Sunday, February 12, 2012

Episode I: Dizziness & Slumber

3D Movie Swag
Opening weekend for Star Wars: Episode I- The Phantom Menace 3D has brought with it some mixed feelings about the future of the franchise. It's no secret I was brought up on the original trilogy; my closet is full of Star Wars memorabilia, including vintage toys, photographs, games, puzzles and even a 35mm film trailer. I'm not a purist, however, who has forsaken the expanded mythos and labels any of George Lucas's latest efforts stilted, forced and commercial. Although I do not share the minority opinion that the prequels are superior films, I do believe they all have the hallmarks of a good movie trilogy (e.g. compelling story arc, impressive cast, dazzling special effects, rousing musical score, etc.).  The scripts are admittedly weaker, and George's insistence to both write and direct the three films himself often translated to wooden character portrayals from actors too afraid to stray far from the complicated and uninspired dialogue*.

I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little confused and disappointed after I saw The Phantom Menace opening day during its initial theatrical run. That's to be expected given sixteen years of anticipation and hype.  A recent viewing of the Blu-Ray confirmed the film itself has aged well, and I relish any opportunity to see my favorite movie franchise on the big screen again.   While I'm not a big fan of post-production 3D, I knew ILM would take care with the material to make sure fans wouldn't get sick in the aisles.  I was also glad to hear the 3D re-releases would start with Episode I because the young central character and light-hearted tone arguably makes it the most accessible to children (who are really the intended audience).

It was easy to tell how excited I was when my wife and I stood in line at our local Cineplex Friday night; so excited, in fact, that I took the promotional toys and glasses from the cashier and tried to walk in without the tickets.  As we made our way to our seats, however, it became obvious that the other theater guests did not share my enthusiasm.  The people standing in line were there to see other movies, and our auditorium was small and barely half full.  Plenty of children were there, but the lack of anticipation and excitement was palatable.  The parents looked tired and restless, as if they were obligated to see the movie but certainly not happy about it.  There was no applause when the Twentieth-Century Fox horns blared, or the green Lucasfilm Ltd logo flashed across the screen. The opening story crawl was met with silence, and that silence hung like a dark cloud over the proceedings.  It was as if the children didn't know they were supposed to laugh and cheer, or perhaps they didn't feel compelled to.  Either way, the only change came when an eight year old fell asleep in our row and stared snoring (loudly) for the final 30 minutes of the movie. When the credits rolled, everyone got to their feet and shuffled out quickly, similar to the reaction that happened thirteen years ago.  Hadn't anyone seen this movie before?

Perhaps it was the 3D effects that threw everything off.  While the pod race, Lightsaber duels and final space battle looked as good as ever and benefitted from the added depth, a lot of the close-ups looked strange.  Whenever two or more characters were talking, for example, the person center stage would be more prominent than the others. George likes to crowd his frames with lots of people, so this became visually distracting over time.  Sometimes the 3D effect would be muted, almost non-existent, where-as other times there was distinguishable separation between the foreground and background.  A lot of the digital matte work looked good, but I often found myself shifting my head to change the perspective and bring the frame back in focus.  I guess this is to be expected of post-production 3D, but it made the whole affair seem forced.  While I think the team at ILM did a commendable job, the added dimension did little to add to the already impressive visuals.      

Given the weak turnout, tepid audience reaction and tacked-on feel of the visuals, the question remains how the other films will look when they are released in the next few years (particularly the final three).  The prequels' visuals were driven largely by computer animation, so my assumption is they already had the information there to understand distance, positioning and depth of field.  Because the originals were made in the time before computers took over special effects (mostly matte paintings and stop motion photography), it will be another task entirely to understand where objects are in relation to each other.  While there's no question I’ll be there to all, I'm curious if they will ultimately be able to pull it off.  Even if they do, will anyone care?  Initial numbers suggest The Phantom Menace 3D came in 3rd at the box office this weekend, similar to how Star Wars: The Clone Wars fared in August 2008.  Given the recent release of the saga on Blu-Ray, and the almost weekly showings of the movies on cable (Spike TV), perhaps the franchise has lost some of its luster.  Regardless, my only real hope is that the crowds for the other films will be more compelled to stay awake. 

*Carrie Fisher is fond of quoting Harrison's Ford line to George Lucas upon reading the script for The Empire Strikes Back: "You can write this s%&!, but you can't say it."

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