Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace 3D
Looking back now thirteen years after the fact it is difficult to imagine the ways in which we let ourselves be made into such fools. When first it was announced that George Lucas was returning to his masterful space opera to bestow upon us a brand spanking new trilogy there was a collective euphoria the likes of which the world had never seen conjured towards a piece of pop-culture before or since. The origin story we were promised – how a prodigal Jedi succumbed to darkness and became the terrifying Darth Vadar – was a goddamn Greek tragedy the world salivated over in anticipation for the better part of three years. What we got, of course, was a colossal mess; a hollow, hopelessly artificial snoozefest, where the handmade magic of the original trilogy was swept away and replaced wholesale with what can best be described as a load of pixels throwing up on themselves.
In the subsequent decade that followed, the Star Wars faithful dutifully played the role of the battered spouse – returning time and again to the abuser, cradling the naïve hope that, having promised things will be different this time, that they won’t be hurt again, only to be the pitiful recipient of yet another black eye. Coinciding with the indignity of Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith came the real insult – the abhorrent needless tampering with the original trilogy, and the seemingly endless re-releases. The Special Edition, The Special Special Edition, The Ultra-Special Special Edition…Ol’ George has stopped shy of issuing the F—k You, Give Me More Of Your Money Edition, but that’s about where we are in terms of sentiment. Now, we get to relive every tedious moment in that most unnecessary of cinematic dimensions – 3D
Much has changed since the original release of The Phantom Menace – star power has given way to the age of franchise and Liam Neeson has reinvented himself as an action star. So, in the cold light of day is the movie really as bad as all that? Maybe not, but it is still quite awful especially when placed alongside the original movies to which there will always be inevitable comparisons. Quite what possessed George to hopelessly bog down what is in essence a children’s adventure story with dry, complicated, and impenetrably dull interstellar politics and trade negotiations is as much a mystery as the origins of The Force – or at least it was until he explained that away as a bi-product of some pseudo-scientific microorganisms.
Unfortunately, no sufficient amount of digital trickery in the universe exists that can mitigate the fact that Jar Jar is still gratingly obnoxious, Jake Lloyd can’t really act, many of the bad guy delegation are uncomfortable racial caricatures, and the script is just nonsense. Ewan McGregor – who has since openly voiced his regret that he ever signed on to begin with – does a nice line in channeling Alec Guiness, but after Gary Oldman showed just how that should be done in Tinker Tailor… earlier this year, it just looks now like a pale imitation.
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Still, there are a couple of brief moments of excitement. The pod race, unsurprisingly, makes the best use of the 3D technology and is still an exhilarating, heart-pounding scrap of cinema worthy of the big screen. And there is Darth Maul, the unsung hero of the piece, whose balletic three-way lightsaber duels with Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan remains the undisputed high point of the series – and I include the original trilogy in that statement. While it was much maligned at the time, as it is today, The Phantom Menace is not actually the worst of the prequel trilogy (that honor belongs to Attack of the Clones), but it remains largely the focal point for the fan’s ire, as it was both the first and the greatest disappointment Lucas inflicted on the faithful. Today it simply stands as a staggering failure of hubris, ambition, and overreach. A stunning, shining, gorgeously rendered testament to all that might have been.
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