George Lucas may take his sweet time getting things done, but he does “em right. The long awaited “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace” DVD ranks as one of the best discs ever released.
“The Phantom Menace” (if you actually need this explanation, shame on you) is the first episode of the “Star Wars” series, which set the standard for sci-fi in the late-“70s and early-“80s with the original holy trilogy. “Phantom Menace” is Lucas” first “Star Wars” film that he has directed himself since the original in 1977.
This “prequel” gives background on Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) as a young Jedi knight, his wise but defiant master Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson), a young Anakin Skywalker (in his more tender, innocent, non-genocidal days) and a trade dispute that will indirectly affect the fate of the galaxy.
I”m one of the first people to admit that this installment, although it is highly entertaining and visually astonishing, doesn”t hold a candle to the original films in terms of story, characters or plot, but the double disc DVD is just, well, awesome. Disc 1 contains the movie itself, presented in anamorphic widescreen format, and both the picture and sound are first-rate.
The commentary track, featuring Lucas as well as Producer Rick McCallum and the other major heads of sound, visual effects, etc., is an enlightening and actually interesting guide to the film. Whereas most commentary tracks are full of gems like “Oh, this scene was really cool” or “Oh, this was the day when I had really bad diarrhea,” Lucas and his dream team give truly insightful facts about the film and the ideas behind it. Lucas considers his films to be more like silent films, in which the dialogue is like background music to accompany the visual story, or the origins of the various sound effects, which are all recorded from actual (and fairly mundane) sounds.
The second disc has a one hour documentary about the film, covering everything from the casting to the shooting to the premiere, and it covers an amazing amount of ground. Among other things, we get to see the little kids that tried out for the role of Anakin, Ewan MacGregor picking out his light saber, a sandstorm in Tunisia that ravaged the sets of Tatooine as well as Lucas agonizing over the excruciatingly difficult sequences, such as the pod race.
There are also short featurettes giving details about the story, design concepts, costumes, visual effects and fight scenes (you”ll be mock fighting in your living room after this one) that show the extensive pre-production necessary for the nuances and feel of the film to work.
One of the most intriguing parts of the disc is a feature that combines the storyboards, animatics and the final cut of certain scenes that required vast special effect sequences. The screen is split into the comic book-like drawings of the scenes, the animatics, which consist mostly of rough animation, and the final cut of the film. You can either watch all three at once or one at a time. Seeing the evolution of the sequences is fascinating, and to see the amount of work that goes into the shots gives you a new respect for this Herculean effort.
The extra deleted scenes, for the most part, have been deleted for a reason they would have interfered with the flow of the film, and most of them are just plain boring, but it is interesting to see exactly how much was cut out.
The disc also features a link to a web docmentary about the film and a weblink to a site that contains special material only available to those with the DVD.
There are also assorted production still photos, posters, a music video with the John Williams score as well as the original teasers and trailers for the “Phantom Menace” that you saw back in the fall of 1998 when you knew for sure that “Star Wars” would finally return. It rules.