Thursday, November 17, 2011

Star Wars Episode II.I: Attack of the Phantom

Recently I reviewed "The Phantom Edit", the commendable fan-recut of "Episode I" as a desperate attempt to save that movie.  Now we're moving on to the direct sequel made by the same Phantom Editor, "Attack of the Phantom".

I really recommend that you listen to the commentary track that the Phantom made for his recuts of the Star Wars films.  It really shows that these edits are a labor of love.  This guy loves Star Wars, he loves what it stood for, he loves the characters, he loves the philosophy of the stories.  And most notably, he loved George Lucas.  There's a heartbreaking moment about an hour into "The Phantom Edit" where he recounts that he won a poster in a Star Wars contest as a kid which he always intended for his childhood hero, George Lucas to personally sign it.  Then he notes that with the public acrimony that "The Phantom Edit" created, culminating in fit of bravado from Lucas that he'd never watch the recut under any circumstances, that signing of the poster will never happen.  I can't tell completely from the commentary since its audio-only, but I think the Phantom might have been crying a little bit when he tells that anecdote.  It shows he really cares about this Saga, he wants the prequel movies to be successful epics on the same level as the Original Trilogy.

George Lucas, as far as I can tell, has no such interests.  He only seems interested in stroking his ego by constantly telling himself that he knows better and doesn't have to listen to anybody.  "Attack of the Clones 3D" is coming sometime in 2013, probably released as the same movie over again, which all its major faults.  Nothing will be fixed, and the movie will suck just as bad as always.  I can actually understand how somebody could have been fooled into liking the Prequels - of course, you have to be a child to think like that.  I was eight when I saw "Episode I", and even though my parents left the threatre ready to kill themselves, I thought it was great.  I was eleven when "Episode II" came out, and I was not fooled.  Even that young I recognized that the movie was lousy, that the acting was terrible, and that the love story between Anakin and Padme was the most hilariously bad romance to be created in the history of human expression until the coming of Stephanie Meyer.  So if an eleven-year-old could see it, how in the world could George Lucas, a man who spent his life telling stories and making films be oblivious to these flaws?  He isn't, he can't possibly have not noticed, he just can't show weakness.  He can't let himself admit that the Prequels suck, and until then, the world will be cursed by mediocre awful Star Wars.

Of course, our dear Phantom missed nothing, and immediately recognized that "Episode II" was a disaster.  So he took out his pruning shears, ready to try to save George Lucas's film legacy once again.  This time, the Phantom cut out a full forty minutes from "Episode II".  This was originally the longest Star Wars movie, now its ten minutes shorter than "The Phantom Edit".  Since "The Phantom Edit" actually made "Episode I" a measurably worse of an experience all in all, I have to wonder if "Attack of the Phantom" can possibly do better.  Let's find out.

Well, much to my surprise, this is actually a really good movie.  Shockingly good, way better than any Star Wars prequel movie deserves to be.  The Phantom's editing craft has hugely improved, to the point that I think "Attack of the Phantom" might just be the fourth best Star Wars movie ever made.  Yeah, this one is better than "Revenge of the Sith", the darling movie of so many Prequel Apologists.  It still is a good distance away from the genius of the Original Holy Trilogy, but that's at least partially my own bias speaking.  This would actually have been a fairly decent first part of a Prequel Trilogy that actually was good, unlike the current disasters the world is plagued with.  I still say my own outline versions of the Prequels are better, but I can admit it when I've seen a good movie.  Not a great movie - there are still a few plot holes and the acting is two steps away from atrocious - but a good movie.

Now the fact that "Attack of the Clones" could be salvaged actually shouldn't come as a great surprise.  Structure-wise, its a far superior movie to "The Phantom Menace", since it actually has protagonists, Anakin and Obi-Wan.  "Episode I" has no protagonist, so the entire movie winds up being a series of things that happen, instead of a great story.  I'm not saying that a movie has to have a clear protagonist with a clear Heroic Journey, there are many great movies that do not like "Pulp Fiction" or Lucas's own "American Graffiti", but when you're dealing with a fantasy adventure, its best to keep the plot structure simple.  The Original Trilogy had a clear protagonist:  Luke Skywalker, no questions asked.  "Episode I" does not, so it had no chance to be saved.  Also, "Episode II" actually achieves a measure of character development with Anakin, even though he comes off repeatedly as a petulant child.  You get to know Anakin, you get to know Obi-Wan, you get to know Padme.  What character development does "Episode I" have?  Amazingly little. So "Episode II" is, ultimately, the superior movie, structure-wise, it was just destroyed by terrible directing and scripting, which can all be improved with smart editing.

The most glaring problem with "Episode II" is of course the embarrassing and downright hilarious love story between Anakin and Padme.  In all of modern cinema, I cannot think of a single example of any romance storyline being handled worse, with repeated overbearing scenes with the main characters constantly speaking inane dialog.  Hayden Christiansen should sue George Lucas for killing his career - he will always be cursed with his wooden death-toned performance of Anakin Skywalker in "Episode II".  Both Christiansen and Natalie Portman are competent actors, I can only blame George Lucas's directing and script for this movie's failure.  Worse, the structure of the romance is so over-dramatic to the point of farce.  Anakin and Padme love each other in a field, then they love each other in a fireplace room, then they love each other in a space gondola.  If this movie had sex scenes it would have been a damn good porno.

Luckily we have the Phantom to turn this whole situation around.  The love story plot is cut to pieces and glued back together into a far more subtle and less obtrusive piece of a greater movie, not the central focus of a bad movie.  The most offending and horrible scenes are cut out entirely, including the infamous "I don't like sand" scene.  In the original cut there's a very long annoying sequence of Padme constantly refusing Anakin's advances, probably to create an air of forbidden lust, but instead creating a sense that Anakin is an entitled brat, this is largely gone now, and we get to point much faster.  Instead of scenes of Anakin and Padme loving each other in artificial CG romantic locals, we have more human and better working scenes.  "Episode II" has a cut scene when Padme brings Anakin to her parent's house, and watching this scene in this movie, I cannot believe any sane person would cut this out.  Its a brilliant moment, it actually lets Anakin and Padme talk with other people instead of being trapped in an isolated bubble of completely fake romance.  Padme's mom teases her about the boy she brought home, clearly seeing a romance that Padme doesn't want to admit to yet, that's such a regular human moment.  Its the most identifiable scene in the entire prequels, I think, a point where a character deals with annoying parents.  Who hasn't had that?  I know we've never raced a Pod Racer outside of the Nintendo 64, yet that's the kind of stuff Lucas focuses upon.  The Phantom restores this scene, letting us get to the lovey-dovey stuff with a sense of proper build-up and foundation*.

Also, this cut is paced in such a way that you get the sense that Padme and Anakin fucked all night during a long Obi-Wan sequence.  Got to love that.  All in all, "Attack of the Phantom" gives a much more subtle, much more understandable romance between these two characters, which is what the Prequel movies so desperately needed.  I can see shades of the Han Solo-Princess Leia love plot in "Empire Strikes Back" here, which is a good thing.  That romance was humorous, used the personalities of its two key players perfectly, was excellently-paced, and did not devour the rest of the movie.  Its that kind of editing logic that turns "Attack of the Phantom" into a far greater movie.

The other big cuts are a streamlining process of Obi-Wan's detective plot line.  Since this movie is a lot shorter, having cut out a good deal of the pointless Anakin-Padme romance scenes, Obi-Wan now has to get to Kamino a lot faster.  In fact, I think a lot of Obi-Wan's stops on his detective journey were time wasters anyway.  What's the point of that one scene in a 50s diner**?  Or the visit with Yoda and the kids?  So the Phantom gets Obi-Wan to Kamino in about thirty minutes, and then brings him to Geonosis faster than that.  Its a much faster movie this way, and the excitement builds appropriately.

Most of the gratuitous action sequences are cut down as well.  I get the sense watching the Prequels that the writer (Lucas) didn't really care about the plot until "Episode III", and before that all he wanted were stories that linked together ridiculous action scenes.

"Let's have a movie with giant shark-monsters, pod racing, light saber fights, a space battle, robot armies, a sunken city make of glowing orbs, and Satan" says George.  

"umm.... How, sir?" says Lucasfilm.  

"Don't worry about that, make the special effects, I'll fudge up a plot to connect it all the night before release" says George.  

And everybody nods nervously.

This is not a way to make a movie.  Your action scenes should have a purpose.  They can be big exciting and over-the-top, but they need to have a plot reason to take place, you need emotional investment.  Why is the Anakin Obi-Wan fight at the end of "Episode III" the best fight of the prequels?  Because this is an exciting scene emotionally, not just viscerally.  The big space battle at the start of "Episode III" fails for the same reason, it has had no build-up, no proper framing.  So when it just opens with space explosions I have no idea whats going on just that space stuff is happening, just that a million things are happening at once and I don't know what to focus on first.  The Phantom cuts five minutes out of the rather pointless Coruscant chase, I find myself missing nothing, because that chase doesn't affect the characters in any way.

I do miss the space battle between Obi Wan and Jango Fett though.  That was a very cool sequence.  Every Star Wars should have a space battle someplace, preferably at the end.

Unfortunately, the Phantom starts to lose his discipline towards the end of the movie.  With an hour into "Attack of the Phantom", most of the plot action has already taken place, so now its time for action-action.  Yet for some reason, the entirety of the sequence inside the droid factory is kept in, even though its arguably the worst action scene of the entire film.  I know Anakin and Padme are going to survive these machines, who cares?  Take me to something that matters!  After this, the Phantom gets better by heavily editing the monster battles in the arena, thankfully removing a lot of terrible unfunny antics with C-3PO becoming a Droid battle robot.  I don't like that he cut out most of Jango's final fight, it makes that character look a lot weaker, but whatever.  The last forty minutes are fight scenes upon fight scenes, but aside from the factory moment, most of them work.

Well, except for the Yoda battle.  To get off the Phantom's edit and back onto George Lucas's original, I have a lot of problems with Yoda in these Prequels.  First of all, why the heck is Yoda leading an army of clones?  We got the wisest dude in the galaxy, a master of the Force and guru-extraordinaire commanding a force comprised of bastard children of science dressed like Storm Troopers!  Yoda is not the kind of person who leads an army into war, its the exact opposite of what the real Yoda would do.  Then that leads us to Yoda's big stupid lightsaber fight against Count Dooku.  All of sudden, tiny little old man Yoda is flipping and spinning like a ninja against an opponent three times his size.  I don't know about anybody else, but this scene is hilarious, not tense.  It is the farthest thing from the final grand climax George Lucas wanted.  Back in 2003, when I first saw this movie, the entire theatre roared in laughter, it was the dumbest thing we ever saw.  The fact that George Lucas imagined this scene at all and thought it worked shows how little he understands these movies, and probably doesn't say much for his respect for them.  The Phantom left this all in, of course, because he really didn't have a choice, I imagine.

By the way, he did cut just about all of Jar Jar's lines from this movie.  Because everybody hates Jar Jar.

Ultimately, I have to say that "Attack of the Phantom" is an exceptional movie.  When "Episode II" comes to theatres two years from now in 3D, this is the version George Lucas should use, because it is clearly superior.  I know he won't, because that would be giving in to his fans.  He will never do that.  In fact, just watching "Attack of the Phantom" in any version is probably illegal, and LucasFilm will fight against this movie forever.  We just have to accept it and find crafty ways around the law.  As for Star Wars itself, I can see a rather effective five-part series starting with "Attack of the Phantom", including "Revenge of the Sith", and then continuing with "Star Wars", "Empire Strikes Back", and ending with "Return of the Jedi".  At least compared to the current six-part monstrosity, its obviously more enjoyable.

But as for Star Wars prequel cuts, this is the end of that on this blog.  The Phantom has disappeared from the pages of history.  Where he's gone, I don't know.  He never made an "Episode III" cut, either due to lack of interest or because he legitimately liked that movie.  I would like to see what he can do with that one, but honestly I don't think cutting up "Episode III" would make it better - aside from removing the funniest scene in all of movie history.  "Episode III"'s main problem is that its too short, not too long - it jumps to Anakin's turn to the Dark Side far too quickly to be effective.  There are cuts to "Episode III" that you can find, but they're not the Phantom's work, they're done by others following his footsteps.  I could spend years watching every Star Wars fan re-edit - that's the job of another man, I think.  I'd like to end on a clear high note.

So, Phantom, wherever you are, thank you for the job you have done.  You are a man of courage and honor, unlike some filmmakers out there.  You saved "Episode II".  Godspeed, good specter, Godspeed.

* Still, the Phantom didn't explain to me one of the biggest issues I've always had with the Anakin-Padme romance:  why is Padme so willing to have sex with a guy she's known since he was eight?  She was a Queen when he was a boy, she's got to be like twenty years older than him!  Isn't there anybody her own age to marry?  What about that one-eyed Black guy whose name we never learn?  What is wrong with her character?  Maybe there's some novel out there that explains that Padme has been frozen in carbonite for eight years so that her age is the same as Anakin's, because at this point in the story, they get treated like they're the same age.  I kinda wish George Lucas was able to notice the kinky implications in this movie, because then we might have had a far better movie.  The masterpiece anime "Rah-Xephon" was able to make it work, I don't see why Star Wars could not.

** Why in the name of fuck is there a 50s diner in Star Wars??  Can anybody explain this to me?


  1. I'm sticking to my theory about Soviet Robot George Lucas. Years later, when he shuts down and everyone finds out the truth, just remember that I called it.

    I am going to make one last effort to get you to watch Noein, Blue. Just watch this scene, it's only a minute and a half long. It is one of the coolest fights in the entire show. In the English dub, the white-haired guy, Karasu, is voiced by Crispin Freeman, and I know you're a fan of his. If this scene doesn't convince you to watch Noein, then I give up. Either way, this is the last time that I'll bug you about this.

  2. Well, I know this will give another reason to complain rather than actually explain anything, but in regards to Padme falling in love with Anakin whom she had known as a little kid, in reality the age difference between them is only 5 years. Padme was 14 years old in Phantom Menace and Anakin was 9. It's still a bit creepy considering that at that age 5 years is still a big difference, but since she didn't develop feelings for him until Attack of the Clones which was ten years later, so she was now 24 and he was 19, it's not that bad. Plus, considering they hadn't seen each other in all that time did help. After all, if she had kept in touch with him all those years and then still fell in love with him, that would be a bit wierd.

  3. @Anon: You guessed correctly that I'd copmlain about that. How could she be queen at 14? If she's a democratic elected official, that's insanely low. She's not even in high school yet! That's the stupidest thing ever! I teach high schoolers, I wouldn't dare let any of them near a government position. I wouldn't want them to deliver me mail, yet alone run an entire planet. Don't these Naboos have adults to put in charge?

    I mean, if Queens were hereditary, it would make sense, but they're not, they're elected like Presidents apparently. With term limits.

    And Natalie Portman looked NOWHERE NEAR 14 in Phantom Menance.

  4. I was 6 when The Phantom Menace came out and 9 when Attack of the Clones was released. I loved the prequels then and I still love them now. Are they flawed films? Yes they are. Nobody will deny that the dialouge in Episode 2 is pretty bad or that some of Jar Jar's lines are annoying. I think the OT is superior to the PT.

    However, George Lucas knew he could never live up to fan expectaions after more than a decade of waiting. The prequels were never going to be a dark, violent, twisted tale about Anakin's turn from ant burning child into Dart Vader. That's not Star Wars. The prequels hooked kids like me into loving the series and now he's doing it again with the Clone Wars TV show.

    As for the Yoda scene, that was my favorite moment when I saw it in 2002 because it was unexpected. The Yoda of the OT is an older, wiser character who has been beaten, broken, and watched his Jedi Order be exterminated because of his mistakes. Episode 2 Yoda is the Head of the Jedi Council who is being forced by the circumstances to lead the peaceful Jedi into a galactic war. He shambles into the room with his cane, fights Dooku in a flurry of Force fueled attacks, then breathes a tired sigh after the battle is over and picks up his cane again. He can only perform at that high of a level for short periods of time, perfectly fitting his old sage character.

  5. Unless you're beyond stupid, you should be in high school by the time you're 14.

  6. Blue, you're trying to rationalize the political system in place in these movies when Lucas barely even thought about it. She could be queen at 14 for no other reason than George didn't want her and Anakin to have too big of an age gap, so he could cast a young hot actress in the following movie. It's so transparent. There is no good reason.

  7. I see you like TLK, you should read this comic!

    one of the best fancomics ever, the writing is pretty good.

  8. Are you talking to me? What is TLK?

  9. I was talking to Blue.

    TLK= The Lion King