Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace Film Review
Often derided as the worst entry, the latest flawed sequels might afford this a reassessment, with Lucas on visionary form in terms of world-building, and seminal moments like the saga-best Duel of the Fates.
Banking clans, trade disputes, idiot Roger-Roger droids, midichlorians, Jar Jar Binks and pod racing with annoying kids - The Phantom Menace was absolutely brimming with things that nobody ever wanted to see in a Star Wars film. Despite that, back in 1999, it was actually lovingly received largely due to the fact that nobody had seen anything from this universe in decades and the kids who were brought up on it were now all grown up, able to revisit the wondrous worlds for an all-new (well kind-of) adventure. And, actually, George Lucas did a tremendous job with his world-building, at a level considerably more impressive than anything in any of the other movies - old and new - bringing stunning effects to bear when fully realising the colourful worlds of Star Wars: the future-tech cityscape of Coruscant, the rocks-and-desert outreaches of Tatooine, and even the underwater wonders of Naboo. With his full vision unleashed - now that effects had caught up with his imagination - the Star Wars prequels proved something of a world-building extravaganza, and, for all the misguided ideas (like reworking Ben Hur's chariot race with a kid at the wheel), the child-focus and slapstick stupidity of Jar Jar certainly worked to woo an all-new younger audience to this universe.
Stripping away the tiresome tax disputes and horrific dialogue and the basic Jidaigeki/samurai story of young Padawan Jedi Obi-Wan and his mentor Qui-Gon Jinn discovering a powerful new force-user in the galaxy, and encountering the first Sith presence in centuries is actually a pretty decent one. Between the wow factor of the new worlds, and the fantastic closing lightsaber battle - easily still the best across all nine films - it's actually not that surprising to understand why The Phantom Menace opened to such rave reviews, and won over a whole new generation to the franchise, even if time has certainly not been forgiving of its myriad flaws.
If you try your best to look past the flaws, between the best-cast Jedi, the best villain, the best score, and the best lightsaber duel, there's much to enjoy here.
Interestingly, the new Abrams/Johnson/Abrams trilogy has not necessarily gained all that much ground in that respect, instead affording the opportunity for fans to accept - or not - that pretty-much all of the entries (possibly Empire notwithstanding, although even that cannot stand alone without the films around it - and blinkered fans are quick to hate on the Roger-Roger droids of the prequels and forget just how dumb the supposed 'stormtroopers' are in the original movies) are flawed to lesser and greater degrees. Twenty years later and The Phantom Menace is still painfully stilted in terms of dialogue, but also impressively cast, with Liam Neeson a perfect old school samural/Jedi, and Ewan McGregor laying the groundwork for arguably the strongest character of the entire prequel series - his young Obi-Wan (who, disasters notwithstanding, is still hoping to return for a Disney+ show dedicated to his wayward ronin years on Tatooine between Revenge and A New Hope) far more engaging than atrocious future Anakin actor Hayden Christensen's equivalent Padawan in the next two films.
And of course there's Darth Maul, who is possibly the best saber-wielding villain of the nine films; a dangerous threat who couldn't be topped by the 'real' Phantom Menace of Sidious/Palpatine because, frankly, a superbly cast Ian McDiarmid (who we shouldn't forget was considerably more disrespectfully wasted in The Rise of Skywalker) spent most of his time just whispering in ears until he went full manic-witch for Revenge. Perhaps one day someone will do a decent fan-cut, with no Binks, a much shorter pod-race, less chat about taxation, and extended moments with Maul on Tatooine and during the closing battle. In the meantime, if you try your best to look past the flaws, between the best-cast Jedi, the best villain, the best score, and the best lightsaber duel, there's still much to enjoy here.
The Phantom Menace 4K Video
Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace comes to UK 4K Blu-ray as part of the lavishly-packaged "Complete Skywalker Collection". It was actually shot on 35mm film, which should have held it in better stead than its sequels but for that fact that the effects were layered using an early, less than optimal sub-2K Digital Intermediate which, despite the work done to upscale here, is still the backbone for this Ultra HD Blu-ray release, and is ultimately what holds it back too.
The disc presents an upscaled 3840 x 2160p resolution image in the film's original theatrical aspect ratio of widescreen 2.4:1, and uses 10-bit video depth, a Wide Colour Gamut (WCG), High Dynamic Range, and is encoded using the HEVC (H.265) codec for HDR10.
We reviewed the UK Ultra HD Blu-ray release of Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace on an LG 55B7 Dolby Vision 4K Ultra HD OLED TV with a Panasonic DP-UB450 Dolby Vision HDR10+ 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray player.
Clearly the work done here was a desperate attempt to make the best out of the worst material, but it simply feels unfinished
Well, this is going to be one hell of a controversial release. It's possible, just possible, that some who saw the silver lining of Terminator 2's almost equally controversial 4K presentation may just about see what Disney were trying to do here, but the end result is - even by those questionable standards - pretty damn messy.
For starters, almost the entire film has been given a rather strange filter, not wholly unlike the kind of ones available on your phone if you want to do an amateur airbrush job on your own photos. It's more than just DNR - again, a little like Terminator 2 - in that there is a fair amount of detail, but the limitations of the source are where it falls down significantly in the comparison. Terminator 2 was given a modern style that many did not like, but still retained a striking amount of detail despite its more digital new 'look'. Phantom Menace goes much the same route, but with a far worse source, yielding on very infrequently strong results, on brief shots - images, close-ups, peppered across the runtime on what is otherwise a more-often-than-not disastrous presentation.
The effect of this filter not only affects the detail level and ramps up softness to something of a blue, but also misshapes middle-distance or far distance objects, which are far from properly realised. Sure, there isn't that much edge enhancement here (unlike the Disney+ 4K rendition) but it's just as bad in the opposite direction. Clearly the work done here was a desperate attempt to make the best out of the worst material, but it simply feels unfinished - like they tried their best and just gave up. Case in point would be some of the effects - like during the Gungan battle on Naboo, where the droids, when they are first unloaded (a shot used in the trailer), looking very impressively rendered, but, just a few shots later, the battle tanks look like terrible pre-viz effects, utterly robbed of any detail; 90s video game blotches rolling across a cheap computer graphics landscape.
Some elements fare better than others - the likes of McGregor and Neeson may look pretty slick in their visages, but a few close-ups still afford some nice detailing, and Maul looks fabulous. Conversely, Anakin looks a little bit like a high quality animated character brought to life. This is where, perhaps the HDR comes into play. HDR and WCG, undoubtedly go some way towards pushing this head and shoulders above both its Blu-ray counterpart and the Disney + release (easily besting their attempt at Dolby Vision), but it's also been brandished with a slightly heavy hand, particularly in the 'we want everything to look bronzed' approach, which only furthers the slightly cartoony impression of some of the characters. On the plus side, the eye-popping primaries and intense tones on offer are still impressive, from the blue glow of star fighters to the various colours of the lightsabers. Black levels are strong and deep, inky black, and the colour scheme stands out as so much more than Disney +'s version, leaving this just about the better version, even if that still largely amounts to a lesser-of-two-evils kind of situation.
Really, if anybody wanted to turn in a decent 4K rendition of this source material, they'd have to spend years tinkering, Lucas-style, with the original elements, unstripping filmed footage so it could be restored, re-rendering effects, and painstakingly integrating it all anew. It's understandable, given how fans, critics, and even the Studio themselves likely feel about the prequels that no great efforts would be put in to fixing The Phantom Menace in any way, shape or form, and, with that in mind, this mess of an end result is probably the best we could hope for, ugly as it may be.
The Phantom Menace 4K Audio
Whatever complaints and frustrations you might have over the video situation with this release, the Dolby Atmos upgrade is superb, bringing much-needed high-definition 3D object-based immersive audio to a universe that just demands it, and doing so with precision and weight - albeit with some volume-adjustment as is par for the course with Disney - that leaves this easily the most engaging and engulfing the film has ever been.
A largely excellent demo track
Dialogue is rendered clearly and coherently throughout, keenly resolved and disseminated across the array, whilst effects enjoy the diversity on offer - from the podracing engines to the space battles to the duels, with directionality key but at a decent amount of LFE weight, particularly if you get the volume setting right. The score, which is perhaps one of the standout elements of the production, is afforded its rightful priority too, and rounds out a largely excellent demo track.
The Phantom Menace 4K Extras
Although there's nothing on the 4K disc itself, the accompanying Blu-ray contains some old Commentaries, and the dedicated extras disc provides a wealth of background material, including both the legacy features and a number of new offerings. If only this level of effort could have been put into the 4K restoration itself.
If only this level of effort could have been put into the 4K restoration itself
A crew Commentary headlined by Lucas himself and then a Cast and Crew second Commentary adorn the Blu-ray feature disc, whilst the dedicated extras disc is brimming with some tremendous background material - an excellent feature-length making-of Documentary, an interesting new Lucas-led piece on the Digital Revolution, two supporting new Featurettes on the effects and visual style of the piece, a salvo of old Interviews, Deleted Scenes (including a 'new' cut of the pod race in the form of its restored Theatrical Cut), and Galleries. The only thing missing here is a better cut of the film.
The Phantom Menace 4K Verdict
Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace 4K Blu-ray Review
Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace is often dismissed as being little more than the Star Wars film that was "not quite as bad as Attack of the Clones", but that's perhaps because Star Wars 'fans' have become possibly the most critical species on the planet. Indeed, the hindsight of the flawed sequels should only remind us that nothing in this universe is perfect, and, if you accept that, there is still much to be enjoyed here, even if it's hard not to reach for the fast-forward on the rest.
Ignore the banking clans, trade disputes, midichlorians, Jake Lloyd, Jar Jar, whatever Natalie Portman was going for in terms of her Queen persona, the bevy of wasted actors (Terrence Stamp!), and Brian Blessed's wobbly Boss Nass and instead remember it for the tragedy of Liam Neeson's perfectly cast honourable samurai master, a superbly threatening antagonist in Darth Maul, Ewan Macgregor committing to a strong Padawan variation on the beloved Obi-Wan character (compare that with what Christensen did next), world-building at a then-unprecedented level to bring a whole host of visually distinctive landscapes to life in a way that arguably changed the whole digital effects landscape forever, and easily the best lightsaber clash of the entire sorry saga. If they'd followed this up with a decent Clone Wars movie (we're talking Rogue One levels of good in terms of a genuine depiction of a universe at war) and finished it off with the betrayal-fuelled Revenge, fans may have been quicker to forgive the flaws. Ah well, at least we have the Clone Wars TV show to enjoy.
It's a must-have for fans and completists alike, and a film which likely warrants some element of reassessment particularly in light of the new sequels
Disney's 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray release of Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace is arguably the best we're ever going to see from the film. It does trump Disney+'s sharpened, faux Dolby Vision variant, and fleetingly shows signs that somebody has tried to do the best they can with the source material, even if the end result appears to be a half-finished, iPhone airbrush makeover job that only works fitfully and more often than not turns out to be downright ugly in terms of results.
On the plus side, the Atmos track is absolutely tremendous, and since the score is one of the best things about the film, that's almost a double-win. In addition the extras, which spill over onto a dedicated extras discs and include a bevy of new material to add to the already plentiful old material, are fantastic. It's a must-have for fans and completists alike, and a film which likely warrants some element of reassessment particularly in light of the new sequels, even if it's something of a missed opportunity that the new 4K 'vision' of it is hardly going to help win over those sitting on the fence.
Our Review Ethos
To comment on what you've read here, click the Discussion tab and post a reply.