Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace 3D (2012)

Sent to resolve a taxation dispute with the Trade Federation, Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) instead find themselves under attack as Viceroy Nute Gunray (Silas Carson) orders an illegal invasion of the planet Naboo. The Jedi – along with exiled native Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best) – escape with The Queen (Natalie Portman) and depart for Coruscant in order to find favour with the Galactic Senate. Forced to stop on Tatooine for repairs, the Jedi happen across a young boy named Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) with whom The Force is unusually strong. Their discovery does not go unnoticed by Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), however, the political alias of a burgeoning Sith power.

Thirteen years ago, in a galaxy uncomfortably close to the bone, a loyal fan-base snorted in derision at a movie so apparently terrible that it not only made a mockery of their decades of devotion, but tarnished the memory of their once-hallowed original trilogy as well. Betrayed by the man to whom they had given years of their lives, a considerable sum of money and their first cinematic love, a generation found themselves sorely disenfranchised by the infamous phantom menace.

Except, they didn’t really. In the subsequent years, these individuals have upgraded their collection first onto DVD and then onto Blu-ray, continued to invest in expanded universe games and novels, and returned to watch the film’s two sequels, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. There is still great affection for George Lucas’ brain child, and where a generation was once inspired by the original trilogy, so too has a generation been enchanted by the new series of films. The franchise has endured, despite the continued resistance of a select few.

With Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace returning to cinema screens following a 3D overhaul, old wounds might once again begin to itch, however, as those once slighted by the film’s 1999 release question why they would ever wish to see the film again. After all, it is the same film, riddled with the same flaws, simply retrofitted in 3D. This is true, but with over a decade to let the old scars heal, I urge you to revisit The Phantom Menace and make peace with a film mired in unjustified contempt.

It’s ridiculous, after all, to think that George Lucas has somehow done his fans wrong by not making the movie that they wanted to see. It’s a shame to think that the man himself has been worn down to the point of retiring having been unfairly vilified by a group of people who just happen to have grown old and cynical faster than he can make movies. The Star Wars films have never belonged on a pedestal, their iconic status ultimately bestowed on them by misguided audiences determined to adopt the franchise as their own, resulting in a sense of entitlement that would see them become their beloved franchise’s own worst enemy.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to say the film is perfect, or even particularly great. Indeed, the problems with The Phantom Menace – and the prequel trilogy as a whole – have been well documented: the overly exclamatory dialogue that is rife with exposition, the embarrassingly wooden acting as actors grapple with excessive green-screen and a plot that gets too bogged down in pseudo politics to allow for any real momentum or character development. The truth is, however, that many of these criticisms can be just as easily levelled at the other films, and if we can overcome clunky dialogue and awkward plotting for them – anyone who denies there’s political jargon in A New Hope simply isn’t listening hard enough – then what’s stopping us here? Surely it can’t just be nostalgia alone?

Because – as I have already argued – there is so much to love in The Phantom Menace, particularly now that it has been spread over an extra dimension. The pod race, the lightsaber battles and the space dogfights are on a par with anything the series has to offer, and with the benefit of stereoscopy this is clearer than ever. This is one of the best conversions I have ever scene, the screen opening up to a degree reminiscent of the finest 3D experiences. Coruscant is quite simply breath-taking, while the underwater world inhabited by Naboo’s Gungan quotient dazzles as it looms into view. There is a size and scope to Lucas’ creation that is utterly cinematic – from Darth Maul to Sebulba, Mos Espa to the Galactic Senate – it’s pure genre entertainment.

But as ever, The Phantom Menace‘s biggest asset has never been the films admittedly stunning visuals. The film’s score is arguably one of John Williams’ finest; as the Star Wars theme blasts out over the opening crawl, it is impossible not to feel time rewind and yourself regress back to childhood once more. But unlike the film’s narrative – which riffs quite obviously (and unfortunately) on Return of the Jedi – this is no rehash. The usual leitmotifs are blended with a more diverse soundtrack, as the true operatics of this space opera come into play, crescendoing with the film’s piece-de-resistance: Dual of the Fates. Throw in Ben Burtt’s characteristically impeccable sound design and you have a film that is tantalisingly close to being note-perfect.

Revisiting Star Wars Episode I you will quickly realise that Jar Jar Binks is nowhere near as annoying as you remember him to be, that the midichlorians do little to demystify The Force and that the laughable Yoda puppet has been mercifully replaced with a decidedly more palatable special effect. Of course it could have been improved; the opening could be more exciting, the dialogue written by literally anyone else and Jake Lloyd replaced with someone who could actually act – if only Max Records or Dakota Goya had been around in 1999 – but even as it stands, The Phantom Menace is far from the mess your unfounded prejudices would have you believe.

Imagined as the cinematic equivalent of a Saturday morning serial, The Phantom Menace serves its purpose completely. While the film may be juvenile, flawed and inconsistent, it is nevertheless a beautifully crafted, ruthlessly imagined and wildly entertaining piece of children’s entertainment. Not a travesty or a betrayal, just a perfectly serviceable slice of science fiction. Nothing more, nothing less.


The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (2011)

Spying a bargain and acquiring a model boat, roving reporter Tintin (Jamie Bell) immediately finds himself protecting his purchase from two other would-be customers. Warned by one that his life is now in danger, Tintin is left bewildered as his benefactor is shot and his model stolen. When the man responsible is unable to find what he is looking for, a small parchment that fell from the replica when Tintin’s dog Snowy broke it, he kidnaps the reporter and smuggles him aboard the Karaboudjan under the nose of the ship’s alcoholic captain. Escaping from his confines, Tintin befriends Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis), who is himself being held in a sort of prison, and depart the ship on a life-boat. Setting sale for Morocco, the Karaboudjan‘s original destination, the two slowly unravel the mystery of the model ship’s worth, entering into a race to discover the whereabouts of Red Rackham’s (Daniel Craig) treasure.

I think my favourite thing about The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn is how much fun it is; a pre-requisite for an action-adventure blockbuster, you’d have thought, but remarkable nonetheless. Gone are the staid childhood traumas, the trite sexual politics and the misplaced existential angst that needlessly riddle other such movies, replaced instead with an extra scattering of set pieces and a potent thirst for adventure. While there will be those who lament the lack of character development and bemoan the apparent absence of psychological complexity, there’s always We Need To Talk About Kevin, for everyone else Tintin has everything you could ever want from a Spielbergian popcorn movie.

For the very existence of Tintinology as a field of study indicates that there is more to our boy hero than might initially meet the eye. You don’t need a poorly written female foil or a soliloquy denoting inner turmoil to read complexity into a character, people can – and have been – drawing conclusions about Tintin for years. For everyone willing to take Hergé’s cypher at face value, however, little is lost; the character’s friendships, gusto and improbable luck proving suitably engaging without a Mrs. Tintin standing in the kitchen to be kidnapped for dramatic effect, undressed on cue or used to convince America’s Deep South that our hero, like, isn’t gay or anything.

While Spielberg has thankfully remained true to the characters (poor, poor Sherlock Holmes, what has Guy Richie done to you!?), he has inevitably been forced to cash in his creative licence on occasion, particularly when it comes to the film’s plot. Taking the book of the same name, shoehorning in large swathes of previous story The Crab With The Golden Claws, and largely ignoring the concluding instalment, Red Rackham’s Treasure, Spielberg’s adaptation is a veritable melting-pot of ideas taken from throughout the entire series. While this might disenfranchise less forgiving fans, and leave everyone with even a passing familiarity with the source material scratching their heads (I for one found the pacing off until I realised what was being left out and what was being kept in), it ultimately works beautifully. Taken on its own merits, as any successful adaptation should be, The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn is an absolute delight.

Opening with an absolutely inspired montage which highlights classic moments from both Tintin’s past and future, the sequence beautifully demonstrates not only the director’s embrace of his newfangled, motion-capture enabled freedom, but also gives John Williams the opportunity to showcase his truly accomplished score. Much like Edgar Wright’s work on Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Spielberg’s Tintin dances between scenes with utmost fluidity and imagination: whether cutting through a reflective bubble or alternating between delirium and reality – sand giving way to ocean – this really is the director’s most visually captivating film to date. Not only does he bring Hergé’s art to life with the utmost zeal, he uses his new medium to create the ultimate motion comic. Film.

It is clear that the director is having almost as much fun as his audience, with the film building up a truly astonishing momentum, particularly during one memorable set piece involving a motorbike, a bazooka and a beautifully realised city-slide. Referencing the comic’s mythology (take a bow, Bianca Castafiore) as often as he does his own body of work (one sequence harks back to the boulder-chase from Raiders of the Lost Ark, while another references Jaws), Tintin is a feast for the senses that will more than likely still have much to give through repeated viewings.

With Spielberg’s take on the narrative, however, there are inevitably scenes and characters missing in action: Thomson (Simon Pegg) and Thompson (Nick Frost – with a ‘p’, like in psychology) barely feature, Professor Calculus is absent altogether and the entire treasure hunt is scrapped in favour of a duel between warring cranes. That said, it is difficult to criticise a film for what it leaves out, and with Spielberg and second-unit director Peter Jackson drawing influences from the series as a whole it is likely that there sequences won’t be lost forever. A definite saving grace considering the comedy that could be mined from the scene in which the police officers attempt to chew tobacco or the professor’s hearing impairment.

While Hergé’s whimsical and ludicrous plotting may prove too contrived for some viewers (Tintin does spend an awful lot of time in exposition mode), the character’s transition to screen is otherwise a huge success. Exquisitely rendered and perfectly voiced (Andy Serkis, you ARE Captain Haddock), The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn is a breathtaking, pulse-pounding and laugh-out-loud funny piece of cinema; an absolute blast from beginning to end. Gobs will be smacked.