Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (3D)

My wife kept suggesting a trip to see the Star Wars: The Phantom Menace during its 3D run over the past few weeks. At first, I thought she was just suggesting it because she knows my love of Star Wars, but it has begun to dawn on me that she is a genuine fan. (This may seem unusual to not know about your spouse, but my opinions and dedication to the universe are pronounced. When combined with our tendency to do things for the other out of desire to make that person happy, it is sometimes difficult to know what is a genuine preference or just a willing deferral for the sake of the spouse's happiness. It's wonderfully complicated.) So, we finally made it to a showing Sunday afternoon on a blissfully relaxing three-day weekend.

What I found was a film that surprised me. I found it to be well-paced, moving, interesting, visually stunning, and above all, fun. I don't mean this in an analytical Lucas-apologist sense -- I think I actually surprised myself with how much I appreciated and enjoyed the film when it was just me and my wife and no one around to have to defend it against.

R2D2's entrance remains pitch-perfect and (almost) evoking tears in my eyes. Were it not for the pluck, ingenuity, and courage of the astrometric droid under the most dire and consequential of circumstances, the story of Darth Vader ends right there in the flight from Naboo. The four adult leads -- Portman, McGregor, McDiarmid, and Neeson -- all bring skills and gravitas to their nuanced roles. Ian McDiarmid's performances as the (future) Emperor are legendary. McGregor infuses the role of Obi-Wan with an arrogance and youthful disdain ("Why do I suspect we've picked up yet another pathetic life form?") that makes his transition to leader and mentor more striking in the subsequent films. Natalie Portman portrays her dual roles with convincing separation. And Neeson, a physically imposing actor, cuts a wide swath as the zen-like rogue Master and doomed purveyor of the Chosen One to the Jedi forefront.

And speaking of the chosen one, Jake Lloyd's Anakin was just fine as an excitable, all-too-self-aware young slave boy who shows a chilling Vader-esque calm in tracking down pod racers in the Boona Ev course. In the final space battle, he's cool under pressure, even for a child well-aware that he could get killed at any instant. Perhaps it is those slave-honed nerves that came from being forced into life-and-death situations in Pod races by Watto that allow him to disconnect from his fears (or even use his fear as focus?) and give his dark side the ultimate edge in the race for his soul.

The Republic's effective ignorance of slaves within its own boundaries is a jarring subplot that is ignored by *all* our heroes in this story. Both Qui-Gon and Padme (Amidala) express regret that they are not here to free slaves. What they imply is they have their own larger issues going on, and they can't interfere with the way things are. Perhaps the will of the Force, the midichlorians themselves created Anakin to bring this balance. And the way he'll be most effective is being tutored about real life-and-death and how beings are *really* treated here, by his original mentor, Watto.  Is Watto the real chosen mentor of the midichorians?  I love that this film still reveals new angles that I hadn’t seen before.

In his archetype friend, Jar Jar, amply supplies some extra humor in the breaks between the action. Consider the scene with the robots in Watto's shop, near-pod mishap with his hand, and the Bongo line in response to Qui-Gon's calm assurances ("Wensa you thinkin' we in trouble???"). Each of these made me chuckle reflexively. Combined with the almost slap-stick action he exhibits in the final battle on the plains, he's really a remarkable character.

And just one note about the epic lightsaber battle -- Obi-Wan's hopping preface before his aggressive final duel with Darth Maul always gets me going.

Final note: I found the audience experience to be the best I've had in recent memory. The theater was not sparse, yet the usual annoyances (cell phone texting, chatter) were conspicuously absent for the entirety of the film. Even a spattering of (enthusiastic) applause at the end. I guess I was expecting some idiots in the audience who would not be able to restrain some derision for Jake Lloyd or Jar Jar, but then again, perhaps the notion of giving more money to George would keep the angry away.

In short, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (in 3D) was an unexpectedly joyous experience.  Even more so 13 years later.

PS: The 3D enhancement was nicely done and unobtrusive.  Frankly, I’m partial to Blu-Ray crispness over 3D, but nothing trumps the big screen.

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