"I have a bad feeling about this," says the young Obi-Wan Kenobi (played by Ewan McGregor) in Star Wars: Episode I, The Phantom Menace as he steps off a spaceship and into the most anticipated cinematic event... well, ever. He might as well be speaking for the legions of fans of the original episodes in the Star Wars saga who can't help but secretly ask themselves: Sure, this is Star Wars, but is it my Star Wars? The original elevated moviegoers' expectations so high that it would have been impossible for any subsequent film to meet them. And as with all the Star Wars movies, The Phantom Menace features inexplicable plot twists, a fistful of loose threads, and some cheek-chewing dialogue. Han Solo's swagger is sorely missed, as is the pervading menace of heavy-breathing Darth Vader. There is still way too much quasi-mystical mumbo jumbo, and some of what was fresh about Star Wars 22 years earlier feels formulaic. Yet there's much to admire. The special effects are stupendous; three worlds are populated with a mélange of creatures, flora, and horizons rendered in absolute detail. The action and battle scenes are breathtaking in their complexity. And one particular sequence of the film--the adrenaline-infused pod race through the Tatooine desert--makes the chariot race in Ben-Hur look like a Sunday stroll through the park.
Among the host of new characters, there are a few familiar walk-ons. We witness the first meeting between R2-D2 and C-3PO, Jabba the Hutt looks younger and slimmer (but not young and slim), and Yoda is as crabby as ever. Natalie Portman's stately Queen Amidala sports hairdos that make Princess Leia look dowdy and wields a mean laser. We never bond with Jedi Knight Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson), and Obi-Wan's day is yet to come. Jar Jar Binks, a cross between a Muppet, a frog, and a hippie, provides many of the movie's lighter moments, while Sith Lord Darth Maul is a formidable force. Baby-faced Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) looks too young and innocent to command the powers of the Force or wield a lightsaber (much less transmute into the future Darth Vader), but his boyish exuberance wins over skeptics.
Near the end of the movie, Palpatine, the new leader of the Republic, may be speaking for fans eagerly awaiting Episode II when he pats young Anakin on the head and says, "We will watch your career with great interest." Indeed! --Tod Nelson
The spectacular DVD release of Star Wars: Episode I, The Phantom Menace--arguably one of the best DVDs ever--will go a long way toward making it up to Star Wars fans who were disappointed by the theatrical release. (But, in case you're wondering, there's no option to delete Jar Jar.) The picture and sound are outstanding, it's loaded with bonuses, and even the menus are action-packed fun. Disc One includes the film with a commentary track by George Lucas, producer Rick McCallum, editor Ben Burtt, animation director Rob Coleman, and visual effects supervisors John Knoll, Dennis Murren, and Scott Squires. Rather than a group of people yelling at the screen, this commentary is a compilation of individual comments, very helpfully supplemented by supratitles that indicate who is speaking. Numerous technical details are explained, and Lucas mentions how certain scenes fit into the big picture of all six films (every time dutifully referring to the original film as "Episode IV").
Of Disc Two's cornucopia of bonus features, the most notable are the seven deleted scenes and a long documentary. The deleted scenes, which are all interesting enough to watch at least once, can be viewed individually or as a group along with discussions of why they were cut. These rough scenes were completed for the DVD and parts of them (including an introduction of the individual Podracers and a longer view of the skies over Coruscant) were reincorporated into the version of the film that appears on the DVD. The 66-minute behind-the-scenes documentary was compiled from 600 hours of footage shot during various stages of the film and includes Anakin screen tests, script-reading sessions, location shooting in Italy and Tunisia, and giddy fans on opening night. --David Horiuchi
Begin your STAR WARS DVD collection with STAR WARS: Episode 1 THE PHANTOM MENACE. Packed with over six hours of additional material, including exclusive documentaries and never-before-seen deleted scenes, this 2-disc set provides the perfect showcase for the incredible detail and breathtaking scope of George Lucas's first episode in the mythic STAR WARS saga.
Star Wars: Episode I - The Phan