Star Wars: Episode I DVD Review

You can't please everybody, and George Lucas probably found that out shortly after the release of Episode I. Ripped apart by critics and disowned by over-hyped fans, it seems the only people who actually enjoyed the film were those looking for a good time. It's not on par with the originals, but to say it doesn't fit or it doesn't have a place in this series is ridiculous.

Everyone has an idea of what the film should have been or how they would have started the story. Nitpicking on it simply because it doesn't fit into your own grand scheme simply isn't proper. Episode I is still firmly a part of the Star Wars universe, developing locales unlike anything seen in the original trilogy. That's the whole point of these films anyway, taking us to an alien world, populated with wild creatures and sporting exquisite technology unlike anything we'll ever see in our lifetime. That's something Phantom Menace does better than almost anything else.

Those who complain that the film is nothing more than a special effects piece obviously miss the point. So were the first films. It's a very basic story; some people just take it to the extreme and begin to add some sort of deep meaning to it all. All that is needed is a basic good and evil battle to set it up for those unforgettable final moments.

That inevitably leads to Jar Jar Binks, the much-maligned Gungan whose antics seemed to draw most of the criticism. Looking back, he really doesn't seem any worse than some of the traded banter of C-3PO and R2-D2. He's there to entertain the children in the crowd, much like the oddball robot pair did to the now grown children back in 1977.

The story simply flows along, interrupted by breathtaking action sequences, including one the most brilliant sequences of choreographed sword fighting ever put on film. Combine that with John William's epic-sounding Duel of the Fates, and you're instantly engrossed. Those looking for a deeper plot need to stop and think that not only does Phantom Menace need to set up the characters, but the entire universe they're in as well. That's a lot to fit into two hours.

Nearly everything here is done in conjunction with CGI technology, giving everything that rather fake sheen. You can pick apart almost every shot and figure out how it was done. The resistance to use traditional effects is a valid complaint against the movie as now they just do not mesh with the first set of films (even with all the changes made to them).

Looking back over some of the thoughts, comments, and reviews for this film is rather interesting now that the rage has subsided a bit. It seems most people somehow expected the same feelings of nostalgia they receive when watching the originals from this. They block out anything that changes, manipulates, or alters their 'vision.' It's not their vision to change in the first place, and until people can figure that out, they'll never understand why Phantom Menace is a enjoyable piece of cinema, just short of being as fun as the originals. (**** out of *****)

One thing about the film that simply shouldn't be debated is the transfer on the DVD. It's awful. It contains some of the most deplorable edge enhancement of any DVD on the market. It seems to be present in every scene and it gets no better as the film moves on. The excessive use of CGI means the black levels are occasionally off and grain is noticeable when it's mixed with a real backdrop. Compression is nasty is a few spots too, and aliasing is unavoidable (but still annoying). (**)

The audio presentation seems to apologize for that, and being the first movie to use 5.1 EX, Lucas made sure this is the reference material people use for the format. The hum of the lightsabers and deep throbbing of spaceships rip apart the subwoofer. Lasers fly all over the sound field and movement is captured flawlessly. There's plenty of subtle surround work, especially when the crew first arrives on Tatooine and begins walking through the city. Dialogue is never lost in the action. (*****)

On paper, it seems this two-disc set doesn't contain very much, but it's truly a quality over quantity issue. Disc 1 only contains a commentary (and a hidden blooper reel) with George Lucas and his main crewmembers. They're never quiet.

Disc 2 contains the centerpiece of this set, the one hour plus The Beginning: Making Episode 1. Nothing is skipped, from the very basics of pre-production all the way to the release. Twelve short documentaries, which premiered on the internet, get a little deeper into certain topics. They started filming way back in 1994 on Lucas' first day of writing. It all ends up in 1999 during the soundtrack recording.

As if they missed something with that, five featurettes cover effects, costumes, design, fights, and the story individually. Some of this does seem a little redundant, but it's almost all different footage. Two animatic galleries (including a third, which is an introduction) are followed by three separate still galleries and a look at the making of the video game.

Finally, there is a look at the deleted scenes. You can view them separately, or as part of a featurette. There, directors (including Francis Ford Coppola) discuss the process of cutting scenes they loved and how it can change a film. It then delivers the deleted sequences with Lucas commentating. (*****)

What's so entertaining about these prequels are the fans. They sit on message boards complaining about how everything was wrong, agreeing with the critics, yet line up on day one when the next film is released. When the films hit DVD, they become the hottest selling discs of the year. There's only one explanation: Hating these films has somehow become the 'in' thing to do. There's no other explanation. These are Star Wars films, and good ones at that.

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