Star Wars-Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)
Main Menu Introduction
Menu Animation & Audio
THX Trailer-Liquid Metal
Audio Commentary-George Lucas et al
Scene Selection Anim & Audio
DVD-ROM Extras-Web Links
Music Video-Dual Of The Fates
Featurette-Delete Scenes Documentary
Featurette-Making Of-The Beginning - Making Episode I
Featurette-Web Documentaries (12)
Featurette-Visual Effects; Costumes; Design; Fights; Story
Gallery-Animatics (2 plus intro)
Gallery-Print Campaign; Posters
Featurette-Star Wars Starfighter: The Making Of A Game
|Year Of Production||1999|
|RSDL / Flipper||
Dual Disc Set
|Cast & Crew|
|Region Coding||2,4||Directed By||George Lucas|
Twentieth Century Fox
Samuel L. Jackson
|Case||Soft Brackley-Transp-Dual v2|
|Pan & Scan/Full Frame||None||
English Dolby Digital 5.1 EX (448Kb/s)
English Dolby Digital 2.0 (192Kb/s)
English Audio Commentary Dolby Digital 2.0 (192Kb/s)
|Widescreen Aspect Ratio||2.35:1|
|Video Format||576i (PAL)|
|Original Aspect Ratio||2.35:1||Miscellaneous|
English for the Hearing Impaired
English Audio Commentary
|Annoying Product Placement||No|
|Action In or After Credits||Yes, a brief sample of Darth Vader at the end|
When George Lucas and his cohorts began work on restoring A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return Of The Jedi, not to mention adding new effects sequences to them that couldn't be used previously due to the limits of technology, the announcement was also made that work was beginning on a new series of films that would detail the story of who Anakin Skywalker was before he became the most feared man in the galaxy. The situation was not unlike that which was faced by the producers of the James Bond series before the release of GoldenEye in 1995: that of bringing a relic of a by-gone era into a vastly different one, and still succeeding. After seeing the first theatrical exhibition of The Phantom Menace at the megaplex in Liverpool just after the stroke of midnight on June 3, the answer to whether they met that challenge, as far as I was concerned, was a mixture of yes and no.
I'll deal with the elements of the no answer first, because other critics who seemed to be taking payola from the major studios that have monopolised the media for the last twenty years have exaggerated them to a point where even the most dedicated fans have started to regurgitate them. Yes, The Phantom Menace has a story to tell, although writer/director George Lucas seemed to forget at times that the whole is invariably greater than the sum of the parts. The alteration of Anakin Skywalker's life history in order to present him as a nine-year-old in this episode was also a bad move, and the novelisation by Terry Brooks includes a few scenes that give Anakin's character much more depth, scenes that would have improved the film a great deal. The final question one has to ask is what was up with those abseiling cables in the pistols, a touch that was so out of character for Star Wars that it had many of the other attendees at Liverpool choking on their popcorn.
As for why all the nay-sayers out there should lighten up and get a life, well, that's a simple question to answer, really. Everyone who falls into this category seems to forget that the first three Star Wars episodes were met with a lukewarm reception by critics, who basically described them as being little more than soap operas or simplistic Westerns in space. George Lucas has never expressed any pretensions of promoting this film, or any of its predecessors for that matter, as any great social statement or masterpiece of story telling. All of that was added by enthusiastic fans over the course of the next twenty years, who obviously respond well to big, superficial little operas set in outer space. Granted, The Phantom Menace is aimed at children, and aimed at that demographic with about as much subtlety as a Death Star blast upon Mercury. Then again, what's so subtle about having a six-foot-seven pile of shag carpeting as one of your main characters, for that matter?
If you've been hiding under a rock for the past three years, then here is a simplified explanation of the plot for your edification. The film starts with a nasty bunch of aliens called the Trade Federation blockading a peaceful planet by the name of Naboo in order to settle a dispute over taxation of trade routes, an event that alarms the galactic Senate and causes Chancellor Finis Valorum (Terence Stamp) to secretly send two Jedi to settle the dispute. The two Jedi picked for this mission by the Jedi Council go by the names of Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), who fail to so much as get an audience with Trade Federation leader Nute Gunray (Silas Carson) before an attempt is made to kill them. They proceed to escape, taking a transport down to the surface of the planet, where they meet up with a curious creature by the name of Jar-Jar Binks (Ahmed Best). Of course, what the Jedi don't know is that the Trade Federation are not acting under their own direction, and answer directly to a Sith Lord who goes by the name of Darth Sidious.
That aside, the Trade Federation proceed to invade Naboo and its capital city of Theed, where Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) has been fighting a losing battle to reason with the Trade Federation. After a daring rescue by Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan, with Jar Jar offering suitable comic relief, Queen Amidala, a portion of her entourage, the Jedi, and Jar-Jar attempt an escape in a sleek transport ship. Their mission is to escape to Coruscant and meet with Naboo's representative on the galatic senate, a seemingly kind and polite old man by the name of Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid). Unfortunately, they sustain serious damage in the attempt, only escaping with their lives thanks to the efforts of R2-D2 (Kenny Baker), and needing to touch down on a certain little planet called Tattooine. After Darth Sidious dispatches his apprentice, Darth Maul (body by Ray Park, voice by Peter Serafinowicz), to find the Queen and her protectors, our heroes meet up with a nasty Dug called Sebulba (Lewis Macleod) and a child named Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd). Upon meeting Anakin and engaging him in conversation for a while, Qui-Gon believes that he may well have found the Chosen One spoken of in prophecies, who may well restore balance to the Force and the harmony of the galaxy.
To be honest, this definitely isn't the greatest chapter in the Star Wars saga, but I personally feel that time will eventually vindicate The Phantom Menace, especially in light of the utterly feeble competition that was put up against it by other studios. The promise made by George Lucas that the three prequels will be a much darker trilogy has so far not been delivered on, but if there's any truth to the rumours about the plot of the next film, that could change dramatically soon. The lightsaber battles in The Phantom Menace, lacking in story impact though they may be, make the more dialogue-based duels of the other three films look positively geriatric by comparison. Sometimes I think I viewed this film on the big screen so many times just to make sense of all the movements, and it will come as no surprise to anyone who knows a thing or two about close-quarter combat that Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor had to be taught their moves in bits and pieces to suit whatever part of the duel they were up to. So grab yourself a chair, a bag of popcorn, and some of your favourite liquid refreshment, then sit back and enjoy one of the biggest cinematic extravaganzas you'll ever see.
One last thing, however: seeing this film with a group of Star Wars fans who have been waiting around the better part of two decades for this film to come out makes quite a difference to the entertainment level. This is a home theatre experience that you have to share with as many people as you can, and not just for the sake of showing off to all those suckers who bought the film on the Very Hazy System. Okay, I've finished rambling, now, let's move on to see whether the quality of transfer was worth the wait.
Long-time readers of this site will no doubt be aware that I took it upon myself to take a look at the VHS widescreen edition of The Phantom Menace in order to see how it would hold up under the same scrutiny we give to all DVD-Video transfers. The answer, in a nutshell, was not at all well, with poor resolution and excess aliasing making me wonder if this sort of poor representation was what we had all been taking for granted during the 1980s. This widescreen DVD-Video is an improvement in almost all areas, but a big disappointment in one significant realm.
The transfer is presented in the proper aspect ratio of 2.35:1, and it is 16x9 Enhanced, as befits a film where even the most inactive shots are wide, artful displays of life on another world.
The sharpness of this transfer is, to put it simply, excellent enough that you could perform surgery with it. The only way this film is going to get sharper in the home theatre is if the High Definition DVD-Video format becomes a reality, which is a long way off in the best scenario. The shadow detail is also excellent, with plenty of subtle gradations between light and dark on offer at all times, especially when one of the Sith Lords are in frame. The only problem here is that parts of the transfer are a tad too dark, which impedes the clarity of the image at times. The moment when Liam Neeson puts his hand on Ahmed Best's shoulder and says "relax", at 19:19, for example, is so dark that Neeson's hand is barely discernable. Low-level noise is not a problem, but compression-related grain is a small problem on a few occasions.
(Addendum September 29, 2001: Shane, Gavin, Paul C, and myself recently took the opportunity to have a look at this transfer on Gavin's monstrous and impressive setup. Every problem I noticed was in evidence to a degree there, except this problem with the brightness. I have since determined this problem arose from the submarine scenes being noticeably darker than the rest of the film, combined with my preference for a darker picture. Those who like to keep their brightness and contrast levels down as far as they can, as I do, are advised that this disc is very unforgiving of slightly variant settings.)
The colours in this transfer range from dull, earthy tones on planets like Tatooine, through the hard, steel tones of Coruscant, to the pastel-like tones of Naboo. The transfer captures all of these schemes without missing a beat, or showing any sign of bleeding, misregistration, or composite artefacts.
MPEG artefacts were a slight problem, with pixelization showing up in minor amounts within the backgrounds of several scenes, which can be partly blamed upon the wild variations in the transfer bitrate. The bitrate often drops as low as four megabits per second, and rarely gets above nine, which is frankly unnecessary given that the film runs for a hundred and thirty minutes with two soundtracks, animated menus, and two layers to fit the film into. However, by far the biggest problem with this transfer with the film-to-video artefacts. George Lucas must have been asleep during the moment when someone was trying to tutor him in how to create a superior transfer, because the unnecessary edge-enhancement in shots such as the lunch table conference at 41:43 is noticeable, even on an eighty centimetre CRT. The other annoying film-to-video artefact is aliasing, and there is a ton of it in this transfer. Most of this film consists of shots with very hard lines, chrome, or sand dunes, and all of these elements shimmer annoyingly whenever the camera is in motion. I suspect most, if not all, of these artefacts will disappear on a progressive display, but considering how far we've come in regard to video transfers in the past year, this was a huge letdown. Aside from the occasional nicks and scratches, there were no film artefacts.
As fans of the film will be well aware, there are several exchanges using languages that, while based on human tongues, don't' exist anywhere in the world. The burned-in subtitles that were present on the theatrical print have been removed and replaced with a subtitle stream, one that looks very attractive by comparison. This is how subtitles that are intended to be in the film should be presented. The English for the Hearing Impaired subtitles are so faithful that Gungan gems such as "how wude" are rendered as exactly that.
This disc is RSDL formatted, with the layer change taking place thirty seconds into Chapter 24 at 68:52. This is just after Jake Lloyd says "yes" in that rather enthusiastic way that some seemed to find annoying. This layer change sticks out like a sore thumb, but the problem is that a layer change would stick out no matter where you put it in this film, even the wipes or dissolves that might have been a better place.
I was rather disappointed by the video, in spite of how dramatic an improvement over the VHS tape and especially the Video CD it is, but to put it the way I put it to other reviewers, the audio kicked me in the butt until my nose bled.
There are three soundtracks present on this DVD-Video: the original English dialogue in Dolby Digital 5.1 with EX encoding, the original English dialogue in Dolby Digital 2.0 with surround-encoding, plus an audio commentary in Dolby Digital 2.0 with surround-encoding. Naturally, I listened to the original English dialogue and the audio commentary from beginning to end.
The dialogue is generally very clear and easy to make out, although sometimes it does get a little swamped by the activity of the surround field. Every scene in this film has a wild orgy of sound effects taking place in the background, sometimes varying from a whisper to a cannon blast, and the occasional word does fall a little behind the effects in the louder moments. None of the almost-lost words are especially important to the film, however.
The audio sync is almost spot-on except for one important area: the Neimoidians' lips never come close to matching the speech that is coming out of them, and Ray Park's lip movements don't quite jibe with Peter Serafinowicz's overdubbed voice. These faults are inherent in the production, however, so I will let this one pass, since there are no other problems.
I've obsessed and pondered about what to write in this paragraph for several weeks, because there is just no way to adequately describe the music that one can find in a Star Wars episode. The score music in this film is composed and conducted by the one and only John Williams, a man whose mere appearance in the credits raises my general expectations a level or three. Williams basically follows three rules that he set in A New Hope and Raiders Of The Lost Ark for this score: make it loud, make it about as subtle as a sledgehammer, and match it so perfectly with the visuals that even serious musicians like myself find it hard to believe that either the film or the music existed before one another. At 105:53, when we see Ray Park emerge from behind the hangar bay doors, we hear one of the most perfect blends of symphonic scoring and on-screen action that has ever existed. The sound of the choir also reflects the more hyperactive feel of this duel, with the Sanskrit chants making a nice contrast to the wordless doom that emanated from the choir during the final section of the duel in Return Of The Jedi.
The surround channels are aggressively utilised in order to support all manner of sound effects in the film: laser blasts, music, lightsaber swinging, and even the occasional reverb from voices. My normal procedure when I am assessing the surround field activity is to write down moments when the surround channels are used in a way that perfectly complements (or detracts from) the visuals. I didn't do that this time because they were utilised from go to whoa, with not a single second where there wasn't a sound effect coming out of them. Processing all of the sounds from each channel really took a lot out of me, in fact, so this is definitely an example of Dolby Digital 5.1 at its very best.
The subwoofer was also aggressively utilised to support numerous sound effects, including the clash of lightsabers and the crash of pods, both of which kept the floor rumbling in a pleasant, engaging manner. George Lucas once said that sound was more than half the experience in cinema, and now he has made it more than half the experience in home theatre.
|Surround Channel Use|
This is a comprehensive collection of extras that are so large that I couldn't review them all in the one sitting. It is exactly the sort of extras package I expect for such a heavily publicised film. Indeed, when I took the time to ask on one forum what fans would like to have as extras on this disc, the only thing they mentioned that wasn't included was the DTS soundtrack. I don't think I will miss it, anyway, as you've just read above, but you may care to differ.
The menu features a well-themed introduction as well as some transitional video, some excellent animation, and a Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack. The language selection and scene selection menus also feature some nice animation with Dolby Digital 2.0 sound. All the menus are 16x9 Enhanced. One thing that is worthy of note is that when you select a certain subtitle language, Norwegian for example, the opening crawl is replaced with one of that language via seamless braching. An excellent use of one of DVD-Video's most grossly underutilised features, it is worth using just to see The Phantom Menace become Den Skjulte Trussel.
More a cause for alarm than an extra, this trailer that I don't know the designation of appears when the film is started. Thankfully, most of my fears about the quality of the disc that stemmed from the sight of it went unconfirmed. Sadly, I have to stress the word most.
Presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 with surround-encoding and the original English soundtrack mixed it at a lower level, this commentary can be classed as good, but not great. The problem is that each commentator drones on without introduction or a sense of humour, which makes listening to the information they have to impart heavy going. I think it would have been much more interesting to hear commentary from Ahmed Best and Ewan McGregor, for example, but if you're patient with this commentary, the insights, and occasional dry jokes from George Lucas, it provides will be worth it.
From what I read in the menu, this Weblink takes the user to an exclusive part of the Star Wars website. It's too bad if you don't have a DVD-ROM drive, an IBM-compatible, or Internet Explorer 5 (which I refuse to install again because of its attempts to lock me out of my preferred email program).
At the audio options menu, highlight the THX logo (the method to do this varies depending on what menu is loaded) and press enter. This will begin a series of diagnostic tests you can use to calibrate your display, THX-style. This is a waste of the vital bits on the disc, as twenty-five minutes worth of tests simply cannot be as much help in calibrating one's display as a proper diagnostics disc such as The Ultimate DVD Platinum or Video Essentials. This should have been left out in order to improve the bitrate of the film, which could have used it in some places.
The menus on this disc feature excellent introductions, some sublime transitional videos, superb animations (Liam Neeson and Ray Park duelling in the deleted scenes and documentaries menu is a favourite of mine), and a Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack.
Selecting the Deleted Scenes And Documentaries menu takes the user to three options, which I will cover in order. This Deleted Scenes Only option allows the user to view the deleted footage without any explanation as to why it was cut. The Deleted Scenes Only option takes you to another submenu where you can choose between watching one of seven deleted scenes, or watching them all cut together. Some of them are not deleted scenes so much as extensions to scenes that were in the theatrical cut of the film, and the amount that was left on the cutting room floor is incredible. The total amount of deleted footage available from this menu clocks in at fourteen minutes and forty-three seconds. Each deleted scene is presented in the aspect ratio of 2.35:1 with 16x9 Enhancement and a choice between Dolby Digital 5.1 or Dolby Digital 2.0 surround-encoded soundtracks.
When this option is selected, multiple featurettes are intercut with the deleted scenes, explaining why each scene was cut. George Lucas' description of some scenes as being superfluous to requirements is rather disappointing, however, as the scene in which a young Greedo being beaten up by young Anakin really gives a better sense of prophecy to events that occur later in the film, just for example. Without the deleted scenes, the total amount of footage is twenty minutes and fifteen seconds, and it is quite informative most of the time. It is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1, with some footage from other films at either 1.78:1 or about 2.00:1, with Dolby Digital 2.0 sound and 16x9 Enhancement.
Clocking in at a whopping sixty-six minutes and seventeen seconds, this featurette is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 with Dolby Digital 2.0 sound, and it is 16x9 Enhanced. This featurette is also chaptered, which is something I like to see in all featurettes of more than fifteen minutes. This featurette basically details the trials and tribulations everyone faced when making the film, and some of the insights, such as the final screen tests for three different Anakins, are invaluable. The best moments come at the end of the documentary, where we see such things as John Williams conducting his orchestra, and a small snippet of an opening night in San Francisco that made me fondly remember the one I attended in Liverpool. Yes, it was as magical an experience as this documentary would have you believe.
This two minute and two second trailer is presented in an aspect ratio of 2.35:1 with 16x9 Enhancement and Dolby Digital 2.0 surround-encoded audio. It is a vast improvement on the overcompressed, less-than-Video-CD quality of the trailer that I spent four hours downloading over the 'net one day in 1999.
This two-minute and nineteen second trailer is also presented in the aspect ratio of 2.35:1 with 16x9 Enhancement and Dolby Digital 2.0 surround-encoded audio. Once again, it is a vast improvement on the overcompressed, less-than-Video-CD quality of the trailer that I spent four hours downloading over the 'net one day in 1999.
When the soundtrack album was released a few weeks before the theatrical release of the film, a music video was sent to MTV, based around a truncated version of the musical cues that appear during the three-way lightsaber duel. This four minute and seventeen second music video for said truncated collection of cues, titled The Duel Of The Fates, is presented in the aspect ratio of 1.66:1 with a Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo soundtrack, and it is not 16x9 Enhanced. Considering that even the advantage of cable didn't allow me to get a decent streaming quality for this video, and downloading it was prohibited by the way Lucasfilm had arranged the site, this is a very nice inclusion.
The first five television spots that were released to the networks each focus on one primary character, and the tone of storytelling they represent are presented on one side of this menu. In order, these are One Love, One Dream, One Destiny, One Will, and One Truth. The other two television spots, The Saga Begins and All Over Again, are presented on the other side of the menu. All of these television spots run for thirty-one seconds, except One Love, which runs for one minute and one second. These are all presented in the aspect ratio of approximately 1.78:1, and they are not 16x9 Enhanced. Nonetheless, their quality is a dramatic improvement over the overcompressed versions that were posted on the Internet.
This submenu with Dolby Digital 2.0 sound contains a total of twelve featurettes: All I Need Is An Idea, Thousands Of Things, Home Sweet Home, Boys In Paradise, This Is A Creature Film, Prime Of The Jedi, 3000 Anakins, Assistant Directors, It's Like War Now, Costume Drama, Bad Droid Karma, and Movie Music. All twelve of these featurettes are presented in the aspect ratio of 1.78:1 with 16x9 Enhancement and Dolby Digital 2.0 sound. Their total running length is a whopping sixty-nine minutes and forty-one seconds.
As the menu explains, these five featurettes detail a different aspect of the film: Visual Effects, Costumes, Design, Fights, and Story. The total running length of this group is forty minutes and ten seconds, although I don't suggest watching them all in one sitting. Each featurette is presented in the aspect ratio of 1.78:1 with the very occasional piece of film footage in 2.35:1, Dolby Digital 2.0 sound, and 16x9 Enhancement.
This submenu, when left idle for long enough, contains animation of Watto flying by and saying "Hey, offworlder, pick something or get out of my shop". How charming. The featurettes, Introduction To Animatics, Podrace Lap One Animatics, Submarine Sequence Animatics, Star Wars Starfighter: The Making Of A Game, run for a total of ten minutes and six seconds. Each featurette is presented in the aspect ratio of approximately 1.78:1 with Dolby Digital 2.0 sound. Star Wars Starfighter: The Making Of A Game is not 16x9 Enhanced, but thankfully, the others are. The photo galleries, which seem out of place on the same menu, are divided into Exclusive Production Photos, Print Campaign, and Posters. The first of these galleries in particular features some of the most extensive annotation I have ever seen in a photo gallery, providing yet another example of how an extra should be done.
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It appears at the moment that the Region 1 and Region 4 versions of the disc will be identically featured, and they have the same release date, so the only reason I can think of to import the Region 1 disc is if the video transfer is of better quality. So far, with all the reviews that have been posted on Region 1 sites, this doesn't appear to be the case.
Star Wars as a saga has always been about big, dumb Samurai films set in an otherwordly place, so all I can say to the people who have rubbished this episode for being shallow or more about special effects than story is "lighten the hell up". The Phantom Menace, in spite of not being done quite the way I would have chosen to do it, is an entertaining and powerful introduction to one of the greatest adventures ever captured on celluloid.
Unfortunately, the video transfer is a resounding disappointment. All it needed was a little pre-processing, resistance to that urge to edge-enhance, and some more care with the brightness early on in the piece.
The audio transfer is of reference quality. John Williams, lightsabers, and spacecraft have never sounded this good in the comfort of your own home before. The VHS cassette and the Video CDs can well and truly be put out to pasture.
The extras? Well, there is extra footage in two of the most important sequences. What more do you want? A second disc full of the entire advertising campaign and fascinating views from behind the scenes? Well, you've got it here, folks.
|DVD||Toshiba 2109, using S-Video output|
|Display||Samsung CS-823AMF (80cm). Calibrated with Ultimate DVD Platinum. This display device is 16x9 capable. This display device has a maximum native resolution of 576i (PAL).|
|Audio Decoder||Built in to amplifier/receiver. Calibrated with Ultimate DVD Platinum.|
|Amplification||Sony STR DE-835|
|Speakers||Yamaha NS-45 Front Speakers, Yamaha NS-90 Rear Speakers, Yamaha NSC-120 Centre Speaker, JBL Digital 10 Active Subwoofer|