‘Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace’ movie review: 3D Star Wars revival

While 2011 seemed to mark a downturn in 3D – blockbusters like Pirates of the Caribbean 4 and Transformers 3 recorded higher admissions in 2D – a number of older films have been converted to 3D in hopes of big numbers at theatrical revivals. 

These include some recent Disney classics (The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast, which have already opened to modest success), James Cameron’s Titanic (coming this April), and George Lucas’ first Star Wars prequel, which opened this weekend and scored a respectable $23 million at the US box office.

Most are already familiar with Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, the highly-anticipated prequel to the original Star Wars trilogy, which was originally released in 1999 and went on – despite a largely negative reaction by loyal fans – to become one of the highest-grossing films of all time. So how does it look in 3D?

In short, it’s acceptable. Hopes might be high after the Lucasfilm logo, iconic opening Star Wars scrawl, and initial intergalactic effects work, which all look pretty good in 3D; those hopes are quickly dashed as we settle into characters and terrain that were shot in two dimensions and come across as murky, flat, and/or dim in three (unless in close-up).

But for a conversion from 2D, while this isn’t the best I’ve seen (that honor would go to Immortals), it’s far from the worst (The Last Airbender). Only a few shots (including some crowd reaction shots during the pod race) look overtly awful, and Lucas’ style (static camera, light on the edits) makes this an easy transition. While I never felt the 3D added to The Phantom Menace (outside of the ticket surcharge, and a layer of dimness), it was never a distraction, either.

CGI elements look pretty good – even while sharing the same screen as their live-action counterparts. Ironically, this means that the reviled Jar Jar Binks looks crisp and clear and stands out next to his murky-looking co-stars. Other fully-animated characters – Watto, Sebulba, and the Gungan and robot armies – look similarly crisp.

Having not seen The Phantom Menace since it was initially released in 1999, watching it again in 3D was a not-entirely unwelcome experience. Despite its largely negative reception, my impression at the time was (mildly) favorable, and that impression hasn’t changed; while nowhere near the quality of the original trilogy, this is the best and most accessible of the Star Wars prequels.

It’s also a deeply flawed film. Many have focused on focused on the childish nature of the film (which includes a lot of physical comedy and at least one fart joke), the wooden acting (the film does Ewan McGregor and Natalie Portman no favors, though Liam Neeson lends it some much-needed gravitas), and the inclusion of the annoying and potentially offensive Jar Jar Binks character (though the Neimoidians – blatant East Asian stereotypes – are even more offensive, if less annoying).

But my biggest gripe is with the story, which revolves around a trade embargo and intergalactic politics; it’s all so terribly uninvolving, and it only got worse in the next two films. For a full breakdown of what doesn’t work here, check out Plinkett’s extremely detailed analysis at Red Letter Media.

Still, Phantom Menace is big, sprawling, and visionary, and while it can’t hope to live up to the original trilogy it still has plenty to like: the editing and sound work during the pod race (which served as a clear influence for the Wachowski Brothers in Speed Racer) and climatic battle sequences, the menacing Darth Maul character, the sheer overflow of imagination in the sets, landscapes, and creature design. 

While 3D doesn’t offer much new to Phantom Menace, it might be worth revisiting anyway.

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Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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