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Star Wars: Episode I
The Phantom Menace

Japanese Import - 1999 (2000) - Lucasfilm, Ltd./20th Century Fox (Fox)

review by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits

THX-certified
Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace Film Rating: C

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio): B/A+

Specs and Features
133 mins (per listing on disc jacket), PG, letterboxed widescreen (2.35:1), 2 discs (3 sides), 40 chapters, all sides CLV (Extended Play), languages: English (DD 5.1 EX & matrixed PCM 2.0), subtitles: Japanese (LD-G format), Closed Captioned


"A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away..."

At long last, after more than four years of waiting, excuses, delays and a highly successful Star Wars on DVD Campaign, the day many of us have hoped for is here. A Star Wars film is finally being released on DVD. And if it's not any of the original trilogy, at least we know they're coming… right? As Fox and Lucasfilm say right on the back of this two-disc set's packaging, "Begin your Star Wars DVD collection with Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace." Be sure to read our behind-the-scenes coverage of this DVD release for more on Lucas' future DVD plans. In the meantime, Episode I is what we've got. So let's take a closer look.

Lucas takes us back to where it all began in The Phantom Menace. The Old Republic is beginning a steady decline. The greedy Trade Federation is putting the economic pinch on the peaceful planet of Naboo with a massive military blockade. Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) is none too pleased with this arrangement, and has appealed to the Supreme Chancellor of the Republic for help. As the movie starts, the Chancellor has dispatched a pair of Jedi Knights (Qui-Gon Jinn and his apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi, played by Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor) to settle the dispute. When the negotiations go south, the Jedi must find a way to protect Amidala, and save the people of Naboo. Naturally, their task will not be easy. There's plenty of evil afoot, courtesy of the vile Sith Lord and all-around galactic rabble-rouser Darth Sidious, not to mention his rather nasty saber-wielding apprentice, Darth Maul. And along the way, our heroes will meet characters new and old, who will play a significant part in the rest of the Star Wars saga - C-3P0, R2-D2, Yoda, Jedi Master Mace Windu, and of course, young Anakin Skywalker.

Given all the years of waiting by the fans, and more hype than has ever been seen for one film in the history of cinema, there is almost no way that Episode I could have met such lofty expectations. But the deal is this - The Phantom Menace works. If you're looking to find flaws in the film, there are PLENTY there. Yes, some of the dialogue is tin-ear flat. Episode I also moves slower than a Jawa Sandcrawler at times, partly because there's just so much groundwork that needs to be laid for not just the original Trilogy, but the ENTIRE six film Saga. And I do wish that Darth Maul had been more deliciously evil. Right off the bat in Star Wars, we saw Vader kill someone with his bare hands. The guy was a bad-ass. Maul is clearly bad too. I mean, come on… he looks like the Devil. And when the saber dueling starts, he's magnificent to behold. But he doesn't get to be really bad on-screen until very late in the film, which I think is a missed opportunity. My last criticism, is that you don't really get emotionally invested in these characters, so that when the big climaxes happen, they don't have the impact you'd like.

All that aside, I thought the acting was, well... not okay, but not terrible either. Nobody REALLY gets to act in a Star Wars film. It's tough to emote when you're standing in a room of blue screens, fighting an enemy that will be added later digitally. But when it comes to talented actors going through the motions, what you get here is adequate. Liam Neeson is solid and likable as Qui-Gon - you really couldn't have cast such a noble Jedi any better. Ewan McGregor absolutely nails Alec Guiness's mannerisms as Ben Kenobi - I completely believed that I was looking at the same character, only years younger. And I'll watch Natalie Portman in any film - I think she's one of the best young female actors in show business (just watch Luc Besson's Leon: The Professional if you're not yet convinced).

The thing I find most interesting about this film, is that you watch it knowing that none of these characters are going to ultimately have happy endings. That's not giving away the plot of the film - anyone who knows anything about Star Wars, knows that Amidala dies sometime around the time she gives birth to Luke and Liea, and all of the Jedi are one day wiped out except Ben, who becomes a hermit on Tatooine, and Yoda, who hides on Dagobah. We already know that Senator Palpatine eventually becomes the Emperor and overthrows the Republic, and that sweet young Anakin will ultimately turn to the Dark Side - the future Darth Vader himself. Given that the ultimate fate of these people is already set in stone, the very fact that Lucas manages to tell their stories in a way that seems at least somewhat fresh and new, and gives us plenty of interesting things to see along the way, is a major feat in itself.

As for the action here, it's first-rate... what little there is. If you think you've seen good lightsaber dueling in the original films, after you see Episode I, you'll realize that the duels we've seen before have been practically geriatric. Make no mistake - Jedi in their prime can kick some serious ass. The sabers clash fast and furious. And the special effects in this film are like nothing you've even seen before. When I saw Jurassic Park, I remember thinking that if they can bring dinosaurs back to life on film, anything is possible. Well in Episode I, George and company show us exactly what that anything can look like. Each and every shot is filled with eye candy. The vistas are incredible. Sure, some of the CGI creatures are hokey. Okay, a lot of them are hokey. But despite all the critics, even Jar Jar Binks works, once you get used to the idea of a talking, 7-foot, Rastafarian salamander with ears like Goofy. He's annoying for about the first 10 minutes, but then you get used to it and he's fine. You can't understand him a lot of the time, but you can when it counts. We never understood Chewbacca either, and it didn't matter, did it? Remember, the key to Star Wars is suspension of disbelief. And hey... almost ANYTHING is better than Ewoks. Don't even get me started.

I think at least part of the problem with Episode I lies with all of us. As kids, we all went nuts for the original films years ago. But now we're adults. And we have adult expectations of a film series that was never really meant for just adults in the first place. If you adjust your expectations accordingly, this is a movie that is completely easy to enjoy. I remember very fondly the sense of being whisked into a whole other world, that I experienced seeing the original Star Wars in the theaters. As a ten-year-old, way back in 1977, that event had a very powerful effect on my rather active imagination. I was simply a different person after that day - with my eyes open a little wider to the wonders of film, and the universe as a whole. I know that a lot of you out there can relate. It's not exaggerating things to say that a whole generation of young film-goers was affected by Star Wars. So what a joy it is to be able to recapture even a little bit of that feeling, all these years later. The moment the Star Wars logo crashed on-screen, and John Williams' astounding fanfare blasted throughout the theater... well, I'm sure I'm not the only one who felt the chills. The critics may find fault with Lucas's tin ear for dialogue, but no one can fault his vision, or his imagination. It is nothing short of completely amazing.

Now let's talk about this new laserdisc version of the film from Pioneer. Sadly, until Lucas sees fit to grace us with a DVD, this is as good as Episode I is going to get at home. What's more depressing, is that the vast majority of people aren't even going to get the film looking this good. That's because this laserdisc is a Japanese import, only available via special order from your better home theater dealers (at the hefty price of about $110). And a domestic release to LD here in the States isn't in the plans. Ouch.

So how does the disc look? Well... fine for laserdisc, I suppose. But it definitely isn't first-rate video, even by LD standards. The letterboxed widescreen picture isn't in the same ballpark as Image's Star Wars Trilogy: Special Edition LD boxed set. There's plenty of detail here in the brighter picture areas and there's rich color, but there's also some edge-enhancement and NTSC artifacts visible. The contrast seems a bit off - the blacks are a little too black, and lacking in detail. In addition, the color seems just a hair over-saturated at times, and there's plenty of bleeding. Flesh tones also appear a touch red-shifted, even after a quick recalibration of my equipment with the LD version of Video Essentials. Just to be sure, I swapped this disc out and looked at the Star Wars: SE laserdisc, and sure enough, that looked fine. That's not to say this disc looks bad... but it's not as good looking as it should be.

The English-only audio, on the other hand, is outstanding. This is the most active Dolby Digital 5.1 sound field I've heard on laserdisc (or even DVD for that matter) since Saving Private Ryan (note that systems equipped for Dolby Digital EX should be able to matrix 6.1 sound from this track). The podrace sequence is thunderous, with aggressive bass and lots of seamless panning effects from channel to channel. This is a very atmospheric mix, with plenty of rear speaker trickery. It's completely enveloping and spacious, with a nicely wide soundfield and great depth. Dialogue is clearly presented across the front of the sound stage, and John William's score has simply never sounded better. The PCM 2.0 soundtrack is adequate for what it is, but with 5.1 sound this good, why bother?

As with most laserdiscs, you don't get much in the way of extras. In fact, here you get nothing. Unless you count the fact that the Japanese subtitles are presented on this release in LD-G (Laserdisc Graphics) mode, so if you have a newer laserdisc player, you might be able to turn the subs off. I can't, unfortunately, but the subs never intrude upon the picture, remaining underneath in the bottom black bar of the letterbox. Since it's a Japanese release, the English subs we all saw in the theaters here in the States (when aliens like Watto talk) aren't there. The disc IS closed captioned in English, but the captions appear over the subs (making them hard to read unless you can turn the subs off) and they don't include the alien language translation unfortunately. I would have liked to see at least the teaser and theatrical trailers for this film appear on the disc (as they do on the aforementioned Trilogy: SE LD set), but no dice. What you do get is a nice looking folding jacket, with the image above on the front, a picture of the Naboo skyline inside (with chapter stops listed in Japanese) and an image from the podrace sequence on the back (with more specs in Japanese).

Am I glad to own this laserdisc? Yeah... I suppose I am. Until the DVD arrives, it's the best quality in which you can experience this film at home. The sound alone is worth having the disc in my mind, but I'm not sure it justifies the high price. And since this disc is an import, it's going to be almost impossible for most people to get their hands on it. They're aren't even that many available on Ebay. Still... if this is the best we can get, I'm certainly glad I don't have to settle for VHS. I wonder how long it'll be before Hong Kong pirates master a bootleg DVD from this? Betcha they're working on it even as you read this...

Bill Hunt
billhunt@thedigitalbits.com


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