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By Joshua Griffin

Has it been worth the wait?

Almost no DVD has attempted something as ambitious as this.

The Episode I DVD is even worth your investment in a DVD player if you have continued to delay the purchase. It is that good.

There's no hiding the fact that George Lucas loves digital technology - he shoots his films digitally and wants to project them digitally as well.

Finally, fans of home theater will get a chance to see the film the way it was meant to be experienced in the comfort of your own home.

George Lucas and Lucasfilm have put together a remarkable DVD in the past 8 months of demanding work. And the end product is just as amazing as you could imagine.

Lucasfilm presented us with a copy of the check disc for what is easily the most anticipated DVD since the format's introduction.

Episode I will finally hit home theaters, as it should have long ago, this October 16th, 2001.


The Phantom Menace

Visuals

The movie itself is utterly beautiful.

From a technical standpoint, the presentation of The Phantom Menace has never been better. The transfer of the film has been painstakingly reproduced on the digital format directly from the original film master. The result is a perfect quality image and a razor-sharp picture.

The Anamorphic Widescreen and true aspect ratio of 2.35:1 give us the chance to really see the first prequel in all of its glory and in perfect color.

If you're meticulous, you'll begin to have a new appreciation for the work that ILM did on the film. The quality of the image you now witness on your TV, the thousands of man-hours and millions of dollars all take on new meaning in the DVD.

The work on the CGI creatures and textures stood out the most at the first viewing. The only criticism with the quality is that it does look perhaps a bit more static and less life-like or organic than film. It's a small price to pay for the clarity we've never been able to appreciate before.


And while around 90% of the movie remains identical to the theatrical version, it appears that George can't leave the film alone.

For the DVD release, he's added a full new Coruscant taxi transition sequence back into the film which is also included in the deleted scenes section.

There are several other significant inclusions as well, including all new podracer introductions and a huge addition to lap two in the podrace. But don't worry, the podrace has never looked better.

Make a special point to know that the DVD is divided into 50 chapters for those that want to pinpoint the moment they are looking for in a flash. It goes against traditional thinking, but mass chapter listing is quite possibly a new trend for franchise films to start following.


Audio

THX has been a major George Lucas innovation for the past 25 years and they were there, right alongside the DVD team working hard to make a perfect sound transfer in each and every scene.

Each moment of the film has been meticulously reworked and the sound will completely surround you. That's because instead of having just Dolby 2.0, like the VHS version, DVDs with a moderate home theater will enjoy the vibrancy of Dolby 5.1 Surround EX.

Podracers roar like never before and you will appreciate the nuance of sound design. Laser blasts and the roar of the crowd fill the rear channels and the subwoofer roars appropriately. While a handful of audiophiles may be disappointed that DTS sound was not included as an option, be confident that Star Wars has never sounded better.


Menus

The fully animated menus are terrific and randomly reflect (or when chosen) the unique planets of the movies.

From the screencaptures you've seen so far, they've spent a lot of time making sure you constantly feel like you are inside the Star Wars universe even when just browsing the disc.

My personal favorites have to include Tatooine, though they all are rendered beautifully and it is obvious at least half of what you see is new material created specifically for the DVD.

Occassionally the load times on the menus are bothersome, and waiting for the music to load when switching options is frustrating but overlooked at the expense of beauty and immersion.


Artwork

The box art is simple but well done and about what you would expect from the release. In this copy the documentation was not included but will probably lean more towards functionality and less on innovation.

The disc art was not printed on these early release discs, though from the pictures we've seen the actual discs look sharp. To be fair, once you've seen the movie, go directly to disc two and forget whatever else they decide to include inside the packaging.


All in all, hard core fans will be impressed and the casual fan will be blown away.


Show me the Extras

No DVD would be complete without a few scraps from the cutting room floor and a commentary from the director. But Lucasfilm would have none of that, and has pulled out all of the stops in making this second disc just as important as the first.


Commentaries

The Director's Commentary featuring George Lucas is full of life, informative and vibrant. That having been said, it is much more than just a director's commentary. Producer Rick McCallum, Sound Designer/Editor Ben Burtt and all of the VFX gurus from ILM round out an exhaustive cast of voice commentary.

Clips from each of the top-level crew members are all inter-cut and woven together, identified with their last name subtitled on the film (when the function is turned on audio 4) and cleverly using the distinct audio channels of the stereo.

The commentary moves from the guys "talking as they watch approach" to a more thoughtful series of clips edited together smoothly, another pioneering idea from the folks at the Ranch.

Lucas talks about the choice of a particular close-up of Maul as a transition, Ben talks about where he got the sound for something totally obscure and McCallum demonstrates his command for the cameos in the movie.

John Knoll is unfortunately under-used, though hearing each talk about their specialty is really distinctive and welcomed for additional enjoyment of the movie.


"The Beginning"

"The Beginning" is a feature documentary produced exclusively for this DVD chronicling the adventures of making the film. Star Wars is special to so many people this will give fans access to see how a Star Wars film is made.

There is no 'voice of God' omnipresent narrator, but simply the on-camera voices in scenes cut together to tell the narrative of making the first prequel.

It is surprisingly honest and candid, with far more revealing moments than I ever anticipated. Rick chats casually with Ewan McGregor when he is cast in the movie; George balks with the ILM people over the budget and expresses dissatisfaction over Jake Lloyd (Anakin) and a performance on the Tatooine set.

This has to be one of the strongest features of the DVD. Hopefully it will never be released elsewhere making it a true exclusive and reason enough to plunk down the dough for the DVD.

My greatest disappointment was Rick McCallum continually using curse words in the feature - directly contrary to the fanfare of TPM being a kid's movie and the like. Fortunately Lucasfilm did have the foresight to bleep most of the offending words, but it still detracted very much from an almost perfect documentary.


Deleted Scenes

Another motivation for the purchase of the two-disc set is the stunning section devoted solely to the Deleted Scenes from Episode I and a second documentary on the pedantic choices a director and editor make in the editing room. These scenes are absolutely marvelous and having read The Cutting Room Floor before, you'll see many scenes take on new life like never before.

George Lucas recently expressed his desire to include only substantial cut scenes to the movie, each needing to be over a minute in length. Certain ones you might have enjoyed but have been passed over, like the lightsaber shorting out or Obi-Wan emerging from the swamps. Nevertheless, there are seven great scenes that made the final cut.

Of the seven cut scenes, there are six really fantastic ones.

I found the acting and effects in one scene where Kitster stops by for a visit to be remarkably underwhelming.

The others are eye-catching and dramatic, including a major sequence around the podrace a second time with Anakin losing control of his pod and Sebulba getting his flamethrower out and trashing other contestants in the Boonta Eve race. You'll be greeted by several new racers, new pods and plenty more action in the Deleted Scenes section. By far this was the most requested item to be included by the fans, and Lucasfilm has heard your plea for not only the DVD, but what makes the DVD great.

All of the scenes are also included in the documentary, but you can also see them without watching the entire feature if desired. A great idea since the Deleted Scenes section is going to be one of the hardest working parts of disc two. Keep in mind that all of these scenes were deleted for a reason, and were not able to be seamlessly branched into the film and should not be considered canon.


Multi Angles

Like a few other films out there, there is one section used with the multi-angle feature on your player, though again this is an extra and again not within the movie itself. The podrace scene and the bongo submarine scene both toggle between the film, animatics and storyboards. The latter also including some test footage of stand-ins for principal actors. A rare feature and one that works well, though perhaps will be used less than some of the other inclusions on the disc.


Featurettes & Web Documentaries

Five featurettes are produced as well for the DVD, giving you a chance to see into the hows and whys of costuming, visual effects, and fight choreography.

Also included is the twelve part Web Documentaries series that we all watched several years ago on 2x2 Quicktime screens on our computers as Episode I entered post-production.

Instead of being streamed painfully on your 56K modem, we're treated to them the way they were shot, preserved and in quality for ages to come. Nothing exactly new here, but still a great collection to finally have a permanent copy.


The Rest

There are plenty of what I consider to be lesser items also incorporated in this extras disc, including the theatrical and television trailers, an exclusive production still gallery and copies of the poster and print campaign for the first prequel.

The Making of Starfighter felt like a forced addition to the disc, purely a marketing tool for a game, that while superior, feels out of place here.

The DVD-ROM link promises to be cool, though Lucasfilm admitted that they have no idea what it will entail at this point. Undoubtedly, it will be a focal point for what they weren't able to include on the disc, including sorely missed exclusive Episode II content.

And finally, the Duel of the Fates music video is fitted into the extras disc, rounding out a determined Lucasfilm first run on DVD.

There's plenty more to check out on your own, including a ton of Easter Eggs and fun transitions you will enjoy when you land your hands on your own copy next month.


Summary

All in all The Phantom Menace shines on DVD like nothing before, and all incarnations released previously will quickly fall by the wayside.

If your VHS copies are still in existence in 5 years, don't worry because you won't watch them anyhow. You will however, be watching this DVD if you want to see Episode I.

Technically the disc is a remarkable achievement on what a company can put into the home theater version from a film.

Star Wars has an astonishing following ensuring its success, but without question this approach is ambitious all things considered.

In short, if you have a DVD player, you should already have this title reserved at a local retailer or plan to purchase it the first chance you get.

This is Star Wars like never before, since it has never looked better, sounded better and been more fun to watch. Star Wars has finally come to DVD, and it was worth the wait.


TFN Rating - 96 out of 100

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