We’ve all got pretty firm views on The Phantom Menace at this point, after 13 years of schism and sectarian violence to rival the 30 Years War, and for some the line in the sand that is the SciFiNow three stars – our absolute last word on the matter – remains a glaring affront to all that was great about the original trilogy, and a stinging reminder of all that was poorly executed about the prequel trilogy.
Episode I in 3D, and indeed on Britain’s largest cinema screen – the BFI IMAX – won’t change any of that, but it will perhaps force you to reassess some of your most hated, and most loved moments.
Jar Jar Binks, for example, is actually quite endearing, compared at least to the lumpen dialogue and action figure direction forced upon the rest of the cast. Every theatrical bone in Liam Neeson (Qui-Gon Jinn) and Ewen McGregor (Obi-Wan Kenobi)’s body must have been screaming for them to do something – anything – in the long, seemingly endless scenes where characters just talk and their role is just to watch them, or occasionally touch their chins or look at each other.
Similarly background characters simply stand awkwardly or engage in transparent scene filling, chatting inaudibly, or fastidiously examining controls – it’s less a window into another world, like A New Hope, and more a local amdram production of the Mikado.
The only character afforded actual direction, comedy space frog Jar Jar Binks is at least always doing something in shot – be it just gurning, or slipping in poo. As mirthless as his capering is, he’s more engaging than petulant Obi-Wan “pathetic lifeform” Kenobi and charmless Anakin “Yippee!” Skywalker. Supposedly Skywalker, like his son, is the audience identification figure, but that would only work if the audience were made of balsa wood.
The further you get into the film, the further Jar Jar Binks – and the ghastly, racist Neimoidians, and doe-eyed Anakin – come to providing joy, simply as you pre-empt their infamously terrible lines.
The IMAX screen – like the recent Blu-ray transfer – takes the film as many steps back as it does forward, the extra level of scrutiny meaning that in supposedly expansive outdoor scenes, characters are obviously manoeuvring on a patch of ground the size of an ironing board while surrounded by an ocean of green carpet, and it’s blindingly obvious when Queen Amidala is and isn’t Natalie Portman.
It’s not True 3D, but you should expect that from a film this old, and characters glide in front of the screen like cardboard cut-outs. Chief space-frog Boss Nass’ appearance at the big victory celebration in Theed being about as seamless as Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
There’s some additional effects though, over those added in the Blu-ray, and designed to make use of the 3D, with debris flying into your face as Sebulba’s pod crashes, and extra droids tottering about in the background to add some depth to previously flat scenes.
Despite the usual gripes and knuckle-whitening frustrations that accompany any mention of Episode I, what worked the first time looks so much better back on the big screen.
The landscapes, however, look incredible, a testament to the sublime production design, that led Episode I to expand the Star Wars universe further than the entire original trilogy and its collection of corridors, that final three-way battle, with John Williams’ rousing, choral ‘Duel Of The Fates’, where people and not objects or effects take centre stage, and physicality commands the scenes – whether the predatory ballet of Darth Maul or the athletic urgency of Obi-Wan, remains stunning.
A difficult film, but an incredible experience.