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Attack of the Phantom! Josh has seen a brilliant fan edit of Star Wars: Episode II!

Earlier this year I wrote about The Phantom Edit of Star Wars: Episode I.  Michael Nichols was a fan of Star Wars who, like sane people world-wide, was tremendously disappointed with Episode I when it was released in 1999.  While the rest of us just whined to our friends, Mr. Nichols set out to see if some thoughtful re-editing of the material could shape a more successful film out of Episode I’s lengthy, bloated run-time.  As I discussed at length in my review, in my opinion Mr. Nichols succeeded wildly.  On the one hand, the film is still Episode I, and there’s only so much one can do with that story that, really didn’t need to be told.  On the other hand, by skillfully tightening up scenes, removing large swaths of dull and useless exposition, and cutting down much of the juvenile humor, Nichols was able to craft a much more dynamic narrative from the film.

When I read that he had also taken a pass at Episode II, I was ecstatic.  I was able to get my hands on his fan-edit last month, and as with his Phantom Edit of Episode I, I enjoyed it thoroughly!

Once again, Mr. Nichols demonstrates how a small trim (by removing just one line of dialogue) can really change the feeling of a scene for the better.  Let me give two examples.  In the opening sequence, after Amidala lands her ship on Coruscant, her bodyguard Captain Typho jogs up to her and says “We made it.  I guess I was wrong, there was no danger after all.”  Then, of course, Amidala’s ship explodes.  Typho’s dumb line takes all the air out of the scene — instead of it being a SHOCK when Amidala’s ship is destroyed, the audience is primed for something bad to happen by Typho’s ridiculous declaration.  So Nichols just snips out Typho’s line.  The queen lands her ship, steps onto the platform, and then BOOM.  Much more exciting moment.  Example number two takes place soon after, when Amidala enters Chancellor Palpatine’s office.  Yoda gives her a creepy greeting: “Seeing you alive brings warm feelings to my heart.”  OK, ew.  That bizarre line slams that scene to a halt, in my mind, as the audience tries to not think about what else of Yoda’s is warmed by seeing Natalie Portman.  So Nichols eliminates the line.  Amidala enters, and gets right down to business.  Much better.

As in his cut of Episode I, Nichols also removes most of the more juvenile and dumbed-down elements of the story.  Do you remember, with pain, all of the ridiculousness of C-3PO getting his head placed on the body of a battle droid, and then spouting all sorts of teeth-hurtingly bad puns?  Well, that’s gone completely!  Then there’s what could have been a cool moment, towards the end of the film, when we see that Count Dooku and the Geonosans have begun working on plans for the Death Star.  We see a display of the Death Star on a screen in the background, and eagle-eyed Star Wars fans sat up and said hey, cool!  But then Lucas proceeds to hit the audience over the head with this, showing the death-star graphic two more times as the Geonosan hands Dooku the plans.  What should have been a subtle nod to the Original Star Wars is turned into an obvious even-a-three-year-old-will-get-it moment.  So Nichols has eliminated the Death Star scenes except for that first moment, and he has even changed the subtitle translating the Geonosan’s dialogue to make the Death Star connection a little less obvious.  This is very clever, and I loved it.

In addition to small tweaks to scenes like those, Nichols also makes some bold changes to the overall structure of the narrative.  Once again, let me give two examples.  First, Nichols almost completely eliminates the story of Obi-Wan’s efforts to track down the bullet used to kill the shapeshifter assassin Zam (that eventually leads him to the clones on Kamino).  While this means some cool moments are lost (such as the scene with Yoda and the younglings, which gave us the type of glimpse of Jedi life and customs that I wish we’d seen a lot more of in the prequels), it really strengthens Obi-Wan’s character because, let’s face it, in the original version he demonstrates the investigative skills of a toddler (and in fact has to have a young kid tell him to go look for the missing planet — I mean, DUH!!).  Instead, Nichols tweaks Zam’s death scene to have her say “Kamino System,” thus sending Obi-Wan right to the planet of the Cloners, and preventing the audience from having to sit through the ridiculous scene with his American Graffiti diner-owing alien buddy.  (I should also point out that Nichols’ manipulation of Zam’s death scene and dialogue is so seamless that I had no idea anything had changed until a few minutes later when I realized that Obi-Wan knew exactly where to go to get some answers.)

Nichols also completely reworks the Anakin-Padme love story.  In theory this love-story should be the center-piece of the whole movie — the emotional through-line that gives weight to all the rest of the galactic goings-on.  But, as anyone who has actually seen the film knows, the love story falls flat because of the wooden acting and horrendous, horrendous dialogue.  When Padme declares, in the Geonosian arena, that she is “truly… deeply” in love with Anakin, it is a ludicrous moment to an audience that has witnessed almost two hours of his whiney, stalkerish behavior.  So how does Nichols address these problems?  First, he tries to shape moments to show us that Padme actually does care for Anakin way before they ever get to Geonosis.  Nichols adds in some deleted scenes (that were among the special features on the Episode II DVD) in which Padme brings Anakin to her parents’ home on Naboo.  Now, the scenes are pretty bad, but the idea is that these moments demonstrate that Padme does have some stirrings of feelings for Anakin (why else would she bring him to meet her parents?) without her having to actually DECLARE her feelings with bad Lucas dialogue.  

Then, Nichols totally re-works the scene where Anakin and Padme kiss by the lake on Naboo.  Nichols cuts almost all of Anakin’s terrible, terrible dialogue (you know, like his whole “I don’t like sand” monologue).  Now the scene is carried more on the weight of the silent looks between the two characters, the lush scenery, and John William’s beautiful score.  But I haven’t gotten to the biggest change.  In the original version of Episode II, they kiss, but Padme breaks it off and says they can’t continue.  (This is followed by several more tedious scenes in which the two of them discuss the impossibility of carrying on a love-affair in secret.)  But in Nichols’ version, he ends the scene with their kiss — WITHOUT PADME BREAKING THINGS OFF.  Then, he skips all the scenes that follow, and cuts right to the moment after Anakin’s nightmare (one of the biggest laugh-inducing moments in the movie because of Anakin’s over-wrought thrashing about, which has been thankfully excised in this version) when we see that it’s morning, and Anakin is standing on the balcony, and Padme comes out of the house in a nightgown and asks Anakin about the nightmare that she knows he had.  THE CLEAR IMPLICATION IS NOW THAT THE TWO OF THEM SPENT THE NIGHT TOGETHER!  And, for the rest of the movie, they are actually together as a couple!  This puts all of the events of the rest of the film in a different light — and now it makes sense for Padme to declare her love for Anakin in the arena, and it also makes sense for her not to abandon him after he admits to killing all the Sand People — because they’ve been intimate and have already established an emotional connection with one another.  Brilliant.

If there is any mis-step that Nichols makes, it is that I think he was too overzealous in trimming down the action sequences from the first half of the film.  The chase through Coruscant after the second assassination attempt on Padme is significantly cut down, and Obi-Wan’s fight with Jango Fett in the rain on Kamino, and their subsequent battle in an asteroid field, is completely eliminated.  In his commentary track, Nichols makes the case that these action sequences were repetitive and unnecessary, as they did not advance the plot in any way.  Well, that’s true, and that is a failing of the script.  In a truly great film, the action sequences should be inherent to moving the story forward, not just eye candy thrown in to keep the audience excited.  But, that being said, those two action sequences are truly great sequences, I think, and without them the first half of the movie becomes a lot duller.  I would have preferred to see Nichols keep the action, but just trim some of the stupid dialogue (like the silliness about power couplings in the Coruscant chase, and all of Obi-Wan’s complaining about flying from the asteroid field battle) the way he did for the rest of the film.

But, that being said, I still really enjoyed this fan-edit.  As with his re-working of Episode I, Mr. Nichols has done an incredibly professional job.  If you hadn’t seen this film before and I played you this version, you’d never suspect that this wasn’t the official version but instead a fan-edit created on someone’s computer.  Nichols has a keen eye for lifting all the bits that made adult Star Wars fans cringe when they first saw this film, and his savy editing decisions result in much improvement of the pace of the film and our emotional connections to the characters.  I had a great time watching this version, and I look forward to watching it again in the future.  If only there had been more people with the skills of Mr. Nichols actually working with George Lucas on his prequel trilogy!!

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