All six films of the Star Wars saga are getting the 3D treatment and will be released into theaters one at a time each year starting with episode I February 10th of this year.
The Phantom Menace (1999) was probably one of the most anticipated films in recent history and I was as excited as anyone lining up to see it the first day it was released. After all, it was the first new Star Wars film to be made in sixteen years. Unfortunately the first film in the new prequel trilogy was probably the least liked by the original fans. Younger new fans however loved The Phantom Menace, I guess for the same reason that younger fans loved Return of the Jedi back in 1983. In the same way that younger fans back then loved the cute Ewoks, the younger fans in 1999 loved the funny looking, clumsy character of Jar Jar Binks, plus it had a cute young boy hero who will eventually become the misguided Darth Vader.
The story is well thought out and is a good introduction to many new characters as well as setting up the circumstances for the next films. On its own the movie is a bit unsatisfying, taking a long time to set up the story and missing many opportunities to create suspense, but it works better if you see it together with Attack of the Clones (2002) and Revenge of the Sith (2005), the next two films that won’t be released in 3D until 2013.
It follows a young Obi-Wan Kenobi and his master, Qui-Gon Jinn, as they are sent to negotiate a peace treaty with the Trade Federation who is illegally blockading a peaceful planet to get their way. Unknown to the Jedi however, is the presence of a mysterious dark Sith Lord, an extremely powerful evil Jedi who has turned to the dark side of the Force and is manipulating the actions of the Trade Federation from an unknown location by intimidation, thus the title of the movie; The Phantom Menace.
During the course of rescuing the Queen of Naboo from the invading Trade Federation, they run into a slave boy working in a junk shop on Tatooine and soon discover that he has very special powers. Believing this boy to be of importance to the Jedi and the Republic, Qui-Gon Jinn manages to win his freedom and bring him back with them to the Republic home world of Coruscant for special Jedi training.
When he is rejected by the Jedi council and the Queen’s pleas for help are also rejected by the Republic senate, the Jedi and the Queen decide to return to Naboo with the young boy, to do what they can to defend the planet themselves. And Jedi master Qui-Gon Jinn decides to take on the task of training the boy himself, against the Jedi council’s wishes.
Although the visual effects are as spectacular as you would expect from a Star Wars film, it just doesn’t have the same chemistry and humor between the main characters that the original trilogy has going for it, and the actors all look very stiff and unnatural in their roles, as if they are doing a read through rehearsal without any emotion. This improved somewhat over the course of the next two films but it never reached the level that the original movies had from the very beginning.
The 3D effect is mostly very subtle and doesn’t really add much to the film. Only a few scenes benefit from the new technology. The prologue scroll at the beginning of the films as it floats out into space looks great in 3D and most of the space sequences with ships flying by the camera give added dimension. Unfortunately the picture was extremely dark in the theater where I watched it and most of the 3D effects were lost due to a much darker image resulting in loss of color and clarity. The underwater Gungan city sequences especially are way too dark.
This is the first time we are seeing the new digital Yoda and digitally restored version of the film in theatres, which was released on Blu-ray recently. So if you own the Blu-ray set already, the movie probably looks better on your home theatre than this 3D version does. But then again, there is something about seeing Star Wars in a big theater that just brings back good memories of seeing the films for the first time.