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Kevin Krock, editor
DVD Review
Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace
(1999)
| Approx. 135 Minutes | Rated PG | Reviewed by Al Lutz
Cover Art
Click to Buy
Ratings Summary
(Scored out of a maximum of five)
Audio Video
Goodies Interface
Value
Advanced Home Theater - BIG screen, BIG grain, BIG sound

Parents of younger children may be surprised at some of the content on disc two of this set - details below

The Movie

Let's not beat around the bush here - Star Wars: Episode I is basically a mediocre story, all wrapped all up in some rather super- duper design, ultra- loud state of the art sound and technical razzmatazz. I guess in a way you can consider any of the Star Wars movies the cinematic equivalent of the Gabor sisters - all very glittery and loud, but when it comes to actually having any kind of depth or talent - well, you end up focusing on the flashy stuff again.

In Episode One, as you may all already know, a major dramatic misjudgment was made with a lead character (Jar Jar), the mystical "force" was basically reduced to a blood type, and George Lucas himself in the audio commentary for this disc admits that the plot is really of not much importance, as it only served to put one character into place for the next two episodes. Nice way to treat an audience George, and such a fervent one too no less.

Photo © Lucasfilm LTD / Twentieth Century Fox
Photo © Lucasfilm LTD / Twentieth Century Fox

Sadly this bloated mess never really gets off the ground thanks to what I've taken to calling the "Michael Jackson Syndrome" - a common entertainment industry malady where a lead creative force (George Lucas in this case) becomes so totally insulated from the real world, and surrounds himself with so many yes men, that the end result is that no one will argue or stand up to him. Because of this dumb, hell downright stupid, ideas, are taken as genius and acted upon lovingly - whereas in the real world, those very same people may have said, "Wait a minute, this is really bad - can't we do something else?"

Some directors function best in their own creative vacuums I guess, while others like Lucas and Coppola seem to do their most acclaimed work when they are closely watched over by others (usually strong producers, studios, and / or way too tight budgets). They simply need to have that tug of war constantly going on to do their utmost. But enough of that, (we'll save a few other comments for further on in this review) - let's get to the actual disc itself which is why you're here, right?

Photo © Lucasfilm LTD / Twentieth Century Fox
Photo © Lucasfilm LTD / Twentieth Century Fox

The Goodies

It's no secret that there is a competition out there among the studios this holiday season for bragging rights on the best DVD deluxe edition - with this set, Snow White from Disney and Shrek from Dreamworks being the front runners. To push the DVD technical and content envelope like this, plus get the price down below twenty dollars at most dealers when on sale, makes 2001 the most consumer friendly time ever for film buffs. (I'd include the Godfather set here, but its much higher price point and more limited adult audience doesn't really put it the same league.)

All three sets have making of documentaries, bonus deleted scenes (Episode One and Shrek even completed them, Snow White offers deleted scenes as pencil tests with reconstructed soundtracks) and all sorts of game / CD-ROM features. But after those laundry lists, they diverge a bit.

Whereas Disney saw fit to try and educate the broader audience out there who may be coming to the DVD format for the first time this holiday season via on disc tours and menu prompts, and DreamWorks went for some amazing technical feats (they offer a dialog dubbing segment that is accessible via your DVD-ROM equipped computer and tons of games), Lucas with Episode One went another direction - with two elaborate documentaries as centerpieces that are way and above anything offered before on DVD, and the completion of seven deleted scenes, one of which was actually put back into the movie (along with bits of another), adding about three minutes to the film's running time.

"The Beginning" documentary is probably one of the better "making ofs" I've ever seen on a DVD. "Culled from over 600 hours of footage" it simply presents everyone at work - without any narration to get in the way of their discussions of their efforts with others. Unfortunately for family audiences its key players can on occasion be rather crude, in particular producer Rick McCallum who seems to forget he is on camera and utters one particular obscenity either joyously or in disgust more than a few times through the hour. While the word is somewhat edited out, they have left enough of it on the soundtrack, in particular the first "F" letter, which may make this disc unsuitable for families sensitive to strong language for the little ones.

Why Lucas, who so obviously (and detrimentally in my opinion) pandered to the small fry with a character like Jar Jar in this film, would then do an about face and allow a much more mature documentary be included in the same DVD set, no one knows. It can only be seen as a major lapse in his judgment. You mileage may vary of course, but families sensitive to this issue may want to first review, or just keep the second disc away from the little ones, to avoid any problems.

Photo © Lucasfilm LTD / Twentieth Century Fox
Photo © Lucasfilm LTD / Twentieth Century Fox

The documentary is not only unflinching in its language - but also allows two rather candid moments to surface - one where editor Ben Burtt frankly wonders after a session with Lucas if maybe too much choice is offered to the director with the advances in state of the art editing technology he now has at his disposal. Another interesting moment has Lucas walking around outside the soundstages in London chatting with Spielberg - he goes on and on about how the final scenes in the movie will be an "epic battle like War and Peace" and Spielberg just keeps saying "terrific, great!" You know in your heart watching this particular bit that Spielberg wouldn't say anything else to his friend but that. It's kind of sad actually.

The second documentary plays in-between the seven completed outtakes (which can also be seen on their own without it). Unfortunately it begins with a discussion about how films sometimes have to be edited down - with directors such as Philip Kaufman (Right Stuff, Unbearable Lightness of Being), and Francis Ford Coppola (Godfather, Apocalypse Now). The problem here is that they discuss films that are on such a quality level above Episode One that it seems a bit of a cruel joke to include it on this particular disc. Also, whoever just plopped excerpts from the VHS copies of the discussed films onto the DVD masters should have been shot - the very poor looking scenes displayed do an injustice to the movies being talked about.

Once past this rather misguided segment - things actually get interesting, with comments from Lucas, the producer and a few others about the deleted scenes. One particular bit that proves fascinating is a talk through of how one deleted bit, (the Waterfall sequence), was actually constructed especially for the DVD. The lessons given here, from how the pouring of salt properly lit and filmed can pass for giant waterfalls, to the manipulation of photographic and film elements in a 3-D space can make sets and yes, even actors, unnecessary in creating a spectacular shot, is well worth the price of this disc. (Also make sure to stay through the credits at the end - as there are some funny CGI outtakes presented.)

Beyond those two cornerstone documentaries, the audio commentary on the movie is interesting, if a bit dry at times. (Lucas in particular loves to point out quite often how whole segments of the movie are not real, and all computer generated.) There are also five featurettes exploring the storyline, design, costumes, visual effects and fight scenes, which do a nice job of filling in where the main documentaries don't. In particular watch for a much more interesting line reading by Natalie Portman here in her role as the queen - before Lucas made her dub all her speeches over again in a flat monotone for the final film. It is clear that Natalie was right in her first take on the role.

Photo © Lucasfilm LTD / Twentieth Century Fox
Photo © Lucasfilm LTD / Twentieth Century Fox

As far as the rest of the goodies go, the multi- angle storyboard to animatic segments are something you may do just once - if limited, your time would be better spent on the slightly edited 12 part web documentary (which does repeat a lot of info) or browsing through the surprisingly sparse still shot sections featuring way too many almost identical international posters, some art, and a few heretofore unseen production photos. The two trailers are also included to flesh things out, as well as the rather useless John Williams Duel of the Fates music video. The Star Wars: Starfighter - The Making of a Game featurette included is also a total waste of your time, I assure you that you will be very sorry you hit the button to play it on your remote the minute the game folks start talking. There are also a few "Easter eggs" - access to these hidden segments is detailed in the column at right.

The Video, Audio and Interface

I got to see Episode One twice digitally here in Los Angeles - and in remembering that picture up on the big screen, and comparing it to the DVD I have one question I have to ask... what happened? This movie looks grainy on DVD - almost harsh in some segments. Colors tend to be a bit on the oversaturated side - and the occasional scene looks patched in or mis-matched. There is even some film weave (where the image moves slightly back and forth in the projector gate) that was not seen on the digital prints. Even with the quality progressive scan (line doubling) unit on my set, this DVD looks a bit rough.

This could all very well be due to the huge mélange of source material that had to be melded together to create some of the shots - I guess there is just so much digital processing you can do with film that eventually it may degrade the image somewhat. Beware the larger the screen you have (I have a 50" 16x9 set) the more this may be a problem. The few subtitles used in the film to translate alien languages are electronically generated by your player on the bottom of the image (just above the letterbox bars) - they may look a bit ragged depending on your unit.

The audio is typical of a THX mix - the center channel dialog is way too low, so you may have to boost it a bit on this film to clearly hear the actors speaking. The 5.1 Dolby Surround EX track used here is the same one that was used theatrically (complete with the rear center matrixed channel), for those of you that don't have full blown surround setups, a 2.0 Dolby Digital mix (that decodes to Pro-Logic surround) is included, as well as a Spanish 2.0 track. English subtitles are also available.

Photo © Lucasfilm LTD / Twentieth Century Fox
Photo © Lucasfilm LTD / Twentieth Century Fox

After all the menu razzle- dazzle of the Snow White DVD (which even include 5.1 surround sound), the Episode One menus in comparison are quite subdued and almost austere - after some rather nicely designed transitions, they tend to be rather static, and I have to say somewhat elegant looking. The best thing is that they don't get in the way if you are trying to find something quickly - all of the introductions and transitions are very fast, something that Disney should keep in mind for their future DVD menus.

Unlike Snow White, which is packaged in a double thick Amray plastic DVD box, Episode One is presented in a normal sized plastic DVD case, with an additional tray hinged to the spine inside to hold the second disc (The Mummy - Ultimate Edition and Gladiator DVD sets were also packaged this way). This thoughtfully saves a bit of shelf space if your DVD collection is expanding rapidly like most people's at this particular time of year.

The Advanced Home Theater...

As I mentioned above, I watched this disc on a 50" 16x9 set, and was somewhat perturbed with the actual picture quality. The more you blow up this picture, the more grain you will see. Beware this is something that will really magnify as you get to the larger 65" screen sizes now available on rear projection TV sets.

One VERY nice touch on this disc is that not only is the movie itself enhanced for 16x9 - but so are both documentaries, the five featurettes, and the seven reconstructed scenes. They all look pretty good, although there is some bad MPEG encoding (watch Lucas's face towards the end of the deleted scenes segment - his features tend to move around on his rock solid head a bit).  What little footage there is here that is not 16x9 enhanced - the game featurette and the music video primarily - is stuff you won't be bothering with more than once anyway.

The pod race (starting at chapter 20 on the first disc) is really the demo bit here - it's fun to watch all the tricks and effects used.  Fortunately, the action is so utterly relentless that viewers won't have any time to focus on the grainy picture quality this disc can sometimes exhibit.

I suspect this DVD will mostly likely be seen for the most part in an Advanced Home Theater in bits and pieces after its initial viewing all the way through. With a bump up in center channel level on your surround system, and a quick finger on the chapter skip to gloss over the mistake that is Jar Jar, it will most likely be a staple on your home theater screen at least until Shrek or Episode Two comes to home video.

The Final Evaluation

Art © Lucasfilm LTD / Twentieth Century Fox
Art © Lucasfilm LTD / Twentieth Century Fox

For what you pay (under $20 in most cases) this set is actually a very good value. Even if you feel as strongly as I do about the poor quality of the film, there are enough whizbang features, dazzling scenes and action moments to be had here to make owning a copy worthwhile. (And by carefully programming chapter stops, you can reduce substantially the one major flaw this film has.) Advanced home theater devotees will enjoy the segments that show off their rigs, and people interested in the story behind the production of the film will find plenty here to answer their many questions.

Again, for families with younger children, I would strongly suggest parents review the second disc's supplementary materials ahead of time to make sure they are acceptable before just handing the set over to them.

Now for me the biggest question on the upcoming Episode Two will be "Has George Lucas listened to his audience?" We'll see I guess.


Al Lutz may be e-mailed at al@mouseplanet.com. Due to the volume of correspondence he receives, he may not be able to respond to your notes individually.

DISC FEATURES

Goodies

  • Commentary by George Lucas, Rick McCallum, Ben Burtt, Rob Coleman, John Knoll, Dennis Muren and Scott Squires
  • Exclusive Deleted Scenes Documentary features seven new sequences completed just for this DVD release
  • All- new hour- long documentary film culled from over 600 hours of footage, "The Beginning," including an insider's look at Lucasfilm and ILM during the production
  • Multi- angle storyboard to animatic to film segment featuring the Submarine and Podrace Lap 1 sequences
  • Five featurettes explore the storyline, design, costumes, visual effects and fight sequences
  • Award- winning 12- part web documentary series that chronicles the production
  • "Duel of the Fates" music video featuring John Williams
  • Never- before- seen Production Photo Gallery with special caption feature
  • Theatrical posters and print campaign from around the world
  • Theatrical teaser and launch trailers, and seven TV spots
  • "Star Wars: Starfighter - The Making of a Game" featurette from LucasArts
  • DVD-ROM weblink to exclusive Star Wars content

Technical Specifications

anamorphicdvd.gif (2563 bytes)

  • Region 1 Encoded
  • 2 disc set - each disc single- sided, the movie disc is dual- layer
  • English (Dolby Digital 5.1), English (Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround), Spanish (Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround)
  • English subtitles
  • THX Certified
  • Widescreen anamorphic - 2.35:1

Easter Eggs

Many DVDs have hidden scenes and bonus features, usually referred to as "Easter eggs." Here is a listing of some of the things you can find on this set:

DISC ONE:

Hidden on the first disc is a 2- minute combined gag reel, outtakes and DVD Credits presentation.

Hit the title button on your player or remote, then the number 3 on your keypad to access it. (There is a more elaborate way to access this, with the Lucas in-joke code "1138," but trust me the title button way is faster.)

MENUS:

There are three different menu designs on this first disc, normally the player randomly chooses one of them when you start the disc.

To see them all at your own leisure, use the following instructions (all commands are entered at the "Attention" screen that follows the FBI Warning at the beginning of the disc).

For Tatooine: Press and release the "2" button on the DVD remote.

For Naboo: Press and release the "Audio" button on the DVD remote.

For Coruscant: This one is a bit trickier, and may differ from player to player, but for remotes that use the "10+" button to access double digit numbers, forget that "10+" button, and quickly press the "2" button twice.

DISC TWO:

EXPANSION OF DELETED SCENES:

In the Deleted scenes section where you can pick the scenes individually, arrow up on your remote to the "Doc Menu" link on each of the first two deleted scenes, and then press the right arrow to highlight a little yellow rectangle on one of the arms of the laser doors.

Selecting this yellow box on each scene will take you to a different short documentary featuring Pablo Helman and Paul Griffin who talk about the pod race characters. Lucas and then Burtt also turn up later on these discussions.

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