Well, it’s still “The Phantom Menace.”
That’s pretty much all the review that matters. Either you’re okay going to see the first chapter of the “Star Wars” prequels, released to such heated response in 1999, or you’re not. The only new thing I can discuss is the 3D post-conversion, and that’s another topic where it feels like everyone already knows their opinion about it before I say a word.
We’re going to have some more content related to this re-release of the 1999 film this week, and all of it is going to be related to our Film Nerd 2.0 column. After all, if we hadn’t watched the movies for the column last year, and if Toshi hadn’t started doing interviews for the column, there’s a chance none of what happened last week would have happened.
Remember… I spent over a decade officially Banned From The Ranch. While it upset me at first, it eventually just became a funny story, a battle scar from my long time writing about films online. The short version of the story is that I learned about the banning in early 2000, when Harry and I were in San Francisco for a screening event, and we got invited out to Skywalker Ranch for a tour. When we submitted names, everyone was cleared except me, and they explained that it was because I had reviewed the script for “The Phantom Menace” a year earlier. Once that was established, I had to accept it, and I just resigned myself to never visiting the property or even being allowed to visit ILM’s facility at the Presidio.
So, of course, you’re going to be able to see footage of me visiting the Ranch and the Presidio in the next few days. I’m still having trouble believing how quickly it all came together, but at least I got to share it with Toshi, so I have a witness to how cool it was.
The end of our visit was the screening of the actual film. We walked out of the ILM theater and onto buses that took us directly to the airport, so this really was the end of the trip. I’ll say this regarding the work Fox has done to sell the idea of this re-release: Toshi was positively frantic to see this thing. He has been excited since he first heard that they were combining 3D and “Star Wars,” two things he loves. And, yes, he loves 3D. It’s probably a matter of habit at this point, because almost the entire time he’s been going to see movies theatrically, 3D has been part of that experience in some measure. I still remember one of the very first times we took him to see anything, it was a press screening of “The Ant Bully,” and it was being held at The Bridge in IMAX 3D. We ended up seated right next to the film’s executive producer, Tom Hanks, which was a real thrill for my wife. We put the big glasses on Toshi, the lights went down, and about two and a half minutes into the film, those giant glasses went flying about five rows forward as Toshi literally clawed them off his head before he got up and went running around the lobby for the next 90 minutes.
His manners have gotten a little better. Now he asks me in advance if he gets to wear glasses during the film, and he was excited when they handed out the glasses for “The Phantom Menace.” Since the first time he saw the film, he’s probably watched it five or six more times. He and his brother watch the movies in an odd sort of constantly-shuffled rotation now, watching for scenes, watching for specific images or characters or fight sequences. They seem to think of all “Star Wars” movies as roughly equal, in terms of quality. It’s all just “Star Wars” to them.
I will say this: the time and money they spent working on this post-conversion is evident in the final result. It is technically very impressive. The work that was done to create a 3D version of the movie results in something that looks like that was always the point. The pod race is probably the scene that most directly benefits from the conversion, and the space battle near the end of the film also looks particularly good. In general, though, the film’s environments are where the effect is most pronounced. Coruscant, Naboo, the desert cities of Tattooine… they look fantastic in this release. One thing that struck me this time around is that “The Phantom Menace” is shockingly light on set pieces, all things considered. Both of the other prequels will offer far more sequences where this sort of upgrade will stand out, but this film has to handle most of the expository shoe leather. Even so, Toshi stayed engaged and excited throughout the film, and since we had almost three hours to wait at the airport, I heard three hours of “Dad, do you remember that part where Darth Maul jumps and then Obi-Wan jumps?” “Yes.” “That was awesome. Dad, do you remember that part where…”
That’s a good review when you’re getting it from a six-year-old. That means it hit them dead center somewhere and they’re processing it. When Toshi’s indifferent to a movie, it just glances right off of him and he’ll offer up, at most, “It was good.” When he can’t stop chattering afterwards, it’s because it really got to him, and he needs to talk it out. I know I’ve got at least one more theatrical viewing of this 3D version ahead, because there’s no way my younger son, Allen, is going to let his brother be the only one who sees “Star Wars” in the theater. Nope. That will not stand. I have been informed repeatedly already, and we’re looking at showtimes and figuring out when it’s going to happen.
The cut of the film is the slightly longer edit that first appeared on home video a while ago, then fine-tuned a bit for the recent Blu-ray release. The beginning of the pod race is longer, with full introductions for almost every one of the pod-racing aliens, and the drunken Yoda puppet from the original ’99 release has been replaced with Rob Coleman’s just-plain-awesome digital Yoda. I would never want them to change a frame of “Empire,” but the puppet work in “Phantom Menace” was hardly sacred text. They got him wrong, basically, and this really is a fix.
I’ll have more on the full story of my time in San Francisco as the week continues, but for now, I let Toshi pick the letter grade for “The Phantom Menace 3D,” which explains how it gets an “A.” That seems to be on the high side from my point of view, but talking to Toshi, this could well be the defining experience with “The Phantom Menace” to him. It meant that much to him to see it in the theater, to see it on a giant screen in crystal clarity, with sound that surrounded and shook him. And I can’t negate how strong his experience was just because I didn’t totally have the same experience.
You can see for yourself if you’re as enthusiastic when the film opens in theaters everywhere on Friday.