiful, while special effects are really quite convincing. Although an extended period of time away from the film's hype has allowed me to enjoy the film a little more, I'm hoping that "Episode II" will be a somewhat stronger, more character-driven and edgier effort.
Note: About three minutes of deleted scenes have been added back into the feature.
VIDEO: The film is presented by Lucasfilm/20th Century Fox in a 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen edition that is, of course, THX approved. The image quality is essentially very good and often terrific, but came somewhat short of expectations in a few areas, which certainly didn't include sharpness and detail. The film looked beautifully rendered, often boasting an almost three-dimensional look, with superb depth to the image. A sequence or two looked very slightly soft, but this was hardly noticable.
Yet, there were some problems. The only problem of more definite concern though, was edge enhancement. Although not horrible, there were some sequences where mild edge enhancement was visible. I noticed no instances of pixelation and, aside from a tiny mark or two towards the end, print flaws were entirely absent.
Colors looked terrific throughout the movie, as many sequences presented a vibrant and beautiful color palette that looked well-saturated and vibrant, with no smearing or other problems. Black level looked strong and rich and flesh tones (well, of the human characters) looked natural and accurate. Although this isn't quite the stunning visual presentation that I'd expected, it's a very, very enjoyable transfer nonetheless.
SOUND: As previously mentioned, the film's sound design is simply unbelievable. Giving previous home theater demos like "U-571" and "Saving Private Ryan" strong competition, the film's Dolby Digital 5.1-EX soundtrack included on this DVD is often breathtaking. The film's sound credits read like a "who's who" of sound crew. Sound designer and supervising sound editor Ben Burtt has been the sound designer for the previous "Star Wars" pictures as well as the "Indiana Jones" pictures. He was also one of this film's editors and has directed his own IMAX films in the past. The sound re-recording mixer is someone whose name will be familiar with many home theater fans - Gary Rydstrom, whose sound design work on such films as "Saving Private Ryan" and "The Haunting" has been highly regarded. Also, Shawn Murphy was the score mixer; he's worked on such recent pictures as Spielberg's "A.I.".
Introductions aside, looking at the previous credits for the sound crew of the film, it was obvious that Lucas wanted to push the boundaries of the sound experience of the picture. Certainly, I think he's succeeded, and not only during the intense action sequences - there's some subtler sequences that really do present an engaging, if somewhat quieter, environments of their own.
Surround use is nothing short of stunning throughout nearly the entire movie. The rear speakers are active throughout almost the entire picture, but they really go into high gear during such sequences as the Pod Race and the final battle, both of which are certain to be demo sequences for sound in many home theaters in the near future. An assasult on the senses without being overpowering or too high-impact, the film's sound experience really brings the viewer into the middle of the experience with incredible skill.
Audio quality seemed uniformly excellent. The John Williams score boldly entered the listening space, sounding rich and crisp. Sound effects came through clearly and cleanly with no audible problems and dialogue sounded clear and easily understood, as well. This is easily one of the most fantastic examples of marvelous sound design that I've ever had the pleasure to listen to.
MENUS:: Beautifully designed main and sub-menus are highly and marvelously animated, offering a wonderful introduction to the film.
Commentary: This is a commentary from writer/director George Lucas, producer Rick McCallum, sound designer and co-editor Ben Burtt and effects supervisors Rob Coleman, John Knoll, Dennis Muren and Scott Squires. This is a commentary taken from various recordings of the folks involved and then pieced together into a full-length commentary track. As for the track itself, it's a very enjoyable presentation that, aside from the fact that it's rather crowded, offered some strong information on both technical and story levels.
Admittedly, it did lean more heavily towards the technical side of things. Lucas and McCallum come in to discuss this story and how it fits in with the rest of the series, but Burtt and the effects supervisors of course discuss some detailed production information; the effects crew do a fine job at talking about how the film's effects were accomplished without going too heavily into tech-speak or becoming dull. A subtitle track that provides the name of the speaker when they're talking is included, which is really a nice touch.
The Begining: Making Episode 1: This is a one-hour documentary about the pre-production, filming and post-production of "Episode 1". This a purely informative documentary feature that doesn't talk to the viewer about the story or promote the film's features. It simply follows the cast and crew from the early days of planning, through filming and towards the film's release. There are several enjoyable and interesting sequences to watch, such as the casting decisions that ended up with the young Jake Lloyd, the first table readings of the script, a massive sandstorm that destroyed some of the film's main sets as well as post-production work such as effects and editing.
Although this wasn't likely produced specifically for DVD, I've really been pleased to see similar documentaries start to pop up more and more often; documentaries that don't provide "narration" or promote the film, but literally allow us to stand behind the cast and crew as they work and experience what its like to be on-set. Although this kind of documentary certainly is seen more and more on DVD editions, I doubt that we'll see one this in-depth and interesting for a great while. Well-produced and strongly edited, this feature was extremely entertaining and engaging. I particularly found Lucas to be rather fascinating to watch; he seemed to have a subtle, but strong presence on set and remained honest about his feelings - at one point, he discusses the fact that films like this can go wrong. McCallum also curses a few times during the documentary, but his language is edited out. There's also one hilarious moment where director Steven Spielberg is taken on a tour of the set and nearly breaks one of the set pieces.
Amazingly, this 60 minute program is reportedly taken from over 600 hours of footage. The only problem is that the documentary is too short; it's not that it jumps awkwardly or jarringly from moment-to-moment, not in the least. It's just that I would have liked to have had seen more of certain moments and a great deal more footage in general. This is easily one of the best documentaries that I've ever seen included on DVD and fans will love it. I hope that someone will start a movement to have this documentary released on its own in a longer version sometime in the future - it's that good.
Deleted Scenes: Similar to Fox's "French Connection" DVD, viewers can choose to watch several of the film's deleted scenes on their own or as part of a larger documentary feature. Before I write further about the documentary feature, there's a few special notes about the deleted scenes that should be discussed. These sequences were not finished for the final film and were deleted. Still, they were picked for addition to the DVD release and these sequences, at what was probably a moderate to large cost, were brought up to final-level quality. The documentary starts off with an introduction from Lucas, Burtt and even some other filmmakers such as director Francis Ford Coppola, who talk about the process of deleting sequences from a movie and the difficulty of that.
The documentary than starts to focus more heavily on "The Phantom Menace" and how sequences were decided to be dropped and how the idea came up to complete some sequences that were good, but didn't make it into the original feature. These sequences are even presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. The seven sequences, which include an extended podrace sequence, are interesting to watch, but really would have extended pieces of the movie longer than they needed to be. The scenes are: Extended Podrace Sequence, Extended Podrace Lap Two, The Waterfall Sequence (which is the one sequence that I would have left in), The Air Taxi Sequence, Dawn Before The Race, Anakin's Scuffle With Greedo, Farewell to Jira
Trailers and TV Spots: This section includes the film's teaser and theatrical trailer (only in Dolby 2.0, which is a bummer) and the "Duel of the Fates" music video. 7 TV spots are also included in a sub-menu.
Featurettes: A group of featurettes, which last several minutes each, are included and focus on different aspects of the production: "visual effects", "costumes", "design", "fights" and "story".
Web Documentaries: Produced for the film's website, 12 documentaries are available and run several minutes each. Focusing on the entire span of the production, these featurettes aren't quite as interesting as the full documentary, but really do provide a lot of terrific information and moments of their own. Starting off with an early look at Lucas discussing the writing process, other featurettes advance us through the years as the writer/director becomes more and more involved with the making of "Episode 1". These are well-produced and informative pieces that do a better job on being informative and interesting about various aspects of production than the featurettes.
Animatics and Stills: Animatics are "visual storyboards" that take the director through a basic animated version of what a scene could look like. This allows the director and producer to be able to actors what the filmmakers are trying to achieve and allows the filmmaker to get a better visualization of the scene and whether it'll work or not. The two animatics offered here are "multi-angle" presentations, meaning that the first angle offers the original storyboard, while angle two offers animatic and live-action tests, angle three offers the final sequence and angle four offers a split-screen version of all 3. The scenes that are shown are the first Podrace lap and the Submarine sequence.
Also: Also included in the "Animatics and Stills" section is an extensive still gallery of exclusive production photos, a gallery of the film's print campaign and posters as well as a short featurette about the making of the videogame.
Also: Also included in this two disc set are THX Optimizer Audio/Video test, starwars.com weblink and lots of hidden Easter Eggs.
Final Thoughts: Stepping back from the hype that surrounded the film's release and sitting down to view it a couple of years after the fact, I did find "The Phantom Menace" somewhat more enjoyable. The film still suffers from some problems (cough, cough - Jar Jar!) , but it does manage to provide some stunning effects and a few incredible action sequences.
The film's DVD release is not exactly the "Star Wars" most have been looking for to hit DVD, but most will likely be thrilled to at least have any of the series available to watch at home on the format. Although image quality doesn't quite live up to expectations of the release, the film boasts thrilling audio quality and a fantastic set of extra features - especially the commentary, documentary and deleted scenes, which were probably costly to complete. Highly Recommended!