At the time this review is being written, a palpable sense of both dread and anticipation is in the air outside the cinema just up the road as well as dozens of others worldwide. The second episode of George Lucas’s space-opera-turned-cultural-phenomenon Star Wars – titled, seemingly without irony, Attack Of The Clones – is about to be subjected to the eager gaze of tens of thousands of ultra-loyal fans, all of whom are hoping that the official line from Lucasfilm (sorry the last one was crap, but this one kicks butt, no really we promise it does) is true.
They did this all back in 1999 as well, but three years ago the tension was palpable. The first new instalment in the Star Wars saga for 16 years, The Phantom Menace should have heralded the start of a new generation of Star Wars obsession. In the end it delivered bad acting, silly accents, an almost total lack of likable characters, plastic computer effects and the most insanely stupid gimmick of all time in Jar-Jar Binks, but that didn’t stop the film from raking in the millions. It was not, however, the fulfilment of the die-hard fans’ expectations. It was really never going to be – after 16 years, Lucas could have delivered Lawrence Of Arabia and it would have seemed like a disappointment. You simply can’t go home again.
In the lead-up to the release of The Phantom Menace, Melbourne-based filmmakers Craig Tonkin and Warwick Holt started work on a documentary about the local Star Wars fans, their trials and tribulations and of course their motivations. The obsessive fan is of course a rich tapestry for the documentary maker – just point the camera at the freaks and let ‘em make fools of themselves and bingo, instant cult hit (or handy ten minute story for tabloid TV public affairs programs). But Tonkin and Holt weren’t interested in making a mockery out of the fans – quite the opposite. Sure, most of us go along to see a Star Wars movie and then get on with our lives without ever once donning a Darth Vader costume and putting on a silly voice, but for some this is a way of life, a release from everyday mundanity or just a bit of harmless fun. Some people scream obscenities at football players at Colonial Stadium. Some people grin manically and wave their arms around at rave parties. Some people spend entire weekends perfecting the art of jumping a skateboard. And some people pretend to the a dark lord of the Sith. To each their own.
Mostly (but not always) detached behind-the-camera observers, Tonkin and Holt capture the lives of several groups of Star Wars fans with admirable warmth and affection, but are not averse to having a gentle dig at the obvious silliness of it either. We see the pure obsession of the collectors (and let’s face it, what collector isn’t obsessive?), the remarkable ambition of the large-scale conferences the fan club Starwalking organises, the subculture of the Star Wars fan film (they even have their own awards – the Obi Awards!) and get to sit in on the kind of trivia night that you don’t want to be at unless you really know your Star Wars backwards. “Even at a science fiction convention you can overdo it and look like a real freak,” says RMIT Star Wars trivia contest winner Christian Appleton insightfully.
Best of all, though, we get to be a fly on the wall at the Melbourne midnight premiere of The Phantom Menace, seeing the anticipation beforehand and the palpable disappointment afterwards. Only one fan is interviewed that’s willing to admit the film wasn’t much cop; everyone else looks for the good side and hopes it’ll improve with subsequent viewings. And make no mistake, these people are committed. When Shane Morrissey, the co-founder and director of the Starwalking fan club, realises after many repeat viewings that the film is a let-down, he resigns his position, sells his memorabilia collection and moves up north.
Throughout all this the tone is kept light and fun, and the relatively short documentary’s hour-long running time passes quickly. The editing is superb – there’s got to have been hours upon hours of footage to wade through, but Tonkin and Holt have an uncanny ability to use different bits of footage in an interconnected way, very often with humorous intent. It will of course be compared to Trekkies, the acclaimed American doco on those that like to make it so, but for our money this one’s got the edge for a couple of reasons. For one, its timing was perfect – this wouldn’t have been anywhere near as satisfying a character study had we not gotten to see those characters squirm in the face of The Phantom Menace. But there’s also an appealing guerrilla feel to this one that can only come from having no budget and spending way too much time around your documentary subjects. Hopefully they’re over at Hoyts right now, queuing up with camera in hand and their own Episode 2 in mind.
The Phandom Menace was shot on low-end camcorder equipment, in PAL. So why is the resulting DVD in NTSC? Most likely it’s simply because a deal had already been signed for a US DVD release and the corresponding disc master had been made; to do another in PAL just for Australia would have been quite cost-prohibitive in terms of authoring and encoding without a big company to foot the bill. At any rate, do bear in mind that you’ll need an NTSC-compatible display device to view this disc.
More annoyingly, though it was produced in 16:9, this NTSC conversion is a non-anamorphic letterboxed offering. With resolution lost through both the NTSC conversion and the lack of 16:9 enhancement, it’s not entirely surprising that the resulting video looks a bit sub-standard; sharpness is lacking, colours are often misrepresented and suffer from both noise and bleed, and the black level is way too high, turning the “black bars” into a kind of menacing dark grey. Aliasing runs rampant at times.
However, it must be remembered that this was shot on consumer equipment, so quality’s going to be a little lower than many DVD fans are used to from the word go. In the end, it’s a documentary and picture quality is not as crucial as it might be for a feature film; and in the end, it doesn’t look awful, just average.
MPEG compression is generally fine but does turn up the occasional artefact; interesting, this video stream is encoded at a constant bit rate (or about 7Mbit/sec) rather than a variable one, something highly unusual for commercial DVD.
A short but hugely entertaining documentary that deftly treads the line between reverence and parody, The Phandom Menace is great viewing even for those who’ve never seen a Star Wars film and have wondered about the people that keep going on about it all.
The US-sourced DVD presents the doco with average picture quality and is not especially well encoded, but the main feature’s picture quality is serviceable enough and it’s great to see some extras included to add value.