Friday, February 10, 2012

The Phantom Menace in 3D

I saw The Phantom Menace in 3D at midnight last night. I've got a bunch of thoughts, both on the 3D upgrade and the film itself.

The 3D
It must be said that the theater I was at unfortunately did not properly brighten the image, thus resulting in a terribly darkened image with the 3D glasses. It was absolutely horrible; I even took off the glasses at times because I couldn't stand the strain of trying to see the film. As if that wasn't enough, some of the 3D calibration was off. The depth effect seemed perfectly aligned at the center of the screen, but gradually got more distorted closer to the edges, as if there were some invisible lens over the whole thing. My thoughts here may be a little stilted because of this; I'll try to compensate by imagining what I saw brighter and less distorted.

The opening of the film, with the new 3D-ized Lucasfilm logo and opening crawl, really showed off the 3D. It was a bit gimmicky, but it was cool. After that, however, the 3D barely existed. It felt like watching the film normally, just darker. Ever so often you'd notice some 3D depth, but not a lot. Really, only the podrace had any noticeable 3D effect, but that one scene was AMAZING.

Secretly, I've always thought that maybe I could pilot a podracer. I've done it before in video games; it's not too tough. But actually seeing the insane speed of that race in 3D, with every tiny rock flying at the audience at 600kph, squashed that fantasy forever. It is absolutely jaw-dropping. It's so amazing that it marginally gives Anakin some character depth, since you actually get a firsthand sense of how ridiculously fast his reflexes are.

My last note here isn't really a 3D note; just something else they changed: Yoda. Yoda is now no longer the weird-looking puppet from the theatrical and DVD versions of TPM; he is now a fully CG creature, exactly like in AOTC and ROTS. He looks much, much better. They even got in some of the stiffness and lack of fluidity that the ESB puppet had (like a real elderly person would have), which adds to the lifelike feel. It's very cool.

The Film

"I was not elected to watch my people suffer and die while you discuss this invasion in a committee!"
You and me both, sister.

First off, I noticed one thing: there is entirely too much talking. Specifically, talking about things like trade disputes, the legality of blockades, and the formation of commissions. In a series called Star Wars, plot development, for the most part, should come through action, not incredibly dense dialogue. This kind of thing should have been reserved for the novelization of the film, not put into the movie itself. 

There's another interesting problem with the narrative here: we never actually see the Naboo people suffer, as Sio Bibble claims they are, and we only get references to "camps," where Panaka claims that "everyone" has been sent. So... the Trade Federation literally rounded up the entire planet's human population and put them in camps? In, what, a couple of weeks? We don't even see much of the Naboo people at all until the parade finale. As far as we know until that point, the entire planet consists of the Queen, her advisors, and two dozen security officers and pilots. Heck, we see more Gungans than we do of the Naboo, and they're supposed to be a hidden, less-populous race. No wonder the Federation had no problem rounding up the Naboo people; there wasn't anyone left to capture anyway. This might sound like nitpicking, but it does become a serious problem for the story. If we don't see any of the people that are "suffering and dying," nothing's really at stake for the audience emotionally. We're left with more words than images; cheap talk and no action. Amidala's quote to the Senate unfortunately applies to the entire movie: political discussion, considering what's going on, is mostly irrelevant. Yes, Palpatine needed to be set up as the future Supreme Chancellor, but that didn't need the extreme amount of dense political dialogue that we were given. Seriously, even the opening crawl of the film spends more time talking about trade disputes than anything actually important or life-threatening. There's no mention of war, the Sith, or any real conflict at all; it's just boring text that seems lifted from a political textbook.

Another problem: no one aside from Anakin is really given any character spotlight. A New Hope was notable in that it took its time to really highlight and strongly establish the characters of Luke, Han, Leia, and Obi-Wan. They were all given memorable introductions, very strong character moments, and enough to do that they really mattered. Here, we don't get much of anything like that.
Jar-Jar is more like one of the Three Stooges that just happens to exist in this story; he doesn't really grow or change, he just directs the main characters to where they can find the Gungans... twice. That's literally all he's good for; he doesn't do a single other notable thing in the story. In terms of narrative importance, he's just a glorified signpost that provides physical comedy.
Amidala seems to be more of a device to forward the plot than a real character.
Anakin is given the greatest importance in the plot, but he's not a perspective character; he's more like a powerful and mysterious object everyone else stares at and talks about. He's basically the Ark of the Covenant from Raiders.
Obi-Wan doesn't have much to do; he's mostly just "there" until the last few scenes. Really, this is 90% Qui-Gon's movie.
Speaking of Qui-Gon, he's actually given a decent amount of importance. He's the one that makes most of the choices, he's the one whose eyes we see the story through, and he's easily the best-developed and most realistic character here. If there's one character this movie does right, it's him.
I almost forgot about Darth Maul and Palpatine. In a way, they're sort of one character in this film: Palpatine is the brains, while Maul is the brute strength. Together, they actually work very well. If you look at Maul by himself, however, he's definitely a shallow character—and yet simultaneously the coolest character in the saga, second only to Boba Fett.

It seems that the real meat of Episode I is in its spectacle: the action and the effects.

The effects are, on the whole, outstanding. Every spaceship looks absolutely, completely real. The podracers are almost shockingly perfect. The CG creatures are hit-and-miss. The underwater monsters look incredible, while the Gungans look really bad by modern standards. On DVD they actually looked decent, with all the film grain and whatnot, but in full theater-quality with 3D depth, their lack of adequate texturing and light reflection is really obvious. The Battle of Naboo, with the two CG armies, is a little odd in that it's basically a realistic-looking mechanical army fighting a cartoonish-looking organic army.

The action is honestly some of the best in the entire saga.

The opening action scene, where the Jedi plow through a squad of battle droids, is amazing. The effect used for Qui-Gon cutting into the door doesn't look like the usual CG "melted metal" effect; it really looks like an actual metal door is melting and burning up. I'd really like to see how they did that. One thing of note here too is that this is the first time that we really see lightsabers hitting enemies and cutting them. Sure, in the OT we'd see an occasional removed hand or arm, but only when it was important to the plot. Otherwise, we'd just see Luke swinging his saber at random guards on Jabba's skiff, but we'd never see the physical contact. Here we've got Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon slamming their way through battle droids, leaving carved, smoldering pieces in their wake. The fact that the droids are CG helps, too, since we can see the sabers cut through them in real-time. It's really a lot of fun to watch.

The intermittent stuff, with the Jedi doing random battling here and there, is fun enough, though not quite jaw-dropping.

The podrace, as mentioned twice before, is amazing. It's not just style and it's not just special effects; it's a very smartly-choreographed scene. What's really great here too is the fact that we actually get to see the 2nd lap of the podrace, which does not appear in the original theatrical cut of the film. It's been in every version since the DVD release, but still, this is the first time it's ever been seen on the big screen, and it contains some of the best moments of the race.

The final battle of the film is really four battles happening at once. The Gungans vs Droids battle is probably the worst, as there's no one we really care about there, and it's mostly played for comedy with Jar-Jar instead of drama like every other part of the ending. The fight for Theed Palace, with Amidala and Panaka leading a group of security officers towards the Viceroy, is generic Star Wars blaster action. It actually feels a bit fake, with the officers standing in the middle of the hallway sometimes and still not getting shot. When the suspension of disbelief is broken that badly, there's just no tension. The battle in space is excellent. Yes, it's mostly from little Anakin's perspective, but it really is a sight to behold. The sense of scale is done wonderfully here, and the sharp contrasts of the tiny yellow-and-chrome starfighters against the black of space—lasers and crackling blue torpedoes flying everywhere—are breathtaking. Anakin also has his miracle moment in this battle, which, considering his deep connection to the Force, is plausible and rather interesting. Finally, we have the best Star Wars action scene of all time: the three-way duel between Obi-Wan Kenobi, Qui-Gon Jinn, and Darth Maul. Seeing this on the big screen for the first time since I was nine reminded me why I spent so many years of my childhood and teen years studying swordfighting and poring over lightsaber lore. It's the best-cheoreographed and most intricate duel, thanks no doubt to the absolutely incredible talents of Ray Park as Darth Maul. No other duel in Star Wars history is this good. This scene alone makes the entire movie worth watching.

All in all, seeing TPM again was a nice trip back to childhood. I wish the theater I'd gone to had better quality, but hey... actually, no, it was horrible. I might go see it again at a better theater on Tuesday just so I can say that I actually saw the whole movie as I was supposed to. But anyway...

I can't say the 3D was beneficial at all, other than in the podrace scene. Everything else didn't need it. Still, though, getting to see The Phantom Menace on the big screen is definitely worth it, 3D or not.

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