The Phantom Menace

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd, Ian McDiarmid
Director:  George Lucas
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  20th Century Fox
Features:  See Review
Length:  133 Minutes
Release Date:  October 16, 2001

ďFear is the path to the Dark Side.  Fear leads to anger.  Anger leads to hate.  Hate leads to suffering.

I sense much fear in youÖĒ

Film ***

Sixteen years later after it officially ended, the saga beginsÖ

When Star Wars first flickered on movie screens across the world in 1977, George Lucas had always planned to go back to the beginning and tell the story of how it all startedÖthe Jedi Knights in their heyday, the birth of Luke and Leia, the evolution of the Empire, and of course, the most intriguing aspect of all, how a good young Jedi named Anakin Skywalker gets seduced by the Dark Side of the Force to become Darth Vadar.

The long-awaited Episode One finally came to be in 1999, drawing huge box office numbers worldwide but decidedly mixed reviews.  George Lucas, master of fantasy that he is, imagined and created worlds the likes of which had never been viewed on a screen before.  But his storytelling, once the heart of his beloved films, seemed to take a bit of a back seat.

I like the film well enough, myselfÖit has its flaws, to be sure, but overall, it works as pure escapist entertainment.  I liken it to a big junk sculpture:  sometimes, it seems as though Lucas assembled his movie with scrap material and throwaway pieces, but managed to put them together in such a way as to make an interesting and amusing new creation out of it.  It works as long as you stay back and view it as a whole.  If you start looking too closely, all you see is the junk.

Cardboard characters were kind of a staple of the first trilogy, so the fact that they exist here isnít much of a bother to me.  At least there are some worthwhile actors to flesh them out on screen.  Liam Neeson has long been a favorite of mine, and he brings a strength and quiet dignity to the role of Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn.  Equally impressive is Ewan McGregor, faced with the difficult task of realizing the young version of Obi-Wan Kenobi.  In speech and mannerisms, he really does remind one of a young Alec Guinness, and what at first seemed to be odd casting for an edgy independent cinema actor turned out to be a perfect choice.

In the midrange is the usually good Natalie Portman.  As Queen Amidala, she is buried under too much funky make-up and weird hair to project, and as Padme, she is trying to build on a watery foundation.  Knowing the basic path of the future story, one can only assume that her best work in this series is still ahead.

And I hate to be critical of little kids, but Jake Lloyd as young Anakin is just another in a never-ending parade of cute but unqualified child actors that has been coming out of Hollywood for decades.  Lucas settled for far too little with his blossoming character here, so I donít entirely fault Lloyd.  But neither can I fully overlook that certain scenes with him just donít work well at all.

As for Jar Jar Binks, the first completely CGI rendered character in a ďrealĒ movie, the bad sentiments have already been far, wide and famous.  This was perhaps Lucasí most gross miscalculation.  The best I can say about him is that, having seen the picture three times now, I think he gets slightly less annoying each time.  I donít think Iíll ever like him, but I havenít given up hope that by the time Iíve seen Episode One as many times as Iíve seen the original Star Wars, Iíll be able to simply ignore him.

For the epicís beginning, Lucas seems to be following the old analogy about dropping a small pebble into a big pondÖthe tiny ripples eventually disrupt the entire calm of the water.  He starts with a planet, Naboo, and a Federation trying to force it into treaty.  A seemingly small event, to be sure, but this humble beginning would eventually lead to the fall of the Galactic Republic and the birth of the EmpireÖbut thatís getting too far ahead.

The strength and the problem of Episode One is its dependence on the greater whole.  To accept it as merely the beginning of a much larger story is to appreciate it a little more, I thinkÖbut mere beginnings by themselves donít necessarily amount to much.  Imagine, if you will, somebody filming ONLY the first one-sixth of Moby Dick.  What you would see on screen could never be as impressive as what you know will come later.

Yet for all its difficulties, Episode One has merit.  Itís one of the most visually striking and imaginative films Iíve ever seen, creating astonishing new worlds and landscapes for its story and characters.  The underwater city (as well as the subsequent journey to Naboo) is a jaw dropping sequence, and itís only the beginning.  The now-legendary pod race sequence is a thrill ride, and the final battle with its cross-cutting between three plains of action is a worthy climax.  And through it all, the story Lucas wanted to tell does get toldÖhow young Anakin goes from slave child to Jedi apprentice.

Certain scenes still require some fan imagination for impact, though.  How about when Anakin meets Obi-Wan for the first time?  Itís treated almost as nothingÖmy God, some forty years later, the younger is going to kill the elder!

But there is foreshadowing in other places.  Jedi Master Yoda senses something wrong with the boy when they first meet.  ďClouded, his future seems,Ē he intones.  (Vague, his worries are.)  But we all know what happens, donít we?

Nevertheless, in the end, I have to say I enjoy Episode One, both at face value and as part of a greater sum, despite some flagrant flaws.  Ultimately, itís a film just for the Star Wars fans, and there are certainly enough of us out there that helped make it work.

Video ****

Iíve been reviewing DVDs for almost four years now, and by my calculation, Iíve seen somewhere between 900 and 1,000 different discs.  Episode One is far and away the best transfer Iíve ever seen.  Seriously.  Think of the best looking disc youíve ever seen, one that made you think that DVD canít possibly look any better than that, and then pop this one in your player and prepare to have your horizons redefined.  The film itself is a virtual canvas of color, light, shadow, and minuscule detail, and this anamorphic transfer captures all of it.  I donít think Iíve ever seen such a wide array of colors and subtle shading in one film as I have with this one.  Itís more than eye candy; itís eye utopia. 

From the narrowest shots to the widest pans, there is not a detail anywhere that isnít sharply rendered, distinct, and unmarred by compression, grain, or other artifacts.  Dark space scenes are gorgeous, as are the brightly lit worlds of Naboo and Tatooine.  Look at the inside of the senate chamber for dimension and detail like youíve never seen beforeÖand really, thatís only one tiny example.  I donít think weíll see the equal of this disc for a long time.

Audio ****

How long have we waited to hear John Williams thundering opening music blasting from our sound system in 5.1 glory?  The soundtrack is flat-out phenomenal.  You are IN the center of the action from start to finish.  All channels are alive and abuzz with music and effects, and the mix is incredibly smooth and the crossovers fluid.  Want to check out the pod race first?  Good start, but for my money, donít miss the light saber fights at the beginning and the end.  Every time one of those weapons gets swirled around, you hear it slice through all speakers. 

The dialogue is clean and clear throughout, and the dynamic range is strongÖalmost too strong, as certain quiet scenes have extremely low levels in contrast to the thunderous action sequences.  But all in all, Iím sure this is what George Lucas really wants to hear from a THX certified movie.

Features ****  

We waited a long time because Lucas promised the Star Wars DVDs would be something special.  If Episode One is an indication, he knew what he was doing.  This two set is loaded with impressive extras.  Disc One features a full length commentary track by George Lucas, producer Rick McCallum, and technical people Ben Burtt, Rob Coleman, John Knoll, Dennis Muren and Scott Squires.  The only complaint is that apart from Lucas, itís hard to tell whoís who.  But for informative value, this track is quite a treat.  Though it sounds like all the principals were recorded separately, they have been smoothly edited together, and it works great.  Lucas will discuss the story, the characters, and the relationship of Episode One to the rest of the series.  During effects shots, crew members come forth to discuss how they were created, from the visual stylings to the audio recording.  There are plenty of interesting trivia bits along the way, too.  Very enjoyable.

Disc Two contains a terrific hour-plus documentary that follows the making of the movie.  It includes plenty of terrific behind-the-scenes footage, including screen tests, fight training, the first script reading, effects shots, how certain scenes were manipulated digitally, the soundtrack recording, the scoring, and much more, ending with the exciting midnight premiere of the film. 

There are also seven deleted scenes, which were completed solely for this DVD release (completed meaning that effects were finished and 5.1 sound flushed out).  They include some extended pod racing bits, a near miss over a waterfall, and some scenes that were less effects-oriented and more dramatic.  You can watch them separately or as part of a second documentary, in which Lucas, along with other directors like Francis Ford Coppola and Philip Kaufman discuss why certain scenes are cut despite their apparent value.

There are also a series of animatics, or computer animated storyboards, with multi-angle comparisons, featurettes on storyline, design, costumes, effects and fight scenes, the famed 12-part website documentary that chronicled the evolution of the film, the ďDuel of the FatesĒ music video, posters and print ads, two trailers and seven TV spots, DVD ROM extras and a promo for the video game.  Outstanding package!


Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace may not have been the greatest film, but itís one of the best DVDs ever produced.  This disc is reference quality all the way, and if you own a DVD player, this is one disc that definitely belongs in your collection.