Why you shouldn’t see Star Wars: Episode I in 3D
Last night, I saw Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace in the cinema for the first time since 1999. It’s been a long thirteen years in many ways – in 1999 we were all about the Millennium Bug but fairly unfussed about a) international Islamic terrorism b) the incipient global financial collapse and c) Justin Bieber. Back then, of course, Bieber was mostly concerned with shitting himself and smearing it up the walls, so it’s nice to know some things never change.
I’m not ashamed to admit that I was a huge Star Wars fan. For years my bedroom was festooned with plastic lightsabers, Expanded Universe novels and pages of printed-out cheats for every LucasArts video game going (turns out I was a crap Jedi). My Jar Jar Binks impression was the envy of literally three of my contemporaries, and slip into Yodaese I could like nobody’s business. In short, ten year old me would have been psyched to attend the multimedia preview of the first ever Star Wars film to be rereleased in 3D. Whatever happened?
From the moment I arrived at the Empire in Leicester Square, the latent fanboy in me was in revolt. Stormtroopers? What the hell are Stormtroopers doing at the launch of a film that predates their existence by 13 in-universe years? As any fule kno, the Stormtrooper Corps wasn’t created until the formation of the Galactic Empire at the end of Episode III – but as probably the second most easily identifiable relic of the series (the first being Darth Vader, obviously), it was inevitable that Fox would dust off some of their old uniforms in order to give the hundreds of children and pathetic adults present the opportunity to pose with the iconic white-clad villains. There was also a chap dressed as Darth Maul, but his carefully applied face paint and glowing lightsaber were slightly offset by the fact that he was a bit fat in exactly the way that Ray Park wasn’t. Also, one side of his saber kept going out.
Once I’d negotiated the crowds of idiots clamouring to squeeze onto a tiny patch of greenscreen or cuddle R2D2 (sans Kenny Baker, presumably), the insanity continued. Fox’s Director of Marketing was accompanied to the front of the theatre by his armoured cohorts (and Darth Maul, whose lightsaber had given up completely by this point), and after he’d oozed platitudes for a couple of minutes he ceded the mic to none other than Anthony Daniels aka C3PO. Now, nobody’s arguing about Daniels’ importance – he’s the only actor to appear, after a fashion, in all six films and his companionship with R2D2 is one of the series’ immortal constants. But why was he here, in a non-metallic suit, making crap jokes? It seemed odd that given the most commonly cited justification for 3D (that it eliminates a dimension of suspension of disbelief, bringing the audience closer to the action), the event’s organisers were so determined to remind the audience that NONE OF THIS IS REAL.
Anyway, the film finally started – and at the moment that the weirdly glistening LucasFilm logo appeared, popping out of the screen like Milla Jovovich’s tits in Resident Evil – Something 3D, we were reminded of just how colossal an ego trip this whole venture is for George Lucas. The traditional opening crawl actually looks really great as it disappears into the depths of space, but from the moment the camera swoops down towards Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan’s spaceship the magic is, largely, dead. The shabby animatronic Neimoidians look even more ridiculous than they did in 1999, and their cod Chinese accents are ludicrously offensive, particularly given their job of kicking off the memorably inane script. And then – oh look, it’s Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor! God knows we can’t blame them for taking such lucrative gigs, but from their first few stumbling lines it’s clear that not even these fine actors will be able to save their dully pious Jedi characters.
You’ve all seen the film before, so I shan’t bother to spell out the plot except to say that, against all the odds, Jar Jar Binks actually appears to have lost a dimension during the transition to 3D. The overwhelmingly human lead cast highlights just how out of place and uncomfortably animated he looks – whether it’s his stupid fucking ears, his worryingly Minstrel-esque voice or the incredible slapstick which is his sole reason for existing. Seriously, George Lucas, was it necessary to make Jar Jar step in some shit on Tatooine? Dear me.
Episode I‘s major redeeming feature was always its high-energy action sequences, and nothing’s changed. The climactic podrace is certainly enhanced by the use of 3D, as is the final lightsaber duel between Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan and Darth Maul – in both cases the overflowing kinetic force of the scenes themselves are turned up to eleven by the sensitively applied effects. In fact, the 3D is impressive throughout – The Phantom Menace compares very well to many of the other films which have received post-conversion treatment over the past couple of years, although I suspect Titanic will sink them all (ha!) when it’s finally released this April after a conversion process that’s taken well over two and a half years. The added effects are impressive when they need to be and unobtrusive when they don’t, blending into what is already a CGI-heavy film with little of the awkwardness of Clash of the Titans and the like.
In many ways, this is the great failing of The Phantom Menace 3D. Its conversion does indeed render the experience of watching it (particularly on the big screen) more immersive than ever before – and with less of a physical barrier between the audience and the action, it’s even harder to ignore just what an amateurish film this is. The script is terrible, the characterisation scarcely exists and the plot is roughly bolted together to ensure the next high-octane sequence is never too far away. Great lumps of clunky exposition litter the dialogue (“Qui-Gon, I’ve been wondering – what are midichlorians?”) and Jake Lloyd is once more able to remind us that, against all the odds, he was actually a worse Anakin than Hayden Christensen. It’s an achievement of sorts, I suppose.
The original Star Wars trilogy retains its status as a crowning achievement in sci-fi, even if its good name was sullied by the disastrous prequels (of which Episode I can arguably call itself the worst). But how on earth are its 70s and 80s effects going to stand up to the 3D treatment? Fans were horrified when the Ewoks started blinking – they’ll never stand for this. Seeing Star Wars: Episode I again reminded me why I haven’t watched it in years – it’s a film for children in a way that the originals never were, and I fear that this unnecessary and counterproductive re-release will do nothing but remind a generation of current and former fans just how easily amused their preteen selves were. Call off the other conversions, George – the Force is anything but with this misguided venture.