Blu Ray Film Reviews – The Phantom Menace

Star Wars Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace promotional artwork posterThe Phantom Menace – Blu ray film reviews.

The special effects team studied NASCAR race crash footage as the basis for the podrace crash effects.

The Phantom Menace was the first film to be released with a Dolby Digital Surround EX mix, this adds a center back surround channel, the blu ray release retains this but the codec used is DTS. Natalie Portman's voice was digitally enhanced to distinguish it between Padmé and Queen Amidala. Phantom Menace is the name of a villian in the Flash Gordon comic books. Sofia Coppola has a cameo appearance in the film as a handmaiden called Saché.

They created the sound of the hovering battle tanks by running an electric razor around a metal salad bowl and then lowering the pitch. Keira Knightley plays Sabe, one of the handmaidens disguised as the Queen.

The name used by the Queen while in disguise is Padmé, it's the Sanskrit word for Lotus, Yoda means warrior in that language.

George Lucas first wrote a draft of Star Wars in 1972, a character called Mace Windu was in that early version, he never used the character for the original Star Wars but he did so on The Phantom Manace with Samuel L Jackson playing the part. Lawrence Kasdan turned down the opportunity to write the screenplay, many feel this is because Kasdan was unhappy about how Return Of The Jedi turned out and that he would have little creative control over the filming of any script he wrote in partnership with George Lucas.

Nearly all of the film was shot on 35mm film except for two scenes, these scenes are Qui Gon taking Anakin's blood sample and the promotion of Obi Wan to Jedi Knight.

The Wilhelm scream is used during the shooting of a guard in the hangar.


Film Plot

A long time ago in a galaxy far far away, Jedi Knights Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi discover a plot by the trade federation to invade the peaceful world of Naboo, they rescue Princess Amidala and after escape are forced to land on Tatooine where they find a young boy called Anakin Skywalker, the force is unusually strong in Skywalker, on departing Tatooine they cross paths with a dark Jedi, a sith, barely escaping, they head to Coruscant where Yoda and the Jedi council sit and the Republic debate what course of action to take against the trade federation.

Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan along with Princess Amidala, young Skywalker and two droids called R2-D2 and C3-PO, must go back to Naboo and avert a war, once there they will face their greatest foe and fight an epic battle with a sith apprentice known only as Darth Maul, behind the scenes his master hides in the shadows, a Sith Lord, cunning and manipulative, he controls the trade federation, a phantom figure who seeks to destroy the Jedi and rule the galaxy.


Positives

Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan fight Darth Maul in a dramatic lightsaber duelThe opening moments of The Phantom Menace are exciting, it builds the basic plotline well and i think the trade federation plot makes perfect sense, you have Darth Sidious ( called simply Sidious by one of the trade federation baddies) controlling things from afar and manipulating all around him, these prequels explain how he came to be the Emperor in the original trilogy and it satisfied me, i know that some people felt the plot was boring, i didn't, i enjoyed it and for me the film works as a piece of fantasy science fiction.

I think Liam Neeson really brings a lot to this film, i remember him from bit parts in films like Excalibur back in the eighties and he has come a long way, he has grown as an actor and got a lot better with age, he shows maturity in this role, i also think Ewan McGregor was a good choice to play Obi-Wan, he can handle the fight scenes and has got the Alec Guinness accent and mannerisms nailed down, Ray Parks plays Darth Maul, his voice was dubbed for this film but he doesn't have that much to say so it's not a real issue, i mention him because he is a trained martial artist and brings a lot of energy to the lightsaber duels, the way he moves is like watching a ballet dancer, you can believe he represents a real threat and can take on two Jedi at the same time. It was nice to see Natalie Portman here and Ian McDiarmid as Senator Palpatine is just great.

The music score composed by John Williams is perfect, i rate it very highly and it's pure Star Wars,  a very special moment is the three way fight scene between Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan and Darth Maul as his Duel Of The Fates score plays, the images fit so well with the music and that fight scene is the highlight of this movie,  it's such a well choreographed lightsaber duel. Ever since the original trilogy came out we have been waiting to see Jedi Knights at their absolute psychical peak fighting a Sith, sure the original movies had a pretty reasonable duel between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker but Vader was not at his peak, oh and the bass in those lightsabers, its delicious.

The Phantom Menace is a fantastic visual and aural treat, it's Star Wars, i really enjoyed re-visiting this film on blu ray.


Negatives

I think some of the negatives i would hold against the Phantom Menace are that George Lucas does not always get what i believe is the best possible performances out of the cast, i felt Natalie Portman suffered the most and she can act better than this, i put this down to the fact she has some stilted dialogue and also the fact that George is known for not really being an actor's director, i remember reading about a scene between Natalie Portman and Jake Lloyd ( Anakin ) in which he used different takes of both actors who were onscreen at the same time, he blended it together with digital tools, he thought Portman's best acting in that scene was in a different take to Lloyd's, now thats hardly a negative but i mention it because i think Mr Lucas cares more about the technology than the actors and i believe if CGI was advanced enough he would simply use it instead of live actors.

I know some people think Jar Jar Binks and the Gungans are awful caricatures and even racist, to me the voicework is at times slightly annoying and perhaps it does resemble the way we have seen slave workers from the deep south represented on film, perhaps the very fact that a black actor, Ahmed Best, was used for the voice and also supplied the framework for which the CGI animation was used is why some people are offended by it, i can see their point of view, of course the Gungans are also treated poorly by their human neighours on Naboo, maybe George was actually trying to make an argument against racism but handled it poorly in his script.

I think they should have built more sets and then added the CGI to the film, i think fully built large sets would have aided the performance of the actors, George should have tried harder to match the prequel look to the original films, i believe he captured the Star Wars essence but failed to fully match the look of the originals and perhaps thats why he keeps tinkering with the originals to try and match them to the prequels, i personally think its the wrong way to do things.

I still find the podrace commentators annoying as hell.


Image Quality

The cast of The Phantom Menace pose for a pictureThe Phantom Menace was shot on fine grain 35mm film stock and used anamorphic lenses, as such there are moments throughout the film which are slightly out of focus and you get scenes where the central portion of the image is more detailed than the left and right, or in some cases where a character on the left side is in focus and the character on the right side is a little out of focus, thats just normal for anamorphic shot films, whats not normal is some of the edge halo's which are prevalent throughout the films running time, thankfully they are much milder than what was seen on the original DVD release, this is still a sign that a lot of filtering has taken place and the finer detail has been removed, edge sharpening isn't going to get that back, indeed i can't believe in 2011 that a prestige release such as this has edge enhancement, it makes the film look processed and not at all film like.

There is softness visible in many scenes where there is heavy CGI, this could be a limitation of the technology and this is where adding grain would help hide the issue, the fact grain removal has been applied actually makes it worse and the softness in these scenes sticks out more, now i'm not sure if those scenes were always soft in cinema's but i do think additional noise reduction has been applied and i thought it made the image very soft and undetailed in places.

As just one of many examples of edge enhancement, check out the night scene when Darth Maul lands on Tatooine, you can see a sharpened unnatural look to the rocks in the background, then check out the end of his first fight scene with Qui-Gon, you see him from behind watching with his lightsaber in hand as the spaceship takes off into orbit, the edge halo around his black outfit is all too obvious, there are examples like this which run through the whole film.

Its not all negative, i thought there was good quality detail in a handful of shots, these include closeups of the fighter pilots during the end space battle scene and some scenes with Senator Palpatine when he discusses becoming the Chancellor with the Amidala decoy, mostly though i felt there was a lack of fine quality detail, too many edge halo's and a positively unfilmlike look to the proceedings, thats not due to all the CGI and green screen use but i highly suspect it is due to some quite heavy handed filtering which has removed a lot of the higher frequency fine detail that exists on images shot on 35mm film stock, a compromised image and all because they wanted to eradicate the film grain.

I felt the podrace was one of the scenes which to my eyes seemed to look soft and filtered, another such scene was the Gungans fighting the robot army, now some of this may be due to the quality of CGI used but i still suspect the degraining job done by Lowry as the issue since it affects both real life humans and the CGI creations in the podrace ( and other ) scenes.

In the aforementioned Gungan/Robot army battle there is a scene at the beginning of the battle showing a field of grass, it's just before the battle droid transport vehicles appear at the top of the hill, the grass in that particular scene lacks any detail, it really is a mess, there are various other examples all the way through the film showing this lack of detail.

I think much of the problem is George Lucas wanting this prequel to look like the other two prequels which were shot on high definition digital camera's, unfortunately they still cannot degrain 35mm shot films without side effects and without removing detail, no matter what Lowry or Lucas claims, this film suffers as a result of degraining and then sharpening up many scenes, only a handful of scenes are left looking good. This is not good enough for one of the biggest blu ray releases to date.


Sound Quality

The DVD edition sound mix of The Phantom Menace, was for it's day, superb, apparently the Laserdisc edition was even better, well i got out my old DVD just to try and compare, it's difficult doing that as i believe the dts hd master audio mix is louder than the dolby digital 5.1 mix on the DVD, so i will just forego trying to compare and say that i thought the sound mix was very good, i was fearful they might try and re-mix this track and downgrade it, i don't think they have, the bass during the lightsaber duel is intact, it's also there during the podrace sequences, there are some nice discrete surround effects and the music score also comes across well, i enjoyed listening to Duel Of The Fates again during the end credits.

I also thought speech was clear and easy to make out, at least when played at near reference levels, the dynamic range seemed good, there are now more aggressive audio mixes out there but this is still a solid meaty track.  I don't think anyone will be too disappointed with the soundtrack on this blu ray, stay after the closing credits and take a listen to the THX trailer, the subwoofer blew much air out of its ports, that THX trailer has very deep bass, you might want to warn the neighbours before playing it.


Final Thoughts

Decoy Queen Amidala from Star Wars Episode 1 - The Phantom MenaceI first saw Star Wars as a double bill back in 1980 with The Empire Strikes Back and i have been a fan of the film series ever since, i have always enjoyed the prequels and original trilogy, i consider The Empire Strikes Back to have the best script and indeed of the six so far made its my favourite, having said all that, i did enjoy The Phantom Menace, it has a standout Lightsaber duel and a rich music score, perhaps a little too much CGI at times but that's just George playing with his toys.

I have said all along that the four Star Wars films shot on 35mm deserved brand new film scans, after viewing this film on blu ray, i can say that is still the case, Lowry was interviewed back in 2005 and he said he thought George Lucas would return to him should they ever need to release the films in high definition, he thought the masters made were only intended for DVD, well George never went back to him, he obviously considers this release good enough for the masses, i have to disagree, i believe this can look much better, they could leave more of the film grain in and not apply edge sharpening, this would benefit the film and keep detail levels higher and avoid the viewer encountering the dreaded edge halo's.

In summary i can say i am actually disappointed with this release, i enjoyed the film, the sound mix was very good, the image quality was nowhere near as good as it could be, we as paying customers deserve better than this, it feels like a lazy release to just use an old 2004 master, especially since that master has obvious filtering which is robbing us of the finest detail and obtrusive edge enhancement, i feel this release is a missed opportunity and you must also consider the fact that THX is supposed to be a sign of quality. ( it isn't )