Back in 2012, Topher Grace edited the three Star Wars prequels, The Phantom Menace, The Clone Wars, and Revenge of the Sith, into one 85 minute movie and called it Star Wars: The Editor Strikes Back. After Rogue One, we wanted to see if held up. (Or, honestly, if it was ever good.) So Kat, Christa, Stephanie, and I sat down one Sunday afternoon together to watch and marvel over this valiant effort to turn the much despised prequels into, well, an actual movie.
Is Star Wars: The Editor Strikes Back an improvement on the originals?
Christa Seeley: It’s an improvement, but still far from perfect. Condensing the plot of three filler-filled movies into one definitely made the story tighter. And not having Anakin and Padmé meet when he was a child was also a huge improvement. In the originals, the jump from them meeting when he was a child to them dating felt strange and a little creepy. But it still felt like pieces of the story went unexplained or were underdeveloped. This isn’t necessarily the fault of the edit; much of that information wasn’t in the originals either.
Stephanie Tran: Condensing the story and making it tighter, as Christa mentioned, did do a lot to improve the story, but it wasn’t that high of a bar to meet. I was shocked at first that essentially the entirety of The Phantom Menace was cut, but upon reflection I think that the story doesn’t suffer too much from the cut.
Kat Overland: I thought it was a big improvement. While there were parts I missed from the originals, the story was tighter and flowed better. I was impressed at how much could be cut to create a coherent film.
Megan Purdy: Cutting The Phantom Menace was one of his better decisions and shows how little that film ultimately added to our understanding of these characters. Although we skip right over Obi-Wan’s training and youth it doesn’t feel like we skipped much. Did those sequences really just work to add parallels to other shittier Jedi? The only real loss from cutting the film is the small detail of how Palpatine uses the Trade Federation to rise to power, but even that isn’t really a loss. All of the politics in the prequels are so paper thin that the most stock explanation suffices. Overall, I think The Editor Strikes Back is much more effective, even with all of the gaps that are left in his reedit. It knows what it wants to accomplish and it moves quickly to do that, ejecting everything extraneous.
Did simplifying the plot help or was too much left out?
Kat: I think the biggest loss was Anakin’s backstory as a slave and an explanation of his separation from his mother. I think we also could have seen a little of how unsure and unprepared to take on a padawan Obi-Wan was at the end of The Phantom Menace; his mentorship by Qui-Gonn is an important parallel thematically. I was shocked at how much better the story flowed even after cutting out Count Dooku’s plot and the entirety of General Grevious, but I think we could have used a little more flashback to Anakin’s flirtation with the dark side as he killed Dooku.
Christa: Like Kat, I think the biggest loss was Anakin’s backstory, particularly his time as a slave and his relationship with his mother. Without those pieces he comes off as just some bratty teenager who doesn’t like authority figures (which he is, but there’s got to be more than just that). Other than that, though, I think simplifying the plot helped a lot. I consider myself a Star Wars fan, but if you ask me details about Episodes I-III, I’ll often draw a blank. There was just so much extra junk in there that’s not worth remembering and all of that distracts from the core story.
Stephanie Tran: I think that ultimately the edit cut too much of Anakin’s relationships that inform his character and explain his eventual turn to the Dark Side. Cutting out Anakin’s scenes with his mother, Padmé, and Anakin’s friendship, and his first meeting with and awe of Qui-Gonn Jinn as the first Jedi he ever meets all negatively impact the plot as well as the audience’s emotional investment in the story. For instance, since we don’t see Anakin and his mother until her death the audience can’t empathize with his raging and killing of the Sand People. This new version also suffered from the lack of the beginning of Anakin and Padmé’s relationship. Not that I’m mourning the loss of seeing the relationship between them starting while Anakin and Padmé were a child and a teen respectively, but I feel that cutting child Anakin’s impression of Padmé as someone who is very involved and caring (and yes, almost a mother substitute) turns their relationship into simply lust. And because we don’t feel as gutted when Anakin’s mother dies we also don’t feel Anakin’s worry and protectiveness for Padmé as much and understand and empathize with his turning to the Dark Side. Finally, I also believe that cutting Anakin’s relationship with Qui-Gonn Jinn, as brief of a relationship as it was, also caused the plot to suffer. Anakin’s awe and almost-worship of the Jedi Master and his eventual disillusionment with the Jedi Council in the original movies made his breaking with them all the more tragic. In the edit, Anakin barely seems to respect Obi-Wan, his own master, never mind the Jedi Council and he comes across as much less sympathetic. I also think that cutting Obi-Wan and Qui-Gonn Jin’s relationship, as well as Qui-Gonn’s belief in Anakin and the Council’s reservations, do much to undercut Obi-Wan’s guilt and pain as well as the foreshadowing of doom that The Phantom Menace ultimately delivered.
Megan: Anakain comes off as a whiny teenage fuckboy/serial killer in the making in the prequels even with his backstory in tact. That’s how thoroughly Lucas bungled the character. Not one of his relationships comes off as human. Not one piece of his relentlessly terrible growth from child to killing machine manages to inspire real sympathy in the audience (at least, in me). In a fantasy world where every Anakin scene isn’t a soul-sucking apocalyptic horror, I might consider cutting his backstory a mistake. But Grace had to work with what Lucas gave him, so cutting as much Anakin as possible is the only reasonable choice available to him. I think the only way for Grace to keep some of Anakin’s story intact would be to recast him, cutting in scenes from other films and synthesizing a hodgepodge Anakin out of other, better performances.
How did the editor shift the emphasis and what do you think of Topher’s choices?
Christa: It definitely felt like more emphasis was given to the romance, which worked for me. It gave it more of a YA dystopian feel, and I choose to believe that if we were watching the edit with no knowledge of the prequels, this emphasis would make you care more about the characters and how the decisions of Anakin, the Jedi, and Palpatine would change their lives. That being said, there was only so much he could do to improve on Padmé’s fate. While she’s a total badass in the beginning, eventually she becomes nothing more than a walking Jedi incubator, which is upsetting no matter what version you’re watching.
Stephanie: As Christa said, the editor’s changes (cutting The Phantom Menace and adding scenes between Anakin and Padmé on Naboo) ended up turning the narrative into more of a YA dystopian romance feel instead of a more traditional fallen angel story. I’m not sure I like the change; although the cuts do serve to emphasize Padmé’s character as Christa pointed out, we lose a lot of scenes of her as a politician turned rebel leader, which, of course, is ultimately foreshadowing for her daughter Princess Leia Organa. Instead, she becomes more of a love interest whose brushes with death ultimately serve as a plot point to lead Anakin to the Dark Side. I seem to be in the minority, but I enjoyed the space politics of The Phantom Menace, and I think cutting Padmé’s first political position as queen of Naboo undercuts both her importance in the greater Republic arc, as well as the role she plays opposite Anakin as someone who, while assertive, was still moderate and concerned with peace. (Note that it’s Padmé who accurately predicts the Republic’s doom with the words, “So this is how democracy dies: with grand applause.”) As Christa pointed out, the editor had only so much to work with, but I still think he could have focused on the political aspect of the movies if he had wanted to emphasize Padmé as an important political player. I do remember reading the novelization of “Clone Wars” and coming across a scene in which Padmé and Anakin discuss politics while hiding Padmé from assassins. When Padmé talks about how difficult it is to effect political change in the Senate, Anakin suggests that it would be simpler to put a single person in charge (a.k.a., a dictator), a suggestion which shocks Padmé. Unfortunately, the scene doesn’t seem to have been filmed–I couldn’t find it online–but other deleted scenes, such as Padmé urging the Senate against creating an army and Padmé’s dialogue with Dooku and the other Separatists, could have been added to the Phantom edit.
Megan: I don’t think the editor had enough to work with when it comes to the political threads of the prequels. Little running time is given to scenes in the Senate Chamber or behind the scenes machinations, and what does exist is stilted or breezed over. So while a dual emphasis of romance and politics (with Anakin moving largely in the romantic plot thread, Obi-Wan moving in the political story, and Padmé bridging the two) might have been nice, I don’t think it’s possible to effectively stitch that together given what Grace was working with. The prequels do attempt the dual story (romance and politics), but it’s a crowded field, throwing in a philosophical subplot, Anakin’s turn to the dark side, and a buddy cop subplot replete with car chases, bad one liners, and an exasperated Obi-Wan who’s too old for this shit. There is a lot in the prequels, but not quite enough of any element; its lack of focus is one of its biggest problems, and the chief difficulty for any editor.
Kat: I think my favorite new emphasis was how much better Padmé felt as a character; the deleted scenes with her added in makes her much more well-rounded. I do like the politics of the first film, but I really didn’t mind the excision of Anakin Skywalker as a child; maybe an edit that skillfully cuts him out would be interesting to see. But to me, Padmé seemed much more dynamic. I did think there could have been more foreshadowing for Anakin’s flip to the dark side, but I think de-emphasizing his Chosen One status was an interesting way to play it. However, like Christa says, without knowing more about his circumstances as a child or knowing his mother, we’re more disconnected from his slaughter of the Sand People and why he would be so emotional about it as to forget his training. Generally, though, I felt like the editor picked good things to focus one, while cutting a lot of fat.
Megan: Star Wars: The Editor Strikes back is a fascinating experiment and a rare Hollywood fanwork that doesn’t file off the serial numbers and try to stand alone. Watching it now, when there are Star Wars films without Lucas’ influence, is particularly interesting, I think. Some of the choices Grace made–de-emphazing the Chosen One shit and emphasizing Anakin and Padmé’s youth–remind me a lot the kinds of choices J.J. Abrams made in The Force Awakens. TFA stands on its own as a fun adventure story, but it’s a remix of Star Wars, too. I’d love to see a new cut from Grace, incorporating material from the new films or just rethinking the prequels in terms of the new films’ direction.