Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Star Wars, Episode 1: The Phantom Menace in 3-D

Star Wars, Episode 1: The Phantom Menace (in 3-D) (George Lucas, 1999/2012/in perpetuity) "Star Wars" is the one series I was curious to see in 3-D—the clean, simple lines of force (pardon the pun) from the first immersion into those films (a long, long time ago in 1976) was along a line that extended from behind our heads to points close to the center of the screen: the opening titles that flashed, then crept into a distant infinity; hyperspace travel that zipped into that same bulls-eye quadrant; the cavernous, warehouse spaces of the Empirical HQ's; the approaching death-spirals of various death-stars; slaloms through asteroids and skimming over ice-fields.  The movies already seemed yearning to stretch 2-D images into three-dimensional spaces, and although Lucas' spacial sense and action lines became increasingly complicated, and precise cutting more extreme, he always kept that sense of background/foreground busyness that leant itself to three-dimensions without (literally) rubbing our noses in it--or poking our eyes with it.

Naturally, they'd start with Episode 1 this time.  After all of Lucas' tinkering over the years, 3-D seems like a natural place to go, especially for the reasons already listed, and there's been enough time out of theaters to make projected images seem unique (plus, there's a ready-made audience already grown up on all six films, who may actually prefer the prequels to their predecessors...despite the sneering of their fathers--"Shut UP, Dad!").

But, whatever the design sense going into the films, they were still SHOT flat.  Yes, there's a lot of post-production digital imagery that can be manipulated, but the actors—the live ones, anyway—are still forever tied to the backgrounds on location, and any cutting/pasting/shifting is going to make those portions look as fake as those late-model View-master pix that weren't taken with stereo-cameras on location, and looked instead like cardboard standees in front of a shifted background.

Not sure how they did it—I suspect it's the adding of shaped shadows to facial features and bodies—but, the 3-D effects are convincing and seamless, and although the picture loses some luster due to the lower light-levels (and those damn glasses), they're the same minor annoyances one finds in any 3-D presentation-it goes with the depth-of-territory.  And, as most of the SW films, pains had already been made to make things multi-planed enough to justify the conversion.  Some of the speedier foreground elements tend to go rather unmenacingly phantom-like, but those are on rare occasions. 

Some random thoughts:

—The big vista shots, especially with the Naboo cityscapes, tend to look a bit more miniaturish in 3-D—although the skycraping Coruscant scenes play very well.

—I also got the impression that some shots which resisted conversion were just replaced with closer shots—the main ones being Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson, who seems to have made the best choice in underplaying his radical Jedi ideologue, although it tends to undermine the character's importance) clucking a Tatooine beast-of-burden into motion, which I was under the impression was done in a fuller shot than the close-up this has, and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor, who had the best acting arc of all the actors in the prequels) doing a spinning lightsaber move seems to have been moved a bit closer than the original.

—I don't remember The Phantom Menace moving as fast as this viewing seemed to.  It's still pretty amazing to see how precise the editing is, and yet manage to get all the visual information necessary to follow what's going on, something not helped by the sound mix, which tends to prefer effects impression over clarity.

—Interesting how Keira Knightley blends in the role of Queen Amidala's decoy/hand-maiden with Portman's more formal Queen acting (although, considering Knightley is probably a full foot taller than the miniaturish Portman, shouldn't the instinctual Jedi have noticed the subterfuge a little earlier?).

—The last 20 minutes work like gang-busters with the cross-cutting Battle for Naboo on four fronts—the Gungan invasion by battle-droids, the Padme-led attack on the palace, the attack on the droid-command ship, and the three-sided lightsaber duel, and it's helped immeasurably by John Williams' "Duel of the Fates," which after consisting of a subdued omnipresent sonic wallpaper for most of the film, kicks things into high-gear. 

—Haters are still going to hate it—and, indeed, the fan-boy line has been staunchly adhered to in 3-D reviews—but, the Trade Federation plot resonates a bit more after the NAFTA kerfluffle and the bank meltdowns, and I still like the midiclorian idea making Annakin a "virgin birth"—leading me to the thought at the time "what if Jesus Christ turned out to be an asshole?"—even if it was all revealed to be a bio-engineering project by Palpatine in Revenge of the Sith.

No, it ain't perfect—it's a little stiff, with shots of smiles for smiles' sake, and the dialogue clunks along, even if some vital bits of information are slipped in under the radar, along the way.  But, as one friend remarked after seeing a student-remixed version of Episode IV, "God, I forgot it was such a cheese-fest."  It is.  The thing is based on old "Flash Gordon" serials and embraces the sensibilities of that style of ham-fisted major-key film-making.  It's a fantasy film, not a Guide For Living, and subtlety was never in the blue-print.  It is a small, quaint little conceit-film-series made Epic by the adoration of its fans.  yet, for some reason, George Lucas is to blame for the pushing of "product" (I haven't read any of the 3-D reviews, but the word "greed" keeps popping up in them), when it's the marketplace that drives these things.  If people stopped buying this stuff, he wouldn't keep tossing it out there, revamping, tinkering, and attempting to make the films transition across the decades and technologies.  We have met the Sith, and they are Us.  And, boy, are we dumb!

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