Little can be said about Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace that hasn't already been echoed since its debut in 1999. Since then, series creator George Lucas has made no qualms about the movies being his property, altering the films every six months it seems, and now has re-released "Episode I" in theaters, this time in 3D. The end result is a poor, nearly non-existent 3D conversion and an overall boring film that hasn't aged well at all. If you don't know the plot of "Episode I" (...?), it opens on a dispute over trade routes across various systems in the Republic. Two Jedi, Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), are sent to the planet Naboo to handle a blockade by the Trade Federation. Unknown to the Jedi, the architect behind the Trade Federation blockade and subsequent invasion of the planet is a Sith, one of a group of dark Jedi thought to have disappeared from the galaxy. When negotiations with the Trade Federation fail, the two Jedi are set on a path that will have them sent to many planets and cross paths with Queen Amidala of Naboo (Natalie Portman), Darth Maul (Ray Park) and the boy (Jake Lloyd) who would become Darth Vader. The long and short of it is that "Episode I" was a "love it or hate it" film the first time around and a 3D re-release will not convert any non-believers, though the film tries very hard to be something special in a manner not seen (or capable) when the first three films were made. "Episode I" attempts to do a number of things that should be commended. Unlike the first "Star Wars" trilogy, the prequel films do not open with a civil war. Instead, we have a Republic that, while on its way to cracking, has a routine and social flow set apart from the Empire. There are bureaucracies to tackle and backroom politics at play, all of which play some part in the Empire's eventual rise. "Episode I" was also our first real look at the Jedi Order since most of them got owned by the time "Episode IV" rolled around. They have their own system, politics and relationships. Perhaps the biggest of these relationships is the master/apprentice relationship illustrated (and arguably the film's closest hit at emotion) between Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan. What was once a mythical image in the original films now took life with the inclusion of the Jedi Order and its subsequent involvement in Republic affairs and given the scope of the "Star Wars" universe, that was a good thing to include. Where it begins to hurt isn't so much the content (accept the midichlorians, dammit) of the script as it is the script itself and the truly awful direction that follows it. The fact that both of these roles were fulfilled (and butchered) by the man who created the "Star Wars" universe doesn't make it hurt any less. What was true in 1999 is still true to this day: "Episode I" suffers from empty dialogue, endless cliches, more than a few questionable (racial) stereotypes and little imagination when it comes to the English language. It doesn't help that Lucas' direction is more about visual flair than performances, having the likes of Neeson (who still can't do wrong, even with this script), Portman and McGregor and refusing to utilize any of them effectively. And yes, Lloyd may have only been a 9-year-old kid, but that doesn't excuse his truly painful performance (and twice shouting of "yippee!"). My sympathy no longer exists for him.
The entire point of the re-release (aside from attracting new fans under the age of 10) is to bring out the "Star Wars" films into the 3D format. If "Episode I" is any indication, we best stop right now. The setting and scope is perfect for the format, but shooting in 3D and converting to 3D will never be the same thing. Given all of the money and power at Lucas' disposal, there is no question that the 3D conversion of "Episode I" was meticulous. Yet it hardly stands out. The film is darker than you would like. You would be hard-pressed to remember when the depth of the shots popped or got deeper, save for the battle between the Droids and Gungans. Even then, it isn't enough to impress or make a case for 3D conversion. That said, Darth ****ing Maul. One of the best additions to the "Star Wars" universe and one of the best examples of how the prequel trilogy ultimately failed. You've got a great idea and fail to utilize it to its fullest potential, opting for the truly poor decision. It is regrettable as the "Star Wars" universe, especially before the events of the first films, was ripe with potential on nearly all fronts of cinema: scale, drama, action, etc. With "Episode I," you get enough action, but are left feeling hollow over most of the forgettable cast, miserable script and poor execution. It's just exhausting to think of how good it could have been. At least we got "Duel of the Fates" out of it.