Someone took hours of their life to edit together a 70-minute Phantom Menace video review, and that says it all. No, not that somebody could spend their time better, but that the opportunity exists to do so in the first place.
You can take what Phantom Menace does right, the Darth Maul (Ray Park) three-way lightsaber duel backed by John Williams unbelievable score, and rip that apart too. Maul, for his build-up and intense looks, goes nowhere, has no connection to the rest of universe, and ends up as a pointless addition.
In fact, you can say that for all of Phantom Menace. Lucas cuts into this saga prematurely, these younger days of Anakin Skywalker (Jake Llyod) bringing nothing to the character. The film is in trouble from the opening dialogue scroll, speaking more of politics and galaxy-wide taxation rather than war, Jedi, and the Force.
For all of the editing Lucas has done to the original films through the years, it’s flabbergasting that he has never taken the knife to Phantom Menace, merely inserting additional footage into a pod race scene that already ran five minutes too long. A now all-digital Yoda doesn’t even count. He’s never found footing in the opening moments, so anxious to introduce lavish, overdone effects, the plot is lost as soon as a bigger fish rolls around… and there’s always a bigger fish.
Enough has been said and parodied about Jar Jar Binks and the mind-numbing effect the character has on any dramatic tension that it’s not even worth discussing. That’s really most of the film, the prequels the only movies in this franchise with a little time to age yet, and Phantom Menace doesn’t even stand a chance as its nears its 20th, 30th, or even 50th anniversary. It’s far too haphazardly constructed and obsessed with itself to stand a chance.
There are two theories as to what happened to this Blu-ray transfer. The first is that George Lucas no longer cares for the film either, and the second is that someone made the grave error of trying to digitally manipulate it to match the other prequels. You can be rest assured it’s the second one; we’re not lucky enough to see the first one to come to fruition. See, the next two prequels were shot entirely on digital, Phantom Menace the only film-based one of the bunch, only not anymore.
Fox and company have produced a travesty here. No matter what they give to the encode (a healthy, high bitrate AVC affair), it’s pointless. The digital noise reduction has devastated this transfer straight from the source. Unlike the original trilogy with some questionable DNR-like sequences, there is no room for debate here. This is a mess, the facial detail that was prevalent on a film 22 years younger is completely lost here.
In its place resides varying degrees of plastic and wax statues that happen to move around. The original DVD for Phantom Menace was one of the more reviled of its era, coated with a none-too-subtle level of edge enhancement. Some of that remains here, although not on the same playing field. Minor faults like aliasing will creep in, along with flicker on finely detailed objects such as grates. Environmental detail is a total loss, the grass during the battle of Naboo worse than many video game textures, totally flat during those expansive pans. Jedi cloaks might as well be stitched from mud, and water look like a thick oil substance.
Smearing can be visible during subtle movements, another one of those clear signs somebody fudged this one up. CG characters take on this weird glowing quality, part of that the simply dated nature of them in the first place, and the other part the endless manipulation. Colors seem to have escaped the wrath of the tinkering, although it’s hard not to be affected by it. Brighter colors will seep out ever so slightly into areas they shouldn’t. Black levels rarely exist as varying shades, mostly thick blocks that suck the life out of shadow detail, sadly a common practice for this set. With the DNR working against the blacks though, it only means another layer has been sucked right out of this image.
There are certainly those shots that will challenge the infamous Tremors for a seat amongst the format’s worst, but they are few in number (Tremors approach was to suck it up the whole running time). It’s probably important to point out this is a controlled atrocity, close-ups typically just flattened out and wiping their detail, maybe muddying the hair a bit. There’s a concentrated effort to make this disc fit in, but all it does is hamper those same efforts. Maybe (and it’s a big maybe) those sprawling exteriors do stand out more than they did prior, but would a light grain structure as seen in the other films caused that much of a problem? No, it wouldn’t have, and for a set with the ability to push Blu-ray hardware into the home, this is absolutely unacceptable.
The Duel of the Fates, with its enormous bass push, countered by a space battle with equal force, is the reason to put this disc in from time to time. It’s not like you’re going to watch it for the movie that often. Darth Maul’s saber clashes with Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon’s counter attack, each burst providing a low-end pop that is remarkable. Spinning sabers hum in the stereos and even trek into the back, this a DTS-HD 6.1 mix that won’t miss any opportunity to impress.
Honestly though, what Phantom Menace does is make you realize how great the other movies in this series sound, that referring to the original trilogy. The mixing has truly brought them together, whether it’s the aural assault from the sabers or ship attacks. Sound restoration has been nothing short of spectacular.
That’s getting off course though, Phantom Menace gifted with the benefit of modern equipment and design, using both for all their worth. It’s only five-minutes in before things start exploding, while chase scenes are not longer after that. The underwater run with the fish is jaw dropping, engines pecking away at the subwoofer while the surrounds and stereos pick up the ambiance. When the attack begins, Phantom Menace begins to bombard the listener with its range.
There are so many levels to what this audio mix does right, from capturing the chaotic and active to the most low-key effects like Naboo’s wildlife in the forests. Williams score is preserved in its entirety, dialogue lifted as needed if maybe a little low when outside of the spectacle. Just take it as notice to turn this up and experience it as loudly as you can. It’s worth a complaint or two.
George Lucas hops in to offer his thoughts via commentary, bringing Rick McCallum, Ben Burtt, Rob Coleman, John Knoll, Dennis Muren, and Scott Squires with him. The archival commentary hauls in quotes from 18 different participants, as always a varied mix of speakers.
The rest of Episode I’s extras are on a separate disc in the box set, ready to be reviewed at a later date in the interest of being as thorough as possible. The score reflects the film’s disc only.
Note: Screens are taken as .png, then lightly compressed with .jpg to save bandwidth. Uncompressed .png format screens are available on request. They don’t heap praise on this transfer either.