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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 9/11/01
updated: 9/18/01

Star Wars: Episode I
The Phantom Menace

1999 (2001) - Lucasfilm, Ltd./20th Century Fox (Fox)

review by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVsTHX-certified

Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace

Buy this DVD now at Amazon!

Film Rating: C

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A-/A+/A

Specs and Features

Disc One: The Film
136 mins, PG, letterboxed widescreen (2.35:1), 16x9 enhanced, THX-certified, single-sided, dual-layered (layer switch at 50:40, in chapter 17), dual-disc Amaray keep case packaging, audio commentary (with director George Lucas, producer Rick McCallum, sound designer Ben Burtt, animation director Rob Coleman and visual effects supervisors Dennis Muren, John Knoll and Scott Squires), THX Optimizer, DVD-ROM weblink (to exclusive Star Wars DVD website), Easter egg, animated film-themed menu screens with sound effects and music, scene access (50 chapters), languages: English (DD 5.1 EX and 2.0) and Spanish (DD 2.0), subtitles: English, Closed Captioned

Disc Two: Supplemental Material
The Beginning: Making Episode I documentary (66 mins, 5 chapters, 16x9 enhanced, languages: English DD 2.0, subtitles: English), The Deleted Scenes documentary (approx 40 mins, 15 chapters, 16x9 enhanced, languages: English DD 2.0, subtitles: English), 7 deleted scenes (approx 25 mins total, 16x9 enhanced, languages: English DD 5.1 EX - Complete Podrace Grid Sequence, Extended Podrace Lap Two, The Waterfall Sequence, The Air Taxi Sequence, Dawn Before the Race, Anakin's Scuffle with Greedo and Farewell to Jira), 12 web documentaries (approx 5 mins each, 16x9 enhanced - All I Need is an Idea, Thousands of Things, Home Sweet Home, Boys in Paradise, This is a Creature Film, Prime of the Jedi, Assistant Directors, 3000 Anakins, It's Like War Now, Costume Drama, Bad Droid Karma and Movie Music), 5 featurettes (approx 10 mins each, 16x9 enhanced - Visual Effects, Costumes, Design, Fights and Story), teaser trailer, theatrical trailer, Duel of the Fates music video, 5 "tone poem" TV spots, 2 "adventure" TV spots, 2 multi-angle "animatics" videos with introduction (Podrace Lap One and Submarine Sequence), gallery of never-before-seen production photos, gallery of print campaign artwork, gallery of movie poster artwork, Star Wars: Starfighter - The Making of a Game featurette (5 mins), DVD-ROM weblink (to exclusive Star Wars DVD website), 2 Easter eggs, animated film-themed menu screens with sound effects and music

"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.

And that imagination has at last found its way into my DVD player. The first thing I should mention about this 2-disc DVD set, is that it features a completely new, longer cut of the film, done just for this DVD release. That is to say, one complete scene - the "air taxi sequence" - has been restored to the film, and two other major scenes - the podrace starting grid and the race's second lap - feature extended footage. All the new material together adds up to less than two minutes, but I'm certainly glad to have it.

The presentation quality of the film itself is very good. On the video side, we're given exactly the anamorphic widescreen transfer we would have hoped for. It isn't quite the home run I would have liked, though. There are two reasons for this. The first is an abundance of visible film grain present in the print. The second is a little bit too much edge-enhancement. The grain I'm fine with, but the edge-enhancement knocked the video grade down a little bit. Don't let these minor issues deter you from enjoying this transfer though, because it still looks absolutely wonderful. The contrast is excellent, with deep and yet detailed blacks. Color is rich and natural at all times, without bleed. Flesh tones, in particular, look wonderful. And picture detail is almost always excellent. Just watch the podrace and look at some of the rock formations in the background - this is great DVD video. It's not quite reference quality, but it's completely easy to enjoy.

On the audio side of things, however, this disc is absolutely reference quality. Simply put, this is the best Dolby Digital 5.1 sound I've ever heard on DVD. This is a film where the soundtrack can go from explosively loud to whisper quiet in a heartbeat, and the mix captures that perfectly. The amazing sound design by Ben Burtt is perfectly translated into the home theater environment. All the subtlety is here, while dialogue is always clear and well placed in the mix. Perhaps best of all, John Williams' amazing score is blended perfectly throughout the soundstage. The low frequency in the soundtrack is excellent, particularly during the podrace, and you'll be hard pressed to find a more active surround mix. I was particularly impressed by the EX aspect of this track. Granted, it's one of the first I've really taken the time to listen to in my own home theater, but let me just say that the "matrixed" surround back channel makes a huge difference, greatly smoothing out and unifying rear soundfield. Dolby Surround 2.0 audio is also included in English and Spanish, and you get English subtitles as well. Note that alien language dialogue in the film is presented using electronic subtitles, rather than the original subtitles burned into the film. This will bother some fans, but was no doubt done to make releasing the DVD in so many different Regions at once easier.

Disc One of this set only has one major extra, which is a good audio commentary by director George Lucas, producer Rick McCallum, sound designer Ben Burtt, animation director Rob Coleman and visual effects supervisors Dennis Muren, John Knoll and Scott Squires. Most of them were recorded separately, and then the track was edited together later. It sounds a little choppy at first, but stick with it because there's a lot of interesting information conveyed in the track, particularly when Lucas gets going on issues relating to the story of Episode I in the context of the eventual six-film Saga. And as you're watching, an electronic "subtitle" graphic appears on the top of your screen to identify the person doing the talking at that moment. Also included on Disc One is a THX Optimizer, which will help you to adjust your TV and sound system to get the best presentation quality possible out of the DVD.

If the longer cut of the film and the picture and sound quality aren't enough to get you to buy the disc, the extras on Disc Two should make your decision easy. This disc features one of the best "behind-the-scenes" documentaries I think I've ever seen on any disc. Directed by filmmaker Jon Shenk, it's called The Beginning and it runs a little over an hour. There's no annoying studio narrator and no talking heads interviews anywhere to be seen. Instead, this documentary presents key events in the making of the film from beginning to end in classic cinema verité style. You are simply a fly on the wall, watching as Jake Lloyd is cast as Anakin, as Ewan McGregor gets to pick his very own lightsaber and as the ILM effects supervisors struggle to complete shots in time for the film's release. You're there when a desert storm destroys the sets in Tunisia, when Lucas himself questions the structure of the film and when he takes buddy Steven Spielberg on a tour of the production. There are some great candid moments here, including several occasions of various cast and crew members (surprise!) swearing. There are also some emotionally honest moments. All of it is welcome. This is a refreshing change from the usual EPK-style "making of" crap most DVDs give us. The Beginning is one of the best looks at the making of a film you'll ever see.

The next cool extra is a series of seven deleted scenes, all in full anamorphic widescreen and Dolby Digital 5.1 EX sound, that were finished by ILM just for this DVD release (some, but not nearly all, of this footage was actually restored into the film on Disc One). You can view them separately, or in the context of a documentary about the scenes that explains why each was deleted, what purpose it served in the story and what was done to complete it. There are interviews here with Lucas, producer Rick McCallum and others, along with director Francis Ford Coppola and editor Walter Murch, who talk about the editing process and why things get deleted. And be sure to stay for the end credits, which feature funny outtakes and gag special effects created by ILM during the production.

But we're not even close to being done yet. Those of you who are familiar with the website will recognize all 12 of Lynne Hale's web documentaries, which were created to preview various aspects of the film online. Each runs about 5 minutes in length. Also included are a series of 5 additional featurettes on the production, which are slightly longer. You get the film's infamous teaser and theatrical trailers, along with a series of TV spots and the Duel of the Fates music video that was a hit on MTV. There are 2 multi-angle "animatic" segments, which explore the making of the podrace and submarine scenes, with video introduction by McCallum. A set of three galleries contains never-before-seen production photos, domestic and international poster artwork and a look at the film's print campaign. And there's even a bit of shameless promotion - a 5-minute look at the making of the Star Wars: Starfighter video game by LucasArts. Every disc's gotta have a bit of that I suppose, but this DVD thankfully keeps it to a minimum.

And here's something I think is gonna be very cool for Star Wars fans in the near future - each disc contains a weblink to a special, exclusive online website that can only be accessed by people who have the DVD (and a Windows PC equipped with a DVD-ROM drive and an Internet connection of course - Mac users get the shaft again). Look for this site to be updated with additional bonus material that Lucasfilm couldn't squeeze on the DVD, including additional deleted scenes, artwork and more. And I've got good word that this will be the first place people get a look at the upcoming teaser trailer for Episode II, sometime in November. If that's not a reason to buy this disc, I don't know what is.

Plus, you get some darned cool, film-themed animated menu screens, complete with the majestic Star Wars theme and lots of familiar sound effects. Disc One even features three separate menu schemes, each based on one of the planet locations in the film (click here for an early look at them). When you start the disc, a different scheme appears randomly. And throughout both discs, you'll find fun little "time-out" animations that play when you let the menus sit long enough without making a selection. Look for Watto to heckle you if you wait long enough on the animatic selection page, for example.

There are also a trio of Easter eggs on this set's 2 discs. I have seen all of them and they're nothing you couldn't live without if you didn't know about them. But they are fun. Note that there are also special codes which allow you to choose which of Disc One's menu schemes appears when you start the disc. See details on all this below.

My only complaint with the disc, aside from the minor picture quality issues, is that I wish there were more here dedicated to the story and plot development of Episode I and the Star Wars Saga as a whole. There are so many interesting mythological references in these films, and this story of Luke and Anakin has come a long way since George Lucas's original treatment for the first film. Oh well... maybe on the next DVD.

So was Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace on DVD worth the wait? You better believe it was. This is a great 2-disc special edition, which immediately takes its rightful place among the best offerings of the year thus far. The deleted scenes and longer cut of the film alone are worth buying the disc for if you're a Star Wars fan. The sheer dynamic power of the 5.1 EX track also makes purchasing the disc a no-brainer for anyone who wants to show off their home theater gear. Add to that the excellent "behind-the-scenes" documentary, and this should be an easy decision. Just go buy it for crying out loud! I think you'll be glad you did. I, for one, am already looking forward to the Episode II DVD, hopefully next year... and the rest of the Star Wars films when we finally get them in 2006. Or whenever. Hopefully, sooner rather than later.

Bill Hunt
[email protected]

Be sure to read all our Star Wars DVD reviews here at The Bits:

Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace
Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones
Star Wars: Clone Wars - Volume One
Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith
The Star Wars Trilogy - A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi

Buy this DVD now at Amazon!

Easter egg Instructions

Disc One

To access the Coruscant menu scheme, press "1" during the FBI warning screen.

To access the Tatooine menu scheme, press "2" during the FBI warning screen.

To access the Naboo menu scheme, press "3" during the FBI warning screen.

To access the outtakes reel, go to the Options menu page. Press "11" and wait for the pause as the player accepts the input (it may be "10+" and "1" depending on your player model). Then press "3" and wait for the pause. Finally, press "8".

Disc Two

To access a behind-the-scenes video clip on the making of the Podrace, go to the Deleted Scenes and Documentaries menu page. Select Deleted Scenes Only. On the Complete Podrace Grid Sequence page, highlight Doc Menu. Then select "Right" to highlight a small box and press "Enter".

To access a behind-the-scenes video clip on the Podrace's second lap, go to the Deleted Scenes and Documentaries menu page. Select Deleted Scenes Only. On the Extended Podrace Lap Two page, highlight Doc Menu. Then select "Right" to highlight a small box and press "Enter".

Look also for additional outtakes during the credits of the Deleted Scenes Documentary. You don't have to do anything to access them other than watch the documentary.
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