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Review – Star Wars: The Phantom Menace 3D

I’ve read nothing but internet garbage all day from sites who have nothing better to do than to remind us that the prequels divided the fanbase.  That news is 13 years old, and this Star Wars diehard is particularly sick of listening to it.  Time to change the recording already and move on.  That said, this review isn’t about the movie, regardless of how happy I am to see Star Wars on the big screen again; it’s about the 3D conversion for those who are interested.

George Lucas is on record as saying that he was pushed into the idea of 3D by his fellow filmmakers such as Robert Zemeckis and James Cameron.  Originally he had no interest, but as the technology pushed forward, he changed his mind.  Pushing forward the technology and the cinematic experience is the hallmark that Lucas has built his life around.  The one thing he seems to believe is that, for better or worse, 3D is here to stay this time around.

Most everyone by now has either seen movies not originally filmed in 3D that have been upscaled badly, or else they have heard the endless complaints by those who have.  Either way, the reviews haven’t been pretty.  This is the technology that Lucas sought to improve with his conversion of The Phantom Menace.  The mission: to improve the visuals while keeping the conversion process cost effective.

Everyone’s got a take on 3D, so I suppose I should start out with mine.  I’m a tough sell when it comes to such things.  My experience with 3D is limited.  My eyes tend to focus at two different speeds, which means that the faster the action, the harder it is to focus, and the more of a migraine I get.  I typically have very little problem with slower shots, but the illusion is broken for me when things come out of the screen and inexplicably disappear when something hits the screen’s border.  It takes me out of the movie to notice these things float in front of me and then vanish.

How then did Phantom Menace stack up?

As much as I would love nothing better than to give Lucas and his team an enthusiastic two thumbs up, I can’t quite do it this time.  Sad to say, I think the conversion was only mildly successful, and how good or bad it was really depended on the individual screen shots.

The one thing Phantom Menace has going for it, this is the most beautiful of the films in terms of lush scenery, be it incredible on-location shoots or the digitally-projected stages.  The establishing shots of these locations are nothing short of breathtaking, and the detail… wow.  I particularly enjoyed the establishing shots of Theed, Coruscant, and the Gungan’s underwater city.  On the long range shots, the clarity is such that it’s easy to make out facial expressions on Gungans in the rear of the army, petals on flowers, and carbon scoring on blasted battle droids and ships.  On the close-ups, textures of skin, fabrics, hair all pop in a way that even blu-ray doesn’t provide.  Digital characters like the new-and-improved Yoda, Jar Jar, and Watto all feel even more real.  In the case of Jar Jar, he actually seems too real in places, making his real life co-stars look a little fake by comparison.  When the digital characters weren’t on screen, the actors and droids came to life as though looking through a window.  I was stunned by the details of servos inside the incomplete C-3PO, and I noticed markings on R2-D2 that I’d never noticed before.  The holoprojectors were an interesting effect in 3D.  The lightsaber combat and cockpits shots of podracers and starfighters were nothing short of amazing.  If Darth Maul can look like that in 3D, I can’t wait to see if Darth Vader can match him… provided this sells well enough for Lucas to justify re-releasing more of the saga.

The thing about the slower shots, however, is that when you know the movie as well as I do, it’s really easy to focus entirely on the 3D experience, and in some shots that’s bad.  There were shots so real you could touch them or feel like you could look around characters at the props behind them; but for every shot like this, there were some that were flat as a board, and others that were clearly layered like cardboard cutouts.  If you’ve ever owned an old View Master toy, it looked a lot like that in spots.

And of course, the name of the game in Star Wars is high-speed action.  Again, some shots worked, some not so much.  My eyes still had a little trouble focusing on some of it, but to credit, it wasn’t nearly as bad as it has been in previous movies I’d seen.  Clearly the technology has improved in the master’s hands, but it’s also still developing.  That’s the best argument I know for having further saga releases.  By the time Lucas gets to the original trilogy, the process should be well and truly perfected.  Yes, I’m expectant of such things, based on the Lucasfilm track record.

On the whole, as a Star Wars fan, I think there were scenes that added to my experience of the universe.  I will never forget the majesty and impact some of these individual shots had on me for as long as I live.  I think the ticket was money well spent for me in terms of developing a new appreciation for the scale of many locations and details that have gone unnoticed or underappreciated for the past 13 years.  As a holistic experience of the 3D conversion process, however, I have to give it a C+ simply because for every really incredible looking shot, there was an ineffective one.  I know that the conversion team, and Lucas himself, are proud of their efforts, and they should be, but I also know they aren’t resting on any laurels.  I’m certain they’re aware of the challenges they face to continue the improvement process, and I look forward to seeing their results if the will of the Force – and the fans – drives up ticket sales enough to justify a release of Attack of the Clones.