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Review

‘Star Wars’ doesn’t live up to lofty expectations

February 17, 2012

When “The Phantom Menace” was first released in 1999, I was a bright-eyed teenager absolutely obsessed with the “Star Wars” universe. I spent the months leading up to the premiere buying as many Darth Maul actions figures as I could find, and putting in dozens of hours on the “Racer” video game tie-in. I was pumped.

Then I saw the movie.

Maybe it was the insane level of hype surrounding its release, or my unreasonably high expectations, but “The Phantom Menace” was one of the biggest disappointments of my formative years.

When it was announced that the “Star Wars” movies would be released in 3D, I was excited. Even when it was announced that they would start with the prequels, I knew I would still be seeing them in the theater. After all, it is not often one has the chance to see “Star Wars” on the big screen.

Going into the 3D “Phantom Menace” was reminiscent of seeing it the first time in 1999. Time had dulled my original disappointment, and my prequel hype had returned. When the Lucasfilm logo appeared on the screen, my heart began to race.

Then I saw the movie.

All the disappointment I experienced in 1999 came rushing back. Minus the added dimension and a few minor tweaks, this is the same movie that alienated audiences and left this hardcore fan soured to the “Star Wars” saga.

I will save you a detailed plot summary, as I’m sure anyone who wanted to see this movie already has. But in brief, “The Phantom Menace” tells the origin story of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin “Darth Vader” Skywalker. Together with Liam Neeson and an unbearable computer animated platypus man, the team tries to uncover a hidden conspiracy that threatens the stability of the galaxy.

The fundamental failings of “The Phantom Menace” have been discussed to death elsewhere, so I will refrain from any further complaining about the story. But be warned that the 3D re-release is not a fresh experience. Although writer/director George Lucas is renowned for periodically updating his movies with new scenes and special effects, nothing of any consequence has been changed here. The most noticeable change from the original would be the removal of the Yoda puppet, replaced instead with a computer generated version that puts his appearance in line with “Attack of the Clones” and “Revenge of the Sith.” It is a pleasing edit, as the original puppet was nothing great. However, with Yoda only appearing in the movie for a handful of minutes, this is hardly reason to rush out and see this in the theater. Also, the remastered Yoda can also be seen in the latest “Phantom Menace” Blu-ray release. Of course the biggest draw for the re-release is the 3D.

Unfortunately I would have to file this one under “pointless.” The 3D effects were added through post-processing software, a technique that turns traditional films into eyepopping spectacles. At least in theory. Previous attempts at 3D conversion yielded dark visuals and subdued 3D effects. “The Phantom Menace” in 3D is no different.

In 2D this is a very vibrant looking movie. From the lush plains and cities on the planet Naboo to the overexposed desert wastes on Tatooine, “The Phantom Menace” is full of colorful and rich imagery. In 3D that brightness has been noticeably reduced. If given a choice between brighter, more vibrant visuals and 3D effects, I would choose the brightness 100 percent of the time.

This trade off is even less enticing considering how subdued the 3D effects appear. Largely the third dimension means a greater sense of depth in certain scenes. When characters occupy the foreground and background, you can get a greater understanding of their spatial relation. There are also a couple deep focus shots that will draw you in, but it is a shame how sparse they are.

The most thrilling 3D sequences are the pod race and final battle. It is only natural that these are the most memorable 3D scenes, as they are the most memorable in 2D as well. Are they worth seeing in 3D? I say yes. But just as they failed to redeem the movie in the first place, they are not worth the price of admission alone.

Even to “Star Wars” fans I would not recommend seeing “The Phantom Menace” in 3D. The added dimension simply does not change the experience enough to justify the inflated ticket price. Your money would be better spent on the Blu-ray set and its remarkable collection of behind-the-scenes and making-of featurettes.

Michael Brun is an alumnus of UW-River Falls.

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