What happens when you take a process that's lost its lustre in the eyes of the moviegoing public and apply it to one of the most critically derided sci-fi films ever made? Gizmodo Australia went to the Australian premiere of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace 3D to find out.
I rather like Star Wars, especially the original trilogy.
Yeah, I know, that's not the most stunningly original to say on the internet. But it's an important point to make, because while I like Star Wars, I'm not an ardent enthusiast the way many folks are. As such, when The Phantom Menace came out 13 years ago, I dutifully headed to the nearest cinema, saw it and walked away thinking that it was a bit of a waste of the franchise; not the worst movie ever in the way some people think, but certainly a film with plenty of narrative problems. I'm pointing that out upfront, because it'll inevitably flavour any review of the film I was likely to make. If you truly hate The Phantom Menace, then you hate it, and that's fine too.
One thing I'm not a big personal fan of is 3D for the sake of it. Also, whenever anything is hyped as being "in 3D" — and it's incredibly prevalent in all the advertising for The Phantom Menace — I can't help having Weird Al Yankovic's "Nature Trail To Hell In 3D" play in my head. Perhaps that's just me.
3D is often a lazy crutch for a film in my eyes, as well as a way to try to suck a few more dollars out of the wallets of consumers. Also, it often makes me feel ill. It was with that in mind that Danny and I attended the preview screening — and first public screening anywhere in the world — of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace in 3D yesterday.
The premiere screening included an orchestra playing Star Wars themes. I doubt your local cinema will do the same, but it may be worth calling ahead to find out.
Also Stormtroopers, as highlighted by Danny yesterday. Although, hang on — aren't they at least one movie too early?
Ah, this is more like it. This chap I remember from 13 years ago.
Just about ready to begin. But first, a few slighly off-tone "lightsaber" jokes from Merrick to entertain the kids. Really.
A touch over two hours later, it was all done.
Now, this isn't a stunning fresh flick full of insights into today's world; it's a 13-year-old film originally shot in 2D, and the entire reason I was there was because I was curious as to how well they'd managed to merge the needs of 3D cinema with the realities of old footage.
Historically, I'm not a big fan of 3D; the passive type used in cinemas often makes my head hurt after a while, and I can't watch through active glasses for anything more than a few seconds without serious balance issues. Plus, this is George Lucas, a man known for making big bold moves, rather than subtle ones.
My concerns only increased when the Lucasfilm logo bounced out of the screen and into the audience, followed by the famous Star Wars scroll. This didn't seem like a film where subtlety was going to play a significant part. Actually, the scroll in 3D is rather cool, given that it's always been intended to have a third dimensional kind of look. But it was looking like I was going to need a Darth Maul sized tub of popcorn to throw up into before all was said and done.
What did surprise me then, is that — for the most part — the 3D conversion of The Phantom Menace is, ultimately, pretty subtle stuff. It's party helped by the fact that there's not much in the original film that lends itself into bouncing out into the audience, so what Lucasfilm has had to work with is increasing depth in ordinary scenes, something that's done with a reasonable level of skill. Naturally, it works a lot better with things that are digital effects rather than human actors.
There are a number of scenes with heavy depth that rely on a human actor in the foreground, but the limitations of the source material mean that they're just flat planes. One particularly jarring scene occurs when Anakin's saying goodbye to his mother; Pernilla August's braided hair seen from the back has no dimensions and it makes her look like a cardboard cutout.
Motion in 3D is often a problem, and this is nowhere more evident than in the Pod race sequence. Again, there's some restraint shown here. It wouldn't have been that hard to reframe a few shots and send exploding pod chunks out into the crowd, and that's mostly been avoided. Still, some of the fast panning shots break up pretty badly because of the 3D effect. I was concerned this might just be me, but it was one of the first things that Danny picked up on as well.
As an effort to convert 2D to 3D, then, Lucasfilm is to be largely congratulated; while there are missteps in the process they're not particularly gruesome, and the restraint shown in making the 3D an organic part of the film is to be commended. I'm still not sold on the need for this film to be in 3D, but what they've done, they've done well. What that also means is that if you're expecting The Phantom Menace to pop out of the screen at you every five seconds, you're in for disappointment.
As for the plot? Once again, I'll dip into the Weird Al playbook if your memory of how it all plays is rusty..
Yes, it's true, I was humming this at random points during the movie while watching.
The Phantom Menace in 3D hasn't changed the plot at all. Yes, this is no phantom edit, and that means that everyone's favourite racist allegory/unfortunate misstep (depending on your perspective, but you know the floppy eared buffoon I'm referring to) is very much in evidence. If it's any consolation, the kids in the audience I was in seemed to like him. But a couple of closing observations that I didn't spot when I first watched this film 13 years ago
• The creature that pilots the craft that Padme, Anakin and Jar-Jar head off in when they first arrive on Coruscant looks suspiciously like a Graske. They sure get about.
• R2-D2 notably doesn't talk much, and when he does, it tends to be rather blunt and aggressive. In the escape from Naboo, R2-D2 sees three of his Droid chums blown away in a matter of seconds. Has anyone ever considered that he might be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder?
• Why does Anakin head back into Naboo city at the climax if he's just meant to hide anyway? I mean, I get that he saves the day and everything so it's needed for plot advancement, but why not just, say, hide him down in the already abandoned underwater Gungan city?
• Lucas can predict the future: Padme and Qui Gon watch the Pod Race on what appears to be a tablet. At a guess, based on how chunky it is, it's a Motorola Xoom — or, at least, given the general trends of the Star Wars universe, it's going to be a droid of some kind...