Science fiction fans are a notoriously easily-riled bunch. This year’s Hugo Awards–the speculative fiction equivalent of the Oscars–was an unequivocal debacle, as a contingent of MRAs and their acolytes, impotently infuriated by what they perceived to be a rise in “SJW issues” in their genre literature, attempted to rig the voting system to prevent any work with pro-women, pro-minority, or LGBTQIA issues from being awarded the prestigious award. Considering that SF is the genre that has always been at the forefront of exploring issues of oppression and intersectionality, this is completely absurd. The machinations of these ignorant folk, who can best be referred to as “fake geek guys,” resulted in five separate categories receiving “No Award” this year, including Best Short Story and both long and short form Best Editor categories. And this was just the contentious babblings of a vocal minority of cisgender, white, heterosexual males who apparently have no concept of sci-fi history.
Much less controversial was the near-universal hatred for the first of the Star Wars prequels, The Phantom Menace. Although that hatred has died down in the sixteen years since the film was released (in no small part due to the fact that anyone born after 1994 doesn’t remember a world where there were only three near-perfect Star Wars movies instead of a mixed bag of six), The Phantom Menace is still widely regarded as a failure on both an artistic and a fandom level. The complaints about the film are endless, and I could never hope to create as in-depth and exhaustive exploration of the film’s flaws as RedLetterMedia did, but here’s a short summation of issues that fans and mainstream film-goers despised:
- (Most notoriously) the introduction of original character Jar Jar Binks, a person-sized CGI space rabbit that engaged in presumably child-pleasing comedy antics throughout the film.
- The racist caricature of Jar Jar as an ignorant simpleton who spoke in a conglomeration of Jamaican slang and antebellum slave dialects, as well as the Jewish stereotypes applied to hook-nosed greedy slave owner Watto and the Asian stereotypes (largely embodied in an accent that confuses “l” and “r” sounds) represented by the Trade Federation.
- The pacing of the film is terrible: characters spend seemingly endless time in needlessly complicated and redundant political debate; other than in action sequences, characters simply wander around aimlessly in a (vain) attempt to give dialogue scenes some sense of motion.
- The revelation that the mystical Force that binds all life together was caused by germs known as midi-chlorians.
I never really had much of a horse in that race; I was twelve the summer that the movie came out, and I thought it was mediocre at best then. I was always more of a Star Trek fan, and although I think the rivalry between the fandoms of those two franchises is exaggerated and instigated by the aforementioned Fake Geek Guys, I was young enough to be less discerning than others. I didn’t like Jar Jar, but I also didn’t think of Star Wars as an unimpeachable work of staggering genius the way that so many sad middle aged men with basements full of memorabilia do. I appreciate the franchise much more now than I did as a kid, although I pity people whose lives revolve around it. I mean, come on, the original trilogy is a lot of fun and has some really great ideas, but it’s still a fairy tale at its core: a farm boy meets a wizard who tells him he has a magical destiny, and he then teams with a pirate to rescue a princess from an evil wizard.
The problem of Jar Jar was expressed almost immediately, as was fan frustration regarding the Midi-chlorian concept, with complaints about the film’s pacing problems coming later. So it’s no surprise that fans of the era immediately set to work trying to “fix” it. The Phantom Edit, initially credited to “The Phantom Editor” who later revealed himself to be film editor Mike J. Nichols, was not the first fan edit of an established work, but it was one of the first to be noteworthy for its popularity in the mainstream, receiving coverage from news outlets as varied as Salon, NPR, PBS, and the BBC in 2000 and 2001. Notable changes to the source material included reduction and deletion of dialogue from the annoying battle droids, removal of the more immature dialogue from Anakin’s scenes, reduction of expository and political dialogue, and the severe trimming of Jar Jar’s appearances on screen, removing his slapstick elements. Also removed were all references to the midi-chlorians.
The Phantom Edit was later edited even further, into the more streamlined The Phantom Re-Edit, which also circulated as a bootleg tape or download; the earliest reference to it that I can find is a review released in June of 2001, meaning that it was created no later than May of that year. This edit also extensively alters other problematic features of Menace, most notably by getting rid of the English dialogue for Jar Jar and his people as well as the Trade Federation, and many conversations between characters on Tatooine are also altered to sound alien; this dialogue is then subtitled. To a large degree, this works strongly in the film’s favor. The Trade Federation are no longer as stereotypical and actually seem threatening in this version, the racist accents of Jar Jar and the other Gungans is also done away with, and the replacement subtitle dialogue presents them as being competent and politically savvy. Moreover, Jar Jar’s dialogue has been replaced completely, making him a character who is surprisingly wise and sage (although the cartoonish hand movements are still present in many scenes–can’t get around that).
So, is Star Wars: The Phantom Re-Edit a good movie? Well… not really. To use an apropos cliche, you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Menace was still full of stilted dialogue and wooden acting, and no amount of editing will magically turn those dreary performances into something more watchable. Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon still spend a lot of time expositing to each other over the phone in scenes that now remind me of all the times Don Draper called Betty and told her he would be late coming home. The scene in which Qui-Gon takes a blood sample from young Anakin is still present for no real reason, simply cutting away before the infamous midi-chlorian conversation. The edits are necessarily abrupt, but that doesn’t mean they’re not jarring and alienating. All told, it’s a better movie than Menace, but that’s not saying much. Hardcore fans who are still mad, fifteen years later, that George Lucas “ruined their childhood” might get some satisfaction from the re-edit, but that’s about it.
The Phantom Edit and The Phantom Re-Edit fail to address the larger problems of how the prequel trilogy relates to the franchise as a whole. In Star Wars (I’m not about that “A New Hope” nonsense), Ben Kenobi wears robes because he lives in a desert, not because that’s some kind of Jedi uniform like the prequel trilogy reinterprets it to be. Darth Vader is a lonely weirdo without much real clout; the members of the imperial military treat him with deference only because of his relationship with the Emperor, all while making fun of his religion behind his back and to his face. Vader even goes out and flies around in a tiny little fighter ship like all the cannon fodder pilots; he could have been killed pretty easily out there–which doesn’t make any sense if he was supposed to be some kind of prophesied Force savior. The glorification of his character in the prequel trilogy exists for one purpose: brand name recognition (and thus a higher profit margin).
I have no doubt that this is the reason that Vader’s corpse gets a cameo in the trailer for The Force Awakens, due out this Christmas. I have to confess my overwhelming excitement for the film, but I also hope there’s no nonsensical revisitation (or, Force forbid, a revitalization) of his character. I have my doubts; it’s been a decade and a half since we stood on the precipice of new Star Wars movies, and it remains to be seen whether or not Episode VII will also demand a fan edit. Here’s hoping the answer is “no,” but we’ll find out soon enough.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond