Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace is back in theaters, but you might have noticed the scene at your local multiplex isn't quite the same as it was in 1999. The 3D conversion of the notorious prequel doesn't seem to have people ready to reconsider the movie that brought the world Jar Jar Binks and a plot about taxing trade routes, but that might not be entirely fair-- George Lucas has put a huge amount of effort into this 3D conversion, and it's hard for anyone to deny that their 8-year-old selves would have loved nothing more than to be plunged more fully into the world of Star Wars.
So does the 3D version of The Phantom Menace actually merit a return trip to the theaters, or maybe even rescue the movie from history's dustbin? I saw it at midnight last night to find out, and even through my exhausted haze took enough notes to put together the latest installment in our To 3D or not to 3D series, in which we use our scoring system to help you figure out if this ticket is worth it. Read below for what I found out.
Does It Fit?
Conventional wisdom is that CGI and animated movies fare much better in 3D than live-action, and lucky for George Lucas, he crammed The Phantom Menace with so much cutting-edge (in 1999) CGI that the movie practically looks animated. Then there's the simple fact that this is a giant war epic set in space, with ships flying among the stars, rows and rows of droid soldiers marching down fields, and cities based under water or in spaceships-- there's plenty to feast your eyes on here, and lots of depth of field to play with. This is one of the few 3D conversions in which you think, "Yeah, it probably would have been really well-suited to 3D the first time around too."
Fit Score: 5/5
Planning & Effort
George Lucas is as famous now for making Star Wars as he is for tinkering with and changing the original film, whether adding CGI creatures to the re-release of the movie in the late 90s or, just recently, claiming that Han Solo actually never shot first. His passion for both the movies and the technical process that goes into making them ensured this conversion was never going to be a half-assed job, and rumors of 3D Star Wars conversions had floated around for years before George Lucas confirmed them a year and a half ago. With the best technical minds in the movie business to work with and plenty of time, Lucas put everything he needed in place to get this done right.
P&E Score: 5/5
Before the Window
When you think of Star Wars, you think of a lot of things flying toward the audience, from the TIE fighters chasing each other to the ligthsabers swinging to, yes, the podrace from The Phantom Menace. But making those things actually jump out of the screen, go "before" the window, really requires planning when you're making the film, which is the one luxury Lucas didn't really have. I'm not really sure you want Jar Jar Binks's eyes bugging out of the screen anyway, so maybe you'll be relieved to hear that there's nothing really going on before the window here.
Before the Window Score: 1/5
Beyond the Window
Here's where The Phantom Menace really had the chance to shine, using all the massive CGI locations and big army battles to create a huge sense of depth on the screen, as if you're looking through a window and out onto a world that's really there. For the most part it works. Scenes set in space especially have a real sense of expanding depth, as if that star there is just a little bit further away than that star there. The battle scene between Jar Jar Binks's Gungans and the droids feels deep and epic as well-- well, as epic as you can get with Jar Jar in the middle of things, at least. Even indoor scenes, traditionally the ones where 3D conversions just kind of give up, have a sense of depth and expanding space-- not even just in the giant hallways of the palace on Naboo, but even in Anakin's childhood home, where his mother feels distinctly closer to us and Qui Gon-Jin feels distinctly further away. The only problem? None of this feels as significant as it would have if Phantom Menace were originally shot in 3D. George Lucas's pristine 3D conversion job may have only proven that, in this crucial category, original 3D is always going to be superior.
Beyond the Window Score: 4/5
The problem of 3D movies being too dim, with the color and light not boosted enough to compensate for the fact that your 3D glasses are basically sunglasses, seems to have faded over time. The Phantom Menace erases this problem entirely, presenting a movie that looks pretty much exactly the way you remember it, with no problem making out what's happening once you've got the glasses on. It helps, of course, that this particular Star Wars is especially bright and shiny and aimed toward kids-- but you might mind that a little less when you realize how much easier it becomes to see things in 3D.
Brightness Score: 5/5
The Glasses Off Test
Sometimes when you're seeing a bad 3D conversion you have to take off your glasses just to keep from feeling nauseous, and you realize to your surprise that the image looks exactly the same without them. The general rule of thumb is that the blurrier things are when you take off your glasses, the "more 3D" there actually is-- and even in good 3D movies, it's worth removing your glasses for a second to test it. The Phantom Menace has a few scenes where the blur effect is minimal, but I was surprised by how much it still made a different-- the backgrounds and foregrounds were still set distinctly apart in a way that enhanced the movie, even though without the glasses I could see what was happening just fine. Without any dramatic depth of field either in the frame or popping out of it, The Phantom Menace doesn't do great with the glasses off test-- but I give it an extra star because of how much it does with the small amount of blur it's got.
Glasses Off Test: 3/5
You might feel sick for plenty of other reasons while watching The Phantom Menace, whether from the ill-advisedly large popcorn you bought for a midnight show (maybe that was just me) or the memory that, yes, Jake Lloyd really was as bad as you remembered. But the 3D isn't going to make that any worse-- this is post-conversion 3D with all its planes and edges very sharply defined, and given how straightforward Lucas's original camera moves were, there's no danger of the camera moving so fast that the 3D keeps you from figuring out what's going on. "The Phantom Menace won't make you physically ill!" is hard to imagine as a selling point back in 1999, but such is the 3d-ified world we live in now.
Health Score: 5/5
Final Verdict: If you're looking for further reason to hate The Phantom Menace, I'm sorry to say you won't find it here. The 3D conversion isn't going to change your opinion on the movie or give you a whole new moviegoing experience, but it's not bad either-- it seems to mainly be serving the purpose of giving George Lucas something else to tinker with and giving more people an excuse to see it in theaters, and who can argue with that? If you've watched The Phantom Menace 100 times at home already, don't go to this expecting something brand new. But if you've seen enough terrible 3D conversions, you might want to check this out as an example of it done pretty well.
Will you see The Phantom Menace in 3D?
For more 3D analysis, visit our To 3D Or Not To 3D archive right here.