Sunday, September 18, 2011

"Star Wars" on Blu-Ray: Disc #1 - "The Phantom Menace" - Finally, Jar-Jar Binks in Hi-Def!

It’s finally here!  As explained in this post, the month of September is officially Star Wars Month on the Monthly Ten Podcast and JonathanLack.Com, all in honor of one of the most anticipated home video releases of all time – the Star Wars saga on Blu-Ray Disc!  The 9-disc has finally arrived, and I’m devoting eleven days to reviewing the entire box set in depth.  Today, we begin our disc-by-disc run-through of the set by analyzing the contents of Disc #1, which contains Episode I: The Phantom Menace.  I’ll review the film itself, discuss the video and audio quality, extras, and more, a trend which will continue for the next eight days as we continue through each disc in the set. 

Review of Disc #1 – The Phantom Menace, coming up after the jump…  

The Film: Revisiting Episode I

It’s hard for me to be too critical about “The Phantom Menace.”  Is it a good movie?  No, and I could spend plenty of time listing all the things that bog it down, like the dull premise involving taxation, treaties, and blockades, or Jake Lloyd’s horrific ‘performance’ as Anakin, or the wonky, disjointed way in which the story progresses, or what minute significance the plot holds in the overall Star Wars saga, or the large number of wooden performances, or Jake Lloyd, or the terrible, rote dialogue, or the numbing overuse of CGI, or Jake Lloyd, or the staggering amount of camp characters, or the twenty-odd minute time-suck known as the “pod-race,” or Jake Lloyd, or….

Well, you get the picture.

“Episode I” is flawed.  There’s no denying it, and since fans and critics have spent the better part of twelve years now tearing it to pieces, I feel I have very little to add to the subject, especially because, while revisiting the movie, I found myself blinded by nostalgia.  When the film was first released, I was seven, and I went crazy for it.  I have no idea how many times I saw “Episode I” in theatres or at home, but it’s enough to probably make my adult-self ashamed of my younger counterpart.  There eventually came a point when I realized the film wasn’t, well, good, and I really haven’t watched it since then.  It’s been years, but even then, when I popped this Blu-Ray in and hit ‘play,’ I felt wave after wave of warm, comforting nostalgia rush over me while simultaneously realizing that I still remember nearly every moment of this film vividly.  As soon as Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan appeared, a broad smile grew upon my face, and I had a hard time changing my expression from start to finish.  The movie may be flawed, but those flaws represent my childhood, and there’s still something charming to the film all these years later.

So as I said, it’s hard for me to be overly critical about “Episode I,” and even if I found it easy to poke fun at the movie, millions of others have already done that exhaustively.  Instead, I’d rather discuss everything I love about the film, because flawed though it may be, there are some legitimate bits of genius on display here.

In particular, I love every last moment with Qui-Gon Jinn or Obi-Wan Kenobi.  Their relationship is fully formed and three-dimensional from moment one, giving us a powerful idea of what life was like for Jedi at the height of the order.  Qui-Gon, the calm, efficient, and brilliant master, who seems to have a solution for every problem and is endlessly competent.  Obi-Wan, his headstrong but wise and loyal Padawan who is clearly on his way towards becoming a great Jedi master himself.  Separately, both are the best of the best, but together, they form something else entirely, something that transcends a master/student relationship.  Their trust in each other is portrayed so subtly that it seems telepathic, as though the two have been through so much, and believe in one another so implicitly, that they need not communicate verbally to get the job done.  I love the understated nature of this relationship; the subtlety gets us invested in the characters, and once Darth Maul arrives in the final act, we see the full culmination of this partnership in what might be the greatest lightsaber duel in the Star Wars saga; during the battle, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan’s effortless harmony is a wonder to behold, and this, more than anything else, illustrates the might of the Jedi order. 

As for the performers portraying these characters, I’ve come to the conclusion that God gave us Liam Neeson so he could one day don the iconic robe, take up his green lightsaber, and play this most powerful of Jedi masters.  Anakin’s downward spiral sort of makes Qui-Gon look like a dumbass, but within the context of this film, Qui-Gon knows and understands all, and Neeson lends the narrative the same sort of gravitas that Alec Guinness did as Obi-Wan in the original “Star Wars.”  With Neeson filling the same narrative capacity Guinness did, that gives Ewan McGregor greater room for creative freedom, and I love how his performance as Obi-Wan respects Guinness’ work while adding his own unique, wonderful touch to the character.  McGregor, who has by now established himself as one of my favorite actors, is simply fantastic in the film.  As written, I’m not sure if Obi-Wan is any less wooden than, say, Padme, but McGregor takes things as seriously as Guinness or Neeson, and has the same talent for breathing life into a character that, by all rights, has no business being this fascinating.  Neeson and McGregor are so good that they can single-handedly redeem the sins of other performers; for instance, Jake Lloyd is an abomination, but I have no problem watching Anakin if he’s interacting with Qui-Gon.

As long as we’re talking about performances elevating material, I better mention Ian McDiarmid.  After sixteen years away from the part, he hasn’t lost a single beat as Darth Sidious.  He doesn’t have any material quite as creepy as his verbal sparring match with Luke from “Return of the Jedi,” but he’s still a delightfully maniacal villain, and even more importantly, McDiarmid also gets to introduce us to Sidious’ alternate ego, Senator Palpatine.  I really respect how “Episode I” never explicitly connects Palpatine to Sidious; at the end of the movie, they could still be separate people, but though Palpatine’s motives appear pure on the surface, each move he makes winds up giving the Sidious more power.  It’s a fascinating, dual-edged performance, and one of the rare parts of the prequels where Lucas trusts his actor to perform the story, rather than trying to explain it all with stuffy dialogue.

I also love some of the connections to the original trilogy, like seeing the origins of R2-D2 and C3-PO; their first meeting just warms the heart, knowing that we’ve witnessed the birth of a beautiful robot friendship.  I detest the entire pod-race section of the film, but brief cameos by Jawas and Sand-People go a long way towards redeeming the entire affair.  John Williams’ music, meanwhile, is as strong as ever.  None of this material is quite as inspired as his work on the original trilogy – and given what he has to work with, that’s not surprising – but it’s still a gorgeous, rousing score that gives the film a proper Star Wars feel. 

And you know what else I love?  Jar-Jar Binks.  There.  I said it.  Don’t get me wrong: Jar-Jar is an appalling abomination of a character with few redeeming values, but he’s so incredibly over-the-top, such a wildly ridiculous self-parody from the moment he appears on screen, that I can’t help but laugh my ass off every time he appears.  Jar-Jar may very well be one of the great comedic masterstrokes of our time, a bombastic combination of all the worst traits shared by all of cinema’s most annoying, useless ‘comic-relief’ characters.  He plays no important role in the movie, literally stumbles in and out of scenes screaming gibberish and tripping over everything in sight, and not a single Jar-Jar moment is played straight.  Whether intentional or not, Jar-Jar is always a joke.  Revisiting the film, I wondered if Jar-Jar could possibly be as bad as I remembered him; instead, he was far, far worse. 

All the parodies, jokes, and jabs at Jar-Jar fail to do the character justice because, in truth, he’s worse than any spoof.  No joke about Jar-Jar is as cruel as the joke Jar-Jar himself creates; he seems to be less a calculated part of the film than a practical joke a drunk ILM animator played in post-production, inserting the most over-the-top cartoon he or she could invent into every other scene.  Both in execution and in personality, Jar-Jar transcends clumsiness, and in that way, I find him gut-bustlingly hilarious.  To those who say he is the worst part of “The Phantom Menace,” I would ask them to listen to one line of Jake Lloyd’s dialogue, or examine the dull meanderings of the plot, or ponder how unbelievably boring the pod-race would be if we didn’t have Jar-Jar jumping in every few minutes to wag his tongue at the screen and shout hysterics.  At the very least, he’s a Gungan who knows how to keep things interesting, and I love him for it. 

And in a sense, I still love “The Phantom Menace.”  It’s not a good movie, but there’s so much nostalgia there for me, and I enjoy the legitimate strengths of the film and the more embarrassing faults in equal measure.

Film Rating: C

Sizing up the Blu-Ray

Video Quality:

I’ve got good news and bad news about the high-definition video quality of “Episode I.”  The bad news is that it just doesn’t look very good, presenting us with a surprisingly problematic HD transfer.  The good news?  It’s all uphill from here, as “Phantom Menace” provides the only sub-par visual experience on the set.

While all three prequels are known for embracing digital technology, only episodes II and III were actually shot digitally.  Episode I was still filmed on 35mm, giving it an inherently different look than its all-digital brethren.  Episode I should have a film-like grain structure similar to the Original Trilogy, but for this Blu-Ray release, George Lucas decided to give the film some digital touch-ups to bring it more in line with the other Prequels.  Not a bad idea in theory, I suppose, but in practice, that involves copious, noticeable amounts of Digital Noise Reduction – DNR – a process that removes grain from the image.  In film, grain provides the ‘building blocks’ of the image, so removing it in excess also scrubs away detail, which is exactly what’s been done here. 

Sadly, the results are not pretty.  The loss of detail is extremely noticeable; faces often look waxy, background detail is muted, and there’s an overall softness to the image that I found distracting, especially when comparing this transfer to others in the set.  On Tatooine, for instance, we should be able to count the grains of sand in HD – you certainly can on the “Episode IV” disc.  Here, however, the sand all blends together, something that wouldn’t bother me on DVD, but is unacceptable on Blu-Ray.  As for facial features, Liam Neeson comes out on top – we can still see every detail in his face – while poor Natalie Portman is reduced to looking like a mannequin in certain sequences.  It’s never truly egregious, but it is occasionally distracting, if only because I know for a fact that the movie can look much, much better than this.  Excessive DNR is never a good idea, and the process doesn’t even achieve the desired result; this scrubbed-down, soft-looking version of Episode I still looks nothing like Episodes II and III.  All that’s been accomplished is removing precious detail from the image. 

Nevertheless, the disc still looks far better than any previous home release.  Colors and contrast are always strong, and while the DNR reduces some outdoor scenes to rubble, indoor locations often look gorgeous.  Queen Amidala’s palace is a treasure trove of color, detail, and depth.  All-digital scenes, like the Coruscant cityscape, are simply breathtaking.  Scenes set inside ships or rooms can alternate between soft and vivid, but they always bear the mark of high-definition, and this is a definite upgrade over previous editions of the film.

Of course, that upgrade comes with a cost; “The Phantom Menace” featured state-of-the-art CGI in 1999, but CGI has come a long way since then, and the added resolution exposes many flaws in the animation.  Jar-Jar now looks like a half-finished animatic, and the hundreds of other creatures inhabiting Naboo and Tatooine don’t fare much better.  Yoda, on the other hand, looks fantastic.  The original puppet was replaced with a CGI creation for this release, both to create continuity between Episodes I and it’s successors, and because the puppet used in Episode I simply didn’t look very good (don’t worry about Episodes V and VI though – nobody has laid a finger on the original Yoda puppet).  The new digital Yoda is a bit too wizened and craggy for my tastes, but the animators make up for it by having the digital model move like the puppet – especially the ears – a nice nod to Frank Oz’s work. 

Most importantly, since he was animated recently, the digital Yoda blends in perfectly with his surroundings, unlike Jar-Jar, who was animated twelve years ago.  This begs the question: if we’re already changing things, then why not just reanimate Jar-Jar, Sebulba, Watto, and the other bad CGI models?  This would have been the time to do it, because the original effects are not, quite frankly, up to the HD standard.  This just proves the superiority of practical effects, as the model and miniature work from the Original Trilogy doesn’t just hold up in HD, but looks better than ever before. 

But I digress.  “The Phantom Menace” is a visual disappointment, but the transfer is, at the very least, serviceable, the best version yet released. 

Video Quality: 3 out of 5

Audio Quality:

This side of things is much simpler: the audio on “The Phantom Menace” is perfect.  Not good, not exemplary, but perfect.  The 6.1 DTS-HD mix makes fantastic use of all channels, creating a wide, immersive soundscape that throws audiences headfirst into the world of the film.  Every sound effect is crisp, vibrant, and realistic, and the dialogue is so clear and rich that it is as if the actors are performing in your living room.  And John Williams’ music?  Trust me, you’ve never heard it quite like this, at least not at home.  I think I may have shed tears of happiness during the opening crawl, listening to the original, triumphant fanfare rendered with such incredible clarity.  Best of all, each sonic element is layered, mixed, and balanced to perfection; you won’t need to jump for the remote to turn the sound up and down, and you’ll never strain to hear dialogue over the music and sound effects.

For “Phantom Menace,” one of the key audio demo-worthy scenes comes early on, when Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan land on Naboo and find themselves in the middle of deforestation and a firefight.  There’s so much going on in the soundscape, yet it never sounds overpowering.  It’s all crystal clear, and each element is arranged precisely throughout the channels to give a tremendous sense of space and depth. 

About halfway through the film, I found myself wondering – does the audio make up for the video?  By the end, the answer was a resounding, unequivocal yes!  Blu-Ray isn’t just about picture; HD audio can be equally impressive, and in this case, the sound easily surpasses the image.

Audio Quality: 5 out of 5

Extras and Presentation:

When the disc loads, we are treated to a brief FBI anti-piracy message, and are then taken to the menu; given the extravagant and insulting numbers of ads and messages that tend to play before menus on DVDs and Blu-Rays these days, I found this quite pleasing.  The menu itself is fairly simplistic, and all the films share the same basic menu.  There’s a ‘hologram’ console in the center displaying clips from the movie, John Williams’ score blares triumphantly in the background, and we are given the standard set of options: Play Movie, Set Up, Scene Selection, and in lieu of a full extras menu, choice of commentaries (more on that in just a moment).  The pop-up menu accessed during the film looks the same.  It should also be noted that the disc contains not one, not two, but thirty-two individual subtitle tracks (though two of those are subtitles of the commentaries) in many different languages.  I think it’s safe to say that folks from all over the world can follow the dialogue with such an expansive array of subtitles. 

Each film in the set has this sort of presentation, and each film contains the same sort of extras: two audio commentaries, the first culled from the original DVD releases, the second newly made out of archival interviews and vintage sound-bites.  As for the original commentaries, chances are you’ve heard them by now, and if you haven’t they aren’t necessarily anything to get too excited about, at least not for “The Phantom Menace.”  Lucas spends a lot of time explaining his grand plan for the Star Wars saga, proudly boasting how “Episode I” finally allows him to realize his thirty-year-old “vision” (this is bogus, by the way – there was no inkling of an “Episode I” until well into production of “Empire Stikes Back”), and producer Rick McCallum spends a lot of time kissing Lucas’ ass.  Sound Designer Ben Burtt, meanwhile, regales us with the most informative and fascinating information; he’s a genius, and an articulate one at that.

I found the archival commentary far more fascinating, however.  The archival commentaries are inherently more interesting for the Original Trilogy, where the source material is much older, but there’s still lots of good stuff on the prequel discs.  In all cases, the interviews chosen always match what’s going on in the film, and the anecdotes are usually pretty great.  For instance, Ben Burtt opens the archival track for “Phantom Menace” by admitting how the opening crawl for the film – concerning taxes and regulations – is so dull that it cancelled out the excitement of seeing the iconic crawl for the first time in sixteen years.  This commentary is a treasure trove of information, and I can’t wait to listen to what was compiled for the original three films!

Next Time:

So the worst movie in the saga gets the worst visual treatment.  Oh well.  The audio more than makes up for it and the commentaries are much appreciated.  Tomorrow, we’ll dive into “Attack of the Clones.”  Does the first all-digital Star Wars movie boast the kind of immaculate transfer we’ve come to expect from film-free productions?

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