Reflecting on The Phantom Menace 3D

So I’ve been out to the theaters now twice to see The Phantom Menace 3D and what do I think? It had been a while since I had popped in this episode to watch at home, and seeing on the big screen in 3D with my friends and fellow Star Wars fans was the thing to do. I took in both a midnight show and a regular evening show on opening day, and got some popcorn and a great seat and enjoyed. Here’s are my thoughts on seeing The Phantom Menace in 3D.

About the 3D conversion
I’m not really a fan of 3D movie technology – unless it goes for the gimmick effects like Journey to the Center of the Earth. I never saw the paragon of the technology, Avatar, but thought it did add to the last Harry Potter film and did nothing for Green Hornet. When the 3D release was announced, I felt that for it to succeed (and for 3D to continue as a format, and not just a fad), this movie would need to raise the bar on 3D movies and utterly blow me away.

The 3D didn’t blow me away. But perhaps it would be impossible to convert an existing 2D film into something that would blow me away. There were some shots that had impressive effects, and some that just felt like the foreground characters were standing in front of matte background that didn’t have further depth. Some of the best 3D work takes place with the underwater scenes – the approach to Otoh Gunga, the meeting with Boss Nass, and journey through the core. Also, some of the shots on the bridge of the Queen’s starship looking out on space or a planet worked out quite well. Another place where the 3D stands up well is when holograms are used – the flatness of 3D perspectives and the characters moving around and behind them seemed neat. At other points, the 3D didn’t feel apparent – perhaps it was too subtle, or perhaps I just no longer saw it, like during most of the final battle scenes. There’s a few shots where the main activity is in 3D, but the background characters don’t feel far enough way to be flattened back to 2D.

There aren’t any 3D gimmick scenes (something coming straight at you), though the final celebration, with its confetti, used 3D well, though they could have been amped up to gimmick factors just for fun, to make you feel in the crowds. So does the 3D add to the experience? It does in some places and not in others. But perhaps like some who built up hopes for 16 years between Return of the Jedi and Episode I and were disappointed, perhaps I had unreal expectations for this release, but this time for the 3D conversion.

About the film
As you might know, the 3D isn’t the only thing that distinguishes this version of TPM from the original 1999 theatrical version – it’s the 2011 Blu-Ray version, which has a few differences: longer podrace introduction, longer podrace (and this wasn’t the first time the podrace sequence has been made longer – I think the widescreen VHS in 2000 had the first additional scenes inserted, and the DVD release had more), the replacement of TPM’s Yoda puppet with a CG Yoda more in line with Episode II and III, and a scene of Jar Jar getting a few lines with Anakin as they board an airspeeder to whisk them away from the Queen’s starship after landing on Coruscant. That scene sticks out the most to me as not being in the original cut, while the podrace additions all flowed seamlessly, though some of the scenes felt less familiar to me than others in the race – more Sebulba dirty tricks?

Anyway, it’s more or less what we first saw thirteen years ago. Seeing it on the big screen again was pretty awesome, especially watching the fast-paced lightsaber action between Darth Maul and Obi-Wan Kenobi – even having seen it before many times, I was left “WHOA!” Serious cool points. Having more EU in this timeframe has built a bit more story around this movie and its characters – I felt a bit more nostalgia for Captain Tarpals, given his final reappearance in The Clone Wars this season, and having finished Darth Plagueis, can see that story’s take on the events in the film, with the machinations to position the Trade Federation and Jabba the Hutt. (In line before the midnight show, I helped mediate a discussion between two friends who disagreed on wanting the influence of Darth Plagueis to extend into TPM and how that might change their understanding of Sidious.)

Knowing the future of the characters, it is interesting to see them in their TPM days – Obi-Wan before his beard, and not really sure of the pathetic lifeforms his master keeps collecting, Anakin as the selfless child prodigy, Jar Jar as the bumbling outcast and not the bumbling politician, and Padmé as the young and slightly naive queen (but willing to lead from the front in battle, which I’m sure Panaka just loves), and not the senator yet. As Queen Amidala leaves Coruscant for Naboo, claiming that the “It is clear to me now that the Republic no longer functions. I pray you will bring sanity and compassion back to the Senate.” — and yet only a few years later, she’s a Senator. Did Palpatine’s ascension to the chancellorship really bring sanity back? In The Clone Wars, it looks to be about the same – corruption, inertia, etc. Speaking of the Senate, I just noticed again in the opening text that it refers to the “congress of the Republic” as a term for the Senate – was that more for us, the viewer, not being familiar with the concept of a senate, since they don’t ever really mention congress again.

And I even saw something that I had never noticed and remembered before – after the podrace, back the hangar, while Shmi and Anakin are talking, Wald has some trouble trying to keep the reins of an eopie. Background humor :) And it cracks me up that there are several scenes that end just as Artoo would have to go up or down steps.

About the viewing experience
I remember when we first saw this film, both in midnight and regular timed showings, there was a lot more audience reaction – cheering when favorite characters appeared, or after hero moments (like Artoo saved the ship) or witty lines. Instead, for this midnight show, a pretty quiet crowd, and I noticed one of my friends nodding off in the podrace scenes. Was it the drone of the engines or the lateness of the hour after a long workday? Even during the regular evening show, there wasn’t any major crowd response, though there were a few laughs and quiet cheers at points – is it that this movie is no longer surprising, or are movie audiences tamer these days?

The theater sound was great on the midnight showing, but so-so on the early evening showing – perhaps the volume was down a bit, since i couldn’t even hear the Vader breathing foreshadowing at the close of the credits. Speaking of the credits, it’s kinda funny to recognize names that became bigger after the movie, like Grant Imahara (of Mythbusters) as being one of a giant pack of model makers, or wondering how Liam Neeson’s hairdresser gets an individual credit, and yet not Natalie Portman’s (though perhaps her hair was all wigs or required a whole team and not a personal hairdresser). Okay, looking his hairdresser, Jan Archibald: she was listed as Neeson’s hairdresser on an earlier film, and later won an Oscar for makeup. Um, where was I? Viewing experience – got the Episode I 3D glasses at the midnight show, and just regular 3D glasses for the evening show.

Watching The Phantom Menace in 3D on the big screen with friends was well-worth it. Is the 3D conversion everything I had hoped it would be? Nope. Could it have been? Perhaps if they completely re-made the film from scratch for 3D.

What looked good in 3D: the Gungans – I forgot how much detail there was to Jar Jar and Boss Nass (and how unlike they are physically) and the Gungan city scenes, the holograms, even Watto, and watching Natalie Portman switch roles back and forth from queen to handmaiden. What was great to see again: the final battle in four arenas: space, Theed, plains, and lightsaber duel! What to avoid: soggy $6 nachos.

8 Replies to “Reflecting on The Phantom Menace 3D

  1. Well said. I saw it last night with friends, and even though they had a lot of critiques on the conversion and the storyline, we feel like the experience of seeing the movies on the big screen is well worth the admission price. I’m hopeful that the 3D conversion process gets better and better with each movie. Lucasfilm has always been good with technology, and the movies always look better on the big screen.

  2. For me the last 30-40 minutes were worth the price of admission. I got chills when I saw the door open and Maul was there.

    TPM, though, allways reminds me about how the prequels really mishandled, for lack of a better term Padame. That never-say-die girl in TPM was the woman who lost the will to live after giving birth to twins? She could face death for her people but could not live for her childern? Blah.

  3. I loved seeing The Phantom Menace on the bigscreen and like seeing all the details in the background. However, I was distressed to find that more than popping off the screen, it seemed like the backgrounds were now just muddy. This was a letdown after recently watching it on Blu-ray.

    Quick thought about Padme joining the Senate of the non-functioning Republic. Episode II reveals Padme saying that she didn’t even want to serve as a Senator but she could not refuse the request of the new Queen.

    1. Campbell: you’re right! i totally forgot that she couldn’t refuse Jamilla’s request to serve as Senator. still, she’s not the reluctant or lameduck senator.
      2 pts for campbell.

  4. I’ve heard a lot of complaints about how bad the 3D is in this new version of TPM. But after having watched the converted movie in the cinema myself, it dawned om me: While filming Episode I, Lucas & friends never had 3D in mind, so created the best compositions 2D would allow. That’s why in the 3D version, a lot of scenes look ‘flat’. Not because the conversion is bad, but just because the composition never had much depth to begin with.

    Also: great review! It’s a relief to read an honest opinion that’s not just about how much the prequels suck.

  5. Michelle really hit it in her LiveJournal post for me. It’s like the 3D was pushed back into the world, rather than coming out at you with gimmicks. So even if you had some tradeoffs with that, I did appreciate that it was done so subtly. (Let’s face it, folks would be complaining if they added gimmicks just for the sake of doing 3D. They can’t win.)

    My first showing was beautifully crisp at one theater. Then at the theater hosting the party the next day, it was always not quite focused. Perhaps there are some technical skills that not all projectionists have with 3D?

    I enjoyed dusting it off again. The last time I saw any part of Ep I was during the last Spike marathon. Plus, seeing it with a group of fans always ups the experience, even if they’re not as boisterous as a full-on premiere.

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