Star Wars: Episode One The Phantom Menace
Certain movies are long awaited and create a certain amount of discussion. Very near the top of a list to this type of movie has to be Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace. This prequel of the original trilogy set records when released. It also seems to have many divided as to its cinematic merits. Okay, anyone even remotely interested in this disc knows the story. The Trade Federation has set up a blockage of the tiny planet, Naboo. Set to resolve the dispute are a jedi master Qui-Gon Gin (Liam Neeson) and his young apprentice Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor). They hope to free the control of the planet to its elected queen played by Natalie Portman. After a battle (of course) they run to the planet of Tattooine where they meet a young human slave, Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd). It seems that young Skywalker is so strong in the force that he may be the one foretold that will bring balance to it and help resolve the evil influence of the Sith Lords. As a father of a teenage daughter I appreciated the role given to Ms Portman. While the young queen was not afraid of getting into a gun battle now and then, she felt a deep commitment to her people and used her wits to resolves the problems. There is fairly deep development of many of the characters and their relationships. For example, there is love between the boy and his mother. When Qui-Gon can only free one of them the mother sacrifices her freedom to ensure a better life for her son. There is also some subtle highlighting of the relationship between the jedi master and his apprentice. There is the respect of the student coupled with the pride of a master about to see his young charge take a big step towards becoming his peer. This is contrasted with the fear and desire for power that holds the Sith apprentice to his master.
One thing George Lucas knows how to do is assemble an excellent cast for his modern fables. While it would be difficult to recreate the chemistry of the original cast this new cast holds together well and works it. Neeson is among the better actors out there today. His range is incredible. From his role as a deaf mute in Suspect to his award winning lead in Schindler's List this actors talent overflows his extremely tall frame. In fact, many sets had to be extended because of his height and I felt sorry for the camera man having to frame any scene with Neeson and Portman in it. As mentioned before the role of the queen is one that serves as a role model for young girls. As such it requires an actress that is seasoned, polished and intelligent. Ms Portman is perfect here. Her talent in such films as Leon and Beautiful Girls has blown me away. She is an actress to watch. McGregor adds a bit of lightheartedness to the film. He wears the role of the apprentice well. He conveys a sense of enthusiasm and need for adventure that a young jedi should have. There is also a balance with the respect and devotion he conveys towards his master.
George Lucas is one of the best directors around. Still, there are aspects of this film that many have trouble with. Among the best know example is his digital character Jar-Jar. While he does inject the required comic relief he is over played in most scenes. Lucas knows how to cut CGI effects into his films but I miss the way he used to rely on the actors more than the special effects team. His pacing here is perfect. The expository scenes, necessary for act one of a trilogy, never bog down the film. After you learn what you need to know there is always some great action scenes. One of the best is the famous pod race. This is a direct homage to the race in Ben Hur. If you can, watch Ben Hur again before seeing this film to see just how one famous scene can spawn another.
Now for the real details, the disc. The video was rather disappointing. There was a noticeable grain to the transfer. It ranged from just below notice to interfering with viewing many of the visual details of the film. With all the time and effort that went into the visual effects for the film the transfer hardly did justice to the work these people did. The color balance was excellent with little bleeding or shadow artifacts. There are some glitches I could observe with the skin tones. Now, the sound, WOW! The Dolby EX audio is nothing less than reference quality. Do yourself a favor and invite your neighbors over when you watch this. If you dont you may find the police at your door. This is a soundtrack that cries out for loud playing volume. The sound field draws you in as very few films can. Even with all the sound effects that abound here the dialogue can still be understood. The film disc has a commentary by Lucas and a niffty little device of the required Star Wars opening roll up in what ever language you selected for sub titles. The second disc is how an extras disc should be done. There are numerous trailers, making of features, tone poems and a music video. There are also some seven deleted scenes including the full pod race. For those interested in the how and why of the special effects you will not be disappointed, there are a ton of behind the scenes shorts for you to enjoy. Bottom line, you may hate Jar-Jar with a passion, you may hate Lucas reluctance to release the rest of the series but dont let these things deprive you of a great disc.