The Phantom Menace is back. In 3D. David Lillywhite watched it so you don’t have to.
Full disclosure: George Lucas did not “violate my childhood”.
I don’t care that Jar Jar Binks makes the Ewoks look like fucking Shaft. To me, the Star Wars films have always been highly effective B-movies – no more, no less – though I do prefer it when Greedo shoots first. Oh and yes, I was in the queue on day one for The Phantom Menace because I hoped, like most of us did, that it would be the start of something special. And it wasn’t. And it still isn’t.
Let’s be clear: time has not been kind to this film. Universally panned on release as one man’s enormously over-hyped act of self-indulgence, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (incidentally, Lucasfilm, if you think I’m ever going to append that enormous prefix to every instalment of the hexology, you’re very much mistaken) is and remains a confused mass of special effects and bastard ret-conning. This is not a film that demands eloquent journalism, it should anger anyone that even has a passing interest in cinema. Movie as toy commercial. It’s been done before and it will be done again but to such stratospheric heights of clunking bland? Probably not.
If lightsabers and intergalactic space-fights are your thing (and let’s face it, that’s what we really wanted to see), there are a few rewards. Ewan McGregor channels Alec McGuinness almost too well and the Duel of the Fates set-piece that is the only interesting thing about the climax is still thoroughly entertaining but not worth slogging through 120 minutes of blissful temptation every time you hear that familiar ‘schwummb’.
The argument at the time was that adults just didn’t get it. Lucas had aimed the original trilogy ostensibly at children and of course he was going to continue in that vein. Except, The Phantom Menace is so deadly dull and dumb that only an embryonic foetus will have any trouble with it.
There’s just no editorial remit, no producer willing to take a stand. Lucas is so determined to jump-start one of cinema’s most enduring space sagas with a tale of galactic politics gone awry that he forgets the most important thing about these movies – character. In painting such broad strokes on such an artificial canvas it’s hard to engage with any of the cast save the ones you know are going to mean something later down the line.
And on that note, for anyone with even a passing interest in the Star Wars saga, it’s hard to get your head around the mammoth shift in storytelling emphasis that Lucas seeks to impose on his audience. It’s no longer Luke Skywalker’s journey, it’s supposedly Darth Vader’s story. It’s always been Darth Vader’s story. Much was made of the big tapestry being spun with the prequels but décor and costume nods aside (leading to plenty of knowing ‘I see where that’s going’ comments in the foyer), The Phantom Menace so flagrantly ignores the adage that a little mystery goes a long way, that the script’s determined additions to the accepted mythos just tear the heart of the story (midi-chlorians I’m looking at you). Star Wars never really needed to explain Vader’s genesis, it was enough to hint at the trauma in his life.
If 3D doesn’t actively serve and enhance the story, it’s just a tricksy gimmick, a sloppy crutch that makes everyone feel stupid, even in a darkened auditorium.
And what about the much-vaunted 3D conversion? In this instance, the workmen can blame their materials. Hollywood has already shown that for the most part, it doesn’t get 3D (unless your surname is Cameron or Scorsese). This wickedcool new technique is anything but and is usually employed either as a big fat rescue of a rather substandard film (surely all future Lindsay Lohan vehicles are bound for Direct-to-3DVD) or a somewhat cynical attempt to sell more tickets (or – in many cases – both). If it doesn’t actively serve and enhance the story, it’s just a tricksy gimmick, a sloppy crutch that makes everyone feel stupid, even in a darkened auditorium.
In the curious case of The Phantom Menace, no amount of money was ever going to make this distinctly flat film spring to life. None of those glossy effects – surely what might have been the saving grace, the intrinsic reason for paying to see this film again – ever truly pop. The 3D is underwhelming and scarcely noticeable but then, like so many other blockbusters, The Phantom Menace just wasn’t built with the future in mind. Ultimately it’s still the same critical Titanic it ever was only now you get to wear glasses while you watch it. The pod race is still an awkward visual spectacle that never really excites. If anything, the flaws are accentuated by the dashed expectation that the 3D process might have offered something new.
The real new hope of this re-issue is that someone works a miracle in time for the original trilogy. The Lucasfilm bucks can bank-roll Episodes II and III without any regard to likely box office and treats us all to the overhead Super Star Destroyer. Patient waiting: it feels like it’s 1999 all over again. But that must surely mean someone at Warner Brothers has thought about The Matrix.
Oh, and yes. The kids still love Jar Jar. Lucas definitely got that right.