Star Wars: The Phantom Menace

Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (1999)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
Cast: Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd
Extras: Commentary Track, Documentary, Various Featurettes, Deleted Scenes, Music Video, Photo Gallery, and much much more

Fans have been eager to see "Star Wars" released on DVD since the inception of the format, but for the longest time, no such release was in sight. Finally, Lucasfilm brings us Episode 1 in the epic space opera by George Lucas as a promising 2-disc Special Edition that is filled to the brim with extras. It is fair to say that my anticipation was at its maximum when I finally had the chance to see elements of the DVD during my visit at Skywalker Ranch, and later when I was finally able to give it a test ride in the familiar surrounding of my own home theater to see if the DVD lives up to the promises. Apart from the fact that this is a spectacularly looking presentation of the movie itself, I also noticed that the film has actually been expanded by about 3 minutes in a few scenes. I will not tell you where these are since it is basically irrelevant for those viewers who are not familiar enough with the film to notice, and secondly because I certainly do not want to spoil the fun for those die-hard fans among you who will no doubt quickly spot these subtle changes.

A lot has been said and written about "Star Wars: The Phantom Menace" and I do not wish to add much more to that, other than a brief personal observation. I do like the film as much as any other one of the "Star Wars" episodes and to me it seems that many fans were disappointed in it mostly because their expectations weren’t set right. "Star Wars" was always an attempt to capture the naïvete and inherent innocence of early science fiction movies. The soft-wipes used throughout the films literally scream "Flash Gordon" and the characters are as stereotypical as anything from "Buck Rogers." Their characters are painted as black & white as they can get without appearing laughable.
It is a homage to the pulp cinema of the 30s, 40s and 50s without their innate technical limitations and the heroic adventure elements are what make the films so loveable in the end and what we loved so much about them when we were kids and first discovered the "Star Wars" universe. We grew up as we all know, but to expect the movies to grow up too is wrong if you ask me. Like the previous films, "The Phantom Menace" is targeted at the same audience and tries to create the same kind of awe-inspiring wonder. I am positive if I were a 13-year old kid today, seeing the movie for the first time, it would blow me away as much as "A New Hope" did when I first saw it. One simply has to appreciate "Star Wars: The Phantom Menace" for what it is, not for what one wishes it to be.

A review of the technical presentation of this disc appears almost superficial. This is of course a <$THX,THX>-certified DVD of the crown jewel of Lucasfilm. I mean after all, it IS "Star Wars." No one can afford to screw that one up, and George Lucas certainly wouldn’t allow a release of anything but the best for this film. With that in mind, let’s go over the video details real quick. The film is presented in a spectacular <$16x9,anamorphic> 2.35:1 <$PS,widescreen> transfer that is rock solid and exemplifies everything we have come to expect and love about DVD. A pristine image that is basically without any speckles or flaws, a presentation that is extremely detailed and rich in colors. A few shots exhibit a slight sheen of grain, but it is clearly a result of the film stock used to shoot these scenes and nothing that distracts from the. The image features deep blacks that give the image a lot of visual depth, and perfectly delineated shadows that maintain every bit of detail without breaking up or washing out details. The transfer features some slight edge-enhancement, resulting in very light ringing artifacts on occasion, but for the most part, the presentation is unblemished and maintains a very film-like look for the DVD that is very sharp, yet never unnaturally so. The compression is flawless and I was unable to find signs of compression artifacts anywhere on this release.

On the audio side, things are no less spectacular, if not better. The DVD boasts the original theatrical <$DD,Dolby Digital> <$5.1,5.1 channel> EX track. Who could forget the brutal low-end response during the Podrace with a surround usage that boggles the mind, or the beautifully orchestrated score by John Williams that seems to be all around during the movie? Well, it is all there, and in meticulous perfection. The usage of the additional center surround channel of the EX format is used quite aggressively, creating a much finer delineated surround imaging during the entire film, while the incredible dynamic range of the track will give you plenty of reference material to listen to. Dialogues are perfectly balanced and always understandable and the dynamic range of the track is nothing short of stunning.

The DVD also contains a <$commentary,commentary track>, which features for the first time ever, George Lucas himself, together with other commentators. It is a <$commentary,commentary track> that has been edited together from live session recordings of the individual participants to create a homogenous and very consistent commentary that brings out special highlights of every single scene in the film. The stereo panning that has been applied makes it easier to identify the individual commentators George Lucas, Rick McCallum, Ben Burtt, Rob Coleman, John Knoll, Dennis Muren and Scott Squires. It contains elements of various layers and fields of interest, ranging from interpretations of the material and specific scenes by Lucas to die-hard technical analyses by the ILM special effects gurus. For "Star Wars" fans, this commentary is no doubt a treasure trove of information and one of the rare occasions to hear what the makers of the film have to say about the movie within the context of the film itself. It is a jewel!

For me the absolute highlight of the supplemental materials on this 2-disc set is John Shenk’s one-hour documentary "The Beginning." In fact, I will go as far as to say that this is the best behind-the-scenes documentary I have ever seen, mostly due to its unparalleled intimacy. The unprecedented candidness of this cinema verité documentary makes every other attempt to capture the essence of making a movie pale by comparison, and for the first time ever viewers will have the chance to witness the real meat of what it means to make movies. The key to make it work so incredibly well is the entire lack of staged interviews and footage. The documentary does not even use a narrator and instead throws the viewer into a one-hour long thrill ride of footage that was taken during the film’s production. The consistency and flow is unbelievable as we witness budget meetings, emotional outbursts, McGregor’s fascination and enthusiasm, cast readings, desert storms and destruction on the set, and so much more. There are so many unexpected highlights and incredibly personal moments in this documentary that I know fans will soon view this documentary as the ultimate word on the subject matter.

Other true gems that can be found on the disc are the deleted scenes. Since nothing in "Star Wars" is what it seems, the makers of the disc obviously couldn’t just use footage that wasn’t used in the film, but instead had to apply the whole special effects procedure to them in order to bring them to life. George Lucas selected seven scenes that he had planned for the movie but never finished because he felt they were not needed to tell the story. For this DVD he set up ILM to complete these scenes from the existing storyboards and the live action footage and the result can be seen on this DVD. The scenes vary in length from several to just under a minute. The most extensive one is the addition of an extra lap to the Boonta Eve Podrace. All of them are quite interesting and the "Air Taxi" scene has even been reinserted into the final film on this DVD. The deleted scenes are complemented by a dedicated featurette that explains how they were put together and shows the process in quite some detail the actual procedure in the example of the "Waterfall" scene. I will not elaborate on the scenes any further at this point because I do not wish to deprive you of the spectacle that awaits you.

Additional featurettes can be found on the disc, covering various aspects of the production, such as the film’s costume design, the storyline, the visual effects, the fights and the special effects. With great footage and interviews, these featurettes are comprehensive and especially in the case of the costume design, offer a very exciting and rare glimpse at the areas of interest.

For those of you more interested in the technical aspects, Lucasfilm has prepared the Submarine scene and the first lap of the Podrace as a multi-angle feature, showcasing the steps that turned the storyboards into the final film. One angle contains the storyboards for the sequences, another one the early animatics that were created to block out shots and determine the timing. The next angle features the final scene while the last angle offers a look at all three pieces at the same time. Interesting stuff, especially in such effects-heavy scenes where literally everything is computer enhanced. This section also features its own introductory featurette to explain what animatics are and how they are used in the production process.

The disc also contains the twelve-part web documentary series that was produced for the official "Star Wars" website during the production of the film, leading up to its theatrical release. Not only does the addition of these featurettes allow you to finally view them without the low bandwidth requirements the Internet imposes on such video material, but the information and insight delivered here is simply amazing. Like all other material on this disc, they offer an honest and very personal look at the film and the people who made it happen.

Then, prepare yourself for a photo gallery with 75 never-before seen photos that have been gathered by Lucasfilm specifically for this DVD. Combined with images of posters and print materials form around the world, here you have a nice archive of Star Wars imagery. Also look out for John Williams’ original "Duel Of The Fates" music video, which is part of this release. (Wouldn’t it have been hilarious if Al Yankovic’s spoof video were included as well?) A weblink to an exclusive section of the "Star Wars" website is also part of the release.

A featurette covering the making of the computer game "Star Wars: Starfighter" is also part of the release and combined with the selection of teasers and trailers, including seven TV spots, including five of the Tone Poems that ran on TV.

With so many high quality DVDs released in the past years one is hard-pressed to pinpoint specific titles that clearly stand above the rest. I am glad to report that "Star Wars: The Phantom Menace" is such a title. To me, "Star Wars: The Phantom Menace" is the best DVD in the market today. Apart from some very minor video issues, everything about this disc is of flawless reference quality. The presentation and menus are mercilessly engaging and the content and special features are so well crafted that they never appear to be supplements but rather feature presentations in their own rights. And then, look out for the hidden features and ever changing menus on the disc…