‘George Lucas ruined my childhood!’ cried the fanboys when this ungainly, frequently idiotic prequel to the director’s game-changing ‘Star Wars’ trilogy lumbered into cinemas back in 1999. Such a reaction seems a little overemotional – but then, if someone’s memories of youth are so fragile as to be shattered by a single film, they’re probably not the most reliable cultural commentator to begin with.
The story – such as it is – sees jobbing Jedi ambassadors Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) packed off to the lush planet of Naboo to break a blockade by the scheming trade federation. Little do they know that this seemingly ordinary (and spectacularly tedious) tax dispute is in fact just the cover for a dark power to start meddling in the affairs of the Galactic Republic.
The passage of time has not improved Lucas’s grand folly – and neither has the addition of an extra dimension. The dialogue is still disastrous and weirdly repetitive, the performances are still robotic and the plot is still riddled with inconsistencies. The 3D remastering is often so subtle as to be almost unnoticeable: even the podrace sequence – the heart-pounding highlight of the film – doesn’t seem to have much in the way of added depth, and the frantic pace of the action renders many elements blurry and indistinct.
What does come alive in the new print is the background detail – this was always a beautifully designed film, crammed with gorgeous costumes, sleek CG spacecraft and knowing nods to the earlier films: check out Watto’s junk shop, in which every corner is stuffed with busted robots and rusting detritus from Lucas’s Industrial Light & Magic warehouse. So while ‘The Phantom Menace’ is still a frustratingly flat experience, it’s at least a visually sumptuous one.