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A Vergence in the Force — The Phantom Edit of Star Wars: Episode I

February 2nd, 2009

I have been reading, for years now, about the mysterious Phantom Edit of Star Wars: Episode I.  Apparently, some time after Episode I was released, a fan who was as dissatisfied as all the rest of us were decided to take matters into his own hands and re-edit Episode I in an attempt to address some of its many flaws.  Word of this Phantom Edit spread, and it wasn’t long before I was reading about in on-line and even in some mainstream magazines.  (For example, here is an interesting piece on the Phantom Edit from Salon.com from back in November, 2001.)  Kevin Smith had to publicly deny being responsible for this re-edit.  (Eventually the Phantom Editor was revealed to be Mike J. Nichols from California.)

Finally, after many years and a little help from one of my friends (you know who you are — THANK YOU!) I have finally had a chance to watch the Phantom Edit of Star Wars: Episode I myself.

It is a revelation.

By lifting out lines of dialogue, re-arranging moments, and even deleting entire sequences, Mr. Nichols has worked to excavate the core of a decent story buried under the bloated two hour and twenty minute run-time of George Lucas’ original film.  (The Phantom Edit runs just a hair under an hour and fifty minutes.)  

So what has changed?

Nichols has removed many of the more juvenile (and, let’s say it, stupid) elements of the film.  The main focus of his deletions is, surprise surprise, on Jar Jar.  Now, Jar Jar is still in the movie, don’t get me wrong.  There is no way to have the story be coherent without his presence.  But Nichols has trimmed Jar Jar’s presence in the film WAY back.  No longer does he step in poodoo, or get his face numbed and start talking like Bill Cosby doing his dentist routine, etc.  Nichols has even, in many places, reduced the volume of Jar Jar’s dialogue, subtly shifting the viewers’ focus away from his antics in the background to the things we SHOULD be paying attention to that are going on in the foreground.

Nichols actually gives Jar Jar something of an “arc” in the film, mainly by cutting the scene during the end-battle on Naboo where Jar Jar surrenders to the battle droids.  On the commentary (yes, there is even a commentary, and I was very pleasantly surprised by how well-spoken Nichols was, and the straight-forward way in which he laid out his rationale for all the changes he made), Nichols argues quite persuasively about how ridiculous it was to have Jar Jar on the podium celebrating with everyone at the end of the movie.  Wouldn’t the other Gungans be pretty pissed at that, seeing as how Jar Jar abandoned the cause at a critical moment by surrendering to the droids!  By taking that surrender moment out, Jar Jar now actually has a little bit of a journey over the course of the film.  He’s still an idiot by the end, but perhaps he’s a bit more of a heroic idiot.  (Nichols has clearly thought a LOT more about Jar Jar Binks than I ever want to consider, but I was intrigued by his point on this issue!)

The character who got the second-most amount of attention from Mr. Nichols was Jake Lloyd’s performance as young Anakin Skywalker.  Nichols did something really fascinating in order to improve Lloyd’s performance — he simply removed a large amount of his dialogue.  No more “yippees!” or “oopses!” or any of that.  Now Anakin becomes more of a quiet, introspective character — this allows us to read a bit more into his internal life, adding layers to his character.  Now it seems as if there’s some depth there, as opposed to his just being a fun-loving kid without any hint of darkness whatsoever.  Nichols also corrected one of the things that bugged me the most about Anakin in Episode I —  his blowing up the droid command ship by ACCIDENT.  Since we’d spent the whole film getting beat over the head about what a savant the kid was when it comes to machines and piloting, I always thought it was a HUGE missed opportunity on Lucas’ part to not make Anakin more heroic at the end, using his knowledge and skills to figure out what needed to be done (instead of becoming, as Nichols points out on his commentary, essentially a mirror of Jar Jar who only accomplishes his heroic deeds by complete accident).  Well, by trimming a few of Anakin’s scenes during the climactic space battle, and by removing much of his dialogue, it now seems like Anakin knows EXACTLY what he’s doing when he flies into that command ship and blows it up.  That culmination of Anakin’s story now plays MUCH better.

Nichols has also removed almost all of the Battle Droids’ dialogue.  Gone are all the inspid “roger roger”s.  This seemingly simple change restores danger and menace to the droids.  Now they are a THREAT, rather than pathetic and ridiculous characters.  

In addition to trimming back on all of that juvenalia, Nichols also focused on improving the pacing of the film.  Episode I is a very, very talky film.  (You might have noticed!)  I have read writers refer to it as “a movie of many meetings.”  As Nichols mentions in his commentary, one of the first rules of editing is to jump in to a scene already in progress, and then get out before it’s done — this maintains the audience’s attention and interest.  So, in a number of places throughout the film, Nichols has cut the opening few lines and the closing few lines of various scenes.  This is particularly noticeable in the film’s first act, which now moves at a much more brisk pace than it did before, and feels much more action-packed.  Gone are a lot of the conversations between Queen Amidala and her advisors.  Gone are a lot of the dumb jokes.  Gone are most of the instances where one character tells another about events that we, the viewers, JUST SAW five minutes previously.  Now, you almost feel as if you’re watching a Star Wars film!

Let me mention a few other changes that I really enjoyed:  Gone is the yawn-inducing (and totally unnecessary) opening crawl.  Gone is the whole time-wasting journey through the core of Naboo.  Although there is still one moment in which Qui-Gon mentions the existence of midichlorians, gone are all the other scenes that explain them and try to ground the Force in science instead of mysticism.  (Nichols explained that he left that one moment in because, since Episodes II and III hadn’t yet been released when he created this edit, he thought the existence of Midicholrians would play a strong part in those later movies and so felt it appropriate to leave in at least one reference to them.)

This re-edit is a masterful job.  With only one or two exceptions, the edits are amazingly seamless.  Unless you know the film really well, you’d never know that things had been lifted out.  It looks completely professional.  The over-all result really elevates the quality of the film.

Now, let’s not kid ourselves, re-edited or not, Star Wars: Episode I is still not a great movie.  Ultimately, many of the flaws of Episode I lie in the very basis of the story, which Mr. Nichols couldn’t do anything about.  I just don’t care too much about Jar Jar or the rest of the Gungans or any of the goings-on on Naboo.  The middle hour on Tatooine is dreadfully boring and is really only there to hook Anakin up with Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan.  Darth Maul has WAY too tiny a role in the movie.

I could go on.

Obviously, The Phantom Edit cannot address those concerns.  However, despite those limitations, Mr. Nichols worked wonders on the material.  His Phantom Edit is a fascinating study in film editing, and how judicious cutting can truly affect the viewer’s reaction to a film, for the better.  It powerfully illuminates the many places where Lucas’ cut of Episode I went very, very wrong.  

My hat is off to Mr. Nichols for the incredible amount of time and effort that clearly went in to this project.  It is quite a professional-looking piece of work.  The film still can’t hold a candle to any installment of the Original Trilogy, but I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed Star Wars: Episode I as much!

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