Truthfully, Episode I isn't the horrifying betrayal that countless Internet commentators proclaimed at the time. Nor is it a gem waiting for rediscovery after the years of vitriol have finally died down. But in this new 3D version, long after the initial hype and horror have subsided, you can see The Phantom Menace more clearly — flaws and all.
Jar Jar Binks, one of the greatest points of contention between the movie's lovers and haters, now seems even more of an enigma, given how integral he is to this film's plot and how minimized he becomes as the prequel trilogy progresses. Now that we've had 13 years to process him, he no longer seems like an all-encompassing affront against decency; he comes off merely as a genial klutz limited by the screenwriter's vocabulary.
The Nemoidian trade federation, however, still sound like anti-Asian caricatures from WWII propaganda films, and time hasn't lessened that impact. This may not have been a conscious decision, but it's certainly one that could have been addressed in the post-production process. Similarly, Jake Lloyd as the child Anakin Skywalker doesn't work. There's no doubt this performance was exactly what series overmind/writer/director George Lucas wanted, and the boy has a few very effective moments, so the blame lies with Lucas and not with Lloyd.
But the biggest stumbling block for anyone who reveres Episodes IV-VI is the midichlorians. The message of the original trilogy is that through discipline and training, anyone can become a Jedi knight and keep peace in the galaxy. Now it turns out that one's Jedi proficiency is really decided by ... a hyper-intelligent genetic marker? This is the insurmountable obstacle for countless moviegoers who felt, and may still feel, that the prequels were a big door being slammed in their face that said, "Not for you."
The message of the prequels, for a viewer just coming into them, is that whether you're clumsy, annoying or a fuck-up, dumb luck can take you far. Far enough to become ensnared in a galaxy-spanning conspiracy. So Episode I is useful, then, for teaching youth about taxes and political process (as well as "long game" plots). The prequels aim for the complexity of one of Frank Herbert's Dune novels, getting into the roots of social change from an omniscient perspective that sees a picture bigger than humanity can perceive. But in that comparison, Lucas comes up short.
The 3D conversion is a quality one, with some nice moments of depth and foreground/background contrast. But it highlights the main visual limitation of Episode I, one that is only really apparent now: This was shot on film by a man who'd already lost interest in celluloid — and it shows. The texture of 35mm film seems a hindrance, and there's very little visual dynamic. As soon as the Star Wars series switched over to HD photography with 2002's Attack of the Clones, things got infinitely more visually interesting. The proceedings are still massive computer animations with live-action footage blended in, but there's so much more going on in terms of light, color and texture following this particular film.
The most promising aspect of the stereoscopic conversion for The Phantom Menace is how well it will serve the setpieces in future films from the series (specifically, everything on Planet Kamino, the opening shots of Episodes III and IV, the big space battle in VI, the amazing cinematography of dream team Peter Suschitzky and Chris Menges for Episode V). Then again, there's that CG Jabba The Hutt. It's a mildly expressive beast, but it has nothing on the puppet 16 years its senior. Lucasfilm has been an innovator in many media for more than three decades now, but in conquering the realm of the digital, it seems the one trick that eludes its army of incredible programmers, scientists, technicians and artists is giving the digital the same heft as the real.
Case in point: The one aspect of The Phantom Menace that gleefully steps out and takes its bow of rightful awesomeness — besides Natalie Portman's and Keira Knightley's dragnificent outfits — is Ian McDiarmid as Senator/Chancellor Palpatine. This is a case of an actor taking chickenshit dialogue and turning it into chicken salad, running things on a cosmic scale and shifting the entire focus of what Star Wars means. If the prequel trilogy's insistence on closing off the possibilities of the universe is a frustration for longtime viewers and fans — what with familiar robots popping up in unlikely contexts and cult favorite bounty hunters now having hundreds of thousand of genetic relatives in each subsequent film — then McDiarmid lets you know that his Palpatine is the real main character of the Star Wars universe, the engine that keeps the whole thing running.
So there's your short-term evaluation. If you don't already love The Phantom Menace, this is not a reinvention or recontextualization of the material that demands your presence. On the other hand, there is something to be said for walking into a theater and seeing bunches of children dressed in Jawa robes. That's a moment that endures.