Reenvisioning the Prequels: Two New Edits
In 2014, at least two new re-edits emerged: "Star Wars - A Last Hope" and "Star Wars Turn to the Dark Side - Episode 3.1," which merged the prequels into one film by excising the extraneous material and re-inserting deleted scenes in at least a couple cases in each.  This, of course, was pioneered by "The Phantom Edit" years earlier, which famously removed Jar Jar from "The Phantom Menance" in order to tighten up that film and make the tone align more with the best of original trilogy (i.e., ignoring "Jedi").



So let's look at what's in (and out of) these re-cuts, why, and which works best...


Star Wars - A Last Hope

We start off with a bang because this edit glosses over all of "The Phantom Menance" with the exception of most of the climactic lightsaber duel between the two Jedi and Darth Maul (though this is shortened both in the beginning and middle), preceeded only by an establishing shot from the opening of that film.  Starting with the duel goes against the pattern of the original trilogy, so I have mixed feelings about it, like "Was it only retained because it was a cool scene?"  Regardless, it establishes that Obi Wan is bound to a promise since, at the conclusion of the duel, Qui Gon tells Obi Wan to train Anakin (who is never seen), then the film skips "10 years later..."

We skip over all the Jedi training and instead invest more time in developing Anakin and Padme's relationship in the earliest parts of the film.  In fact, one of the re-inserted deleted scenes is a meeting between Anakin and Padme's family that flows much more logically... even if that stupid line about "I don't like sand" and all that follows is retained.  Much of this is still before we've hit the 20-minute mark.  It's a good choice, I think, because the slower pace would be grating were it placed in the middle of the film (as it originally was in AotC).  Those scenes feel properly paced in this new location.

Once the lovers' relationship is established, we get on with the action.  Anakin starts having bad dreams about his mother, so Padmé goes with him to Tatooine.  It's unfortunate that this plot point wasn't abandoned entirely.  One of the biggest problems viewers have with the prequels is that Anakin left his mother a slave, never returning to rescue her until she was literally half-dead, yet now she's held as though her death is the most salient catalyst in his turn to the dark side.  I would have worked to lose this detour completely and concentrated on bolstering scenes establishing the relationship with Palpatine.

Obi Wan has made his way to Geonosis in the meantime (skipping over the whole detective story of diners, libraries, etc., then the clone/Kamino confrontation with Jango Fett, meaning all references to Boba Fett are removed).  We get a decent introduction to Count Dooku, but it's brief (though better than in the "Turn to the Dark Side" edit).

Back on Tatooine Anakin finds his mother and buries her (after offing an entire camp of Tuskins), they receive word that Obi Wan is in trouble and head off to rescue him.  Of course, the lovers are captured, then reunited with Obi Wan for the arena "execution" which turns into a battle as more and more players enter: The Jedi "army" shows up, then the droid army, then Geonosians join in, and finally the clones attack.

The edit of Revenge of the Sith follows the source material very closely, just trimming away the fat in most scenes, mainly the (too!) many scenes of just dialog regarding Anakin's prescient dreams, the Jedi not trusting Palpatine, etc.  We lose gratuituous action scenes like the tiny droids cutting into the Jedi starfighter, etc.  One of key cuts is that General Grevous is absent entirely in this edit.  All scenes on Utapau and Kashyyyk are gone.  We don't see a lot of the Clone War battles other than a bit in the beginning over Coruscant.  One of the most unfortunate cuts for me was the removal of scenes toward the end of the film when Palpatine is consolidating his power, declaring himself ruler of a galactic empire, etc.

The most noteable change is the reversal of the closing scenes with the creation of Darth Vader (i.e., surgery for the prothetics/armor).  In the original, Vader's creation is cross-cut with the birth of the twins.  Here, the birth is a stand-alone event, followed by all the tying of lose ends: Leia arriving on Alderan, Yoda on Dagobah, Obi Wan handing baby Luke over to his aunt and uncle, etc., but losing the footage of Padme's funeral.  It is only after all these events that we "learn" that Vader survived on Mustafar, and his body is recovered by the Emperor to be transformed.  Much of that transformation is skipped, and we do not see the "Nooooo!" scene.  He is shown already re-assembled in his armor from the neck down.  The mask is applied.  The helmet comes down.  The film closes as he takes his first breath.  There are no credits.

This ending is the stand-out point of the re-edit because it completely shifts both the tone and underscores a different emphasis.  The original edit ended looking forward to the "sequel" we already knew about.  It closed on the uplifting note that, while the galaxy is in ruins, at least there is a new generation who will someday rise to restore democracy.  However, this edit merely says that Luke and Leia are seeds that are being planted.  The closing scene makes you look back at what has transpired and says, "This is what these events made."  An evil has been created that will torture and terrorize everything it comes into contact with for the next twenty years.  That's pretty dark.

How it breaks down:
Episode    Time
I    0:00 - 5:50    5:50
II    5:50 - 1:03:10    57:30
III    1:03:10 - 2:09:27    1:06:17


Star Wars Turn to the Dark Side - Episode 3.1

This edit also uses the opening shot from tPM, but cuts it before the ship docks with the Trade Federation battleship (since, according to the opening crawl, the Jedi are on their way to Naboo to fight a Sith Lord), immediately cutting to the Jedi/Maul battle.  The episode concludes with a short scene between Obi Wan and Yoda, in which the latter allows Obi Wan to train Anakin... who again is never seen.

It cuts to "Ten years later" (as stated on screen).  Again we skip over the first assassination attempt (i.e., Padme's ship blowing up on the landing platform), although footage of the landing is shown, and cut right to Obi Wan and Anakin on their way up the elevator to see Padme.  This edit retains a lot more of the conversation that follows, as well as the pre-assassination attempt conversation between Zam and Jango.  The attempt is averted and the heroes take chase.  This is one of the better sequences in the film, but this edit also retains the follow-up scenes of chasing Zam into the bar, whereas "Last Hope" wisely collapsed the crash into the post-bar scene, making it appear as though she was injuryed in the crash before being shot by Jango.

Next are scenes about the machinations of the Jedi counsel, Padme's safety, Palpatine's relationship with Anakin, all of which could have been lost, as demonstrated by the "Last Hope" edit.  The same with the scenes of Anakin and Padme's journey to Naboo.  Most of these scenes fall flat and could have been dropped.  Same with the conversation that follows between Obi Wan, Mace, and Yoda.  In all these cases, they're conversations about things that are happening.  The film is more effective when it simply foreshadows and plays out the actions rather than telegraphing everything.

Finally we reach the formerly-deleted scene of Anakin metting Padme's parents.  It's ironic that this segment was cut when it's one of the rare ones in which dialog doesn't seem too forced.  The conversation flows casually (for the most part), and that sells the relationship, which is why it was restored in both edits.  It speaks volumes that in two attempts to edit down footage, the editor went out of their way to added this scene back in.

Quick cut to Obi Wan analyzing the poison dart from Jango, then back to Anakin and Padme having the stupid "I don't like sand" conversation.  The "Last Hope" edit was more daring, but both of these let this scene slip through because it segues into the first kiss between the new lovers.

Skipped (as with the "Last Hope" edit) is the entire "detective story" sequence of Obi Wan finding his way to Kamino, discovering the clone army, battling Jango, and even the later chase through the asteroid field. Boba Fett is dropped entirely in this edit as well.

Obi Wan arrives on Geonosis to see there the Trade Federation is suspiciously massing there.  Then back to Anakin and Padme frolicking in the fields.  If that description sounds snide, it's because this segment feels like overkill when the trajectory of the romance is better established in the scenes before and after this.  The only portion that really works is their discussion of politics: her devotion to democracy whereas his simplistic view hints at the tyrant who will emerge.  The scene is at least trimmed considerably, but then we have the dinner scene (i.e., Anakin floats the fruit about the room) which doesn't work as well as the nighttime scene which was used in the "Last Hope" edit instead of this.

Next Obi Wan discovers the droid factory and eavesdrops on the Sepratists' plans, although this is much shorter than in the "Last Hope" edit and doesn't really introduce Dooku effectively.  We cut back to Anakin dreaming about his mother, followed by a conversation about it with Padme.  They head to Tatooine where, for absolutely no reason at all, the meeting between Anakin and Watto is retained.  ("Last Hope" skips right to the Lars homestead.  Without any footage of Shmi or Watto from tPM, who's to know she was ever a slave, where she lived, etc.?  It adds nothing but confusion.)

Cuts back to Obi Wan trying to contact Anakin or anyone else who can receive him.  Then back to Anakin and Padme on Tatooine, now on the Lars homestead.  Threepio is introduced, and apparently he knows Anakin and Padme, although theres no explanation as to why, of course.  It's all the more confusing because the Lars family has to introduce themselves to the couple.  Anakin then begins his search for his mother, eventually tracking her to the Tuskin camp.  She dies, then he returns to the favor to the Tuskins.  We cut to Yoda and Mace who sense this.  Anakin brings home her body as Artoo picks up Obi Wan's communication.

Dooku tries to seduce Obi Wan, which is an awkward introduction since it isn't immediately clear that he's the real bad guy and his tone is insincere.  ("Last Hope" has this scene as well, but it's preceded by the aforementioned brief introduction which reveals him to be a key schemer.)  Back to Tatooine for the funeral scene, then Artoo (finally!) brings word from Obi Wan, spuring the pair to act on their own.  They head to Geonosis.  Threepio actually gets a good moment with Artoo in this edit that "Last Hope" omitted.

The droid factory chase is severely trimmed, and the heroes are taken to the arena.  Other than the silly head-swapping scenes with Threepio (cut from both edits), the rest of this segment plays out almost as in the theatrical release (minus any footage of Boba Fett), so that more and more factions join the battle.  The most dramatic cut is that, as soon as the clone army's gunships depart the arena with the Jedi aboard, we cut straight to the wedding scene.

Now, "Three years later," Obi Wan and Anakin are returning from having saved Palpatine.  (That's right!  The entire opening act of RotS is cut, including the duel with Dooku, so it is never explained what becomes of the only major villain from the first portion of the film.)  Again, R2 and 3PO have a brief moment.  Anakin rushes over to Padme, and she reveals she's pregnant.  Next we're back to Anakin having bad dreams (this time about Padme).  A long conversation follows (which should have been trimmed), followed by Yoda counseling Anakin (again, absent from "Last Hope"), then Anakin goes to a meeting with Obi Wan (more talking; should have been trimmed too) which basically was a reiteration of how the Jedi (minus Anakin) don't trust Palpatine.

Lots more talk, some more useful than other: Mace, Obi Wan, and Yoda discuss Anakin and the prophesy; Anakin meets with Palpatine at the opera house and hears the story of Darth Plagueis.  Then there's a lot more discussion about the Jedi both fighting the war and taking control from Palpatine before he gains too much power.  There are some random moments of Obi Wan on Utapau (referenced in an earlier scene) which doesn't add anything.  Palpatine finally reveals he's a Sith lord, and the Jedi come to arrest him... which goes badly for all involved, including Anakin, who is now Darth Vader.

There is much more of the Clone War shown in connection with the "Order 66" scenes.  "Last Hope" trimmed most of this so severely that we literally see nothing of the other planets involved in the war.  At the same time, the Jedi temple has been invaded.  There's a quick scene in which Bail Organa turns up at the temple and is driven away as a young Jedi is killed by clone troopers, but it's oddly placed since the only other time we see his character is in passing durng the opening moments (in this version) from RotS.

The scene of Yoda's departure (goodbye to the wookies) is restored, which follows logically from the Order 66 scene with him being carried away by Chewie and other wookie, heading off to reunite with Bail Organa on his ship.  Obi Wan joins them later, and they plan to return to the Jedi temple.

Anakin heads to Mustafar with no explanation (Palpatine's orders to him are cut, making what follows look like he's still off fighting the war against Separatists).  In the meantime, Yoda and Obi Wan battle troops on their way to the temple.  At that same time Palpatine is corronating himself in the senate.  Without the scene giving Palpatine's orders, it's confusing why Anakin stays on an inhospitable planet with nothing left to do after slaughtering the opposition.

Obi Wan brings news of Anakin's atrocities to Padme, and she goes to Mustafar (somehow; it is never explained in any version how she knows he's there) with Obi Wan hidden aboard.  Things go badly from there, resulting in her knocked out and the duel between Jedi and Sith.  This remains cross-cut with the Palpatine vs. Yoda battle.

This version slightly modifies the sequence of the footage from the films so that, rather than simply cross-cutting Vader's transformation with the twins' birth, then moving on to the closing scenes (e.g., each twin being delivered to the adoptive parents, etc.), the transformation scenes are slowly doled out through the entire sequence.  The "first breath" shot is again the last scene just as it was in the "Last Hope" edit, but it just isn't as inventive here.

Episode    Time
I    0:00 - 7:52    7:52
II    7:52 - 1:13:54    1:06:02
III    1:13:54 - 2:41:16    1:27:22

Note: With credits it's 2:47:36


Summary and Bottom line

Both edits eschew The Phantom Menace almost entirely, retaining only the climactic lightsaber duel and the appointment of Anakin as Obi Wan's apprentice.  Why it breaks down like that is pretty obvious:

  • The first film merely established the characters and organizations (e.g., Jedi council, senate, etc.) that could just as easily have been explained in the context of other exposition or action.
  • The Phantom Menace is also its own self-contained story.  I've often asserted that the prequels are less a trilogy than a "prequel to a prequel" (because we really needed to see Darth Vader as a child?) followed by the two-part story about the Clone Wars.  The latter is the real prequel, the one that tells of the fall of Anakin.  The first film isn't just poorly made in many respects; quite simply, it's redundant, and these edits demonstrate that.
  • The series also gets better as it goes, so there's more of RotS than any other.  It makes sense: The last film of the prequels is the most streamlined of all (e.g., no "[character] as a child" unlike the first two; Lucas abandoned a considered storyline about Han Solo as a youngster), so there's more material that's essential to the thrust of this trilogy.

As mentioned in the synopese, both films make use of a few deleted scenes which work well in their new context.

"A Last Hope" is the more severe cut of the two.  It cuts out many of the wordy scenes that merely spell out exposition any audience member could have gleaned from the context of the surrounding scenes.  However, it also loses too many scenes that make the series work.  This is okay if you just want a "Cliffs Notes" version of the story, but then you're missing out on the visuals (e.g., several great battles, both in space and on the ground are cut) as well as essential characters like the droids which makes it feel very un-"Star Wars."  The fact that the edit clocks in around two hours suggests that the goal was to make a feature-length film rather than just a "best of," but a lot was lost in the process.  However, I have to admit that for the most part it flows much better, and best of all, the re-shuffling of the closing scenes are genius and make the series much more satisfying.

*"Turn to the Dark Side" retains perhaps too much dialog, but it also retains more of the droids.  A better balance could have been struck since these are mutually exclusive as I'm labeling them.  The focus here is obviously the titular "turn," but there's such a thing as over-documenting it.  I felt like there were other events to explore rather than just honing in on Anakin's story and what was tied directly to him, and since this edit is actually longer than any individual episode in the saga, why not trim it some more?  The ending here is inventive, but the "Last Hope" version wins hands-down!


Criticisms and Suggestions

I realize these "films" are working from a limited body of footage, so it's hard to criticize the choices.  Instead, my comments are on the final product.  One of the biggest problems is that many characters (especially "minor" ones such as the droids and villains) aren't properly introduced.  We are shown them for the first time in the context of a scene.  That lessens their impact somewhat.  Similarly, while the transitions in the prequels were entirely too slow, here they're non-existent, leaving the film feeling similar to the much-maligned "Prometheus," which suffered from a similar over-editing.  In fact, with the deleted scenes restored, the "Alien" prequel is actually a very good film.  By contrast, the theatrical release is a fast-paced mess that leaves the viewer going, "What?" and "Why did that just happen?" and "Where are they going?"

More shuffling - The brilliant ending of "Last Hope" demonstrates what can be accomplished with some imaginative shuffling.  Other portions of the film could have benefitted from this approach as well, rather than merely losing extraneous footage between scenes that were kept 100% intact.  What remained after the cutting needed to be re-worked as well, difficult as that might have been in many cases (e.g., wherever Williams' score is played throughout).

More manipulations - I would have liked to have seen more than excisions and occasional restored footage.  There is room for much greater manipulation if one were inclined.  For example, the opening crawl was replaced with new text.  Why not reappropriate dialog/footage from other portions of the movie?  It would be possible to use some lines of exposition during other scenes.  Directors do this in post all the time when they realize they need establishing information in a scene but don't have the resources for pickups.  Instead, they simply insert lines during the looping.  Occasionally you catch moments in film where lips are not synched to what is being said.  Sometimes it's more subtle, such as when an actor's back is turned (although, again, this is accomplished when a director has access to the 2nd camera's footage, so we're looking at the other actor "reacting" to things that weren't even said on set!).  Conversely, it is even easier to drop dialog.  While the prequels suffered from poor pacing, almost certainly their worst flaw is the dialog.  There are many moments in watching the edit where I felt lines could have been dropped that the effect might have been carried by the sweeping visuals and music.  For example, when the camera frames their shadows embracing as Anakin leaves Padme in search of his mother.  We didn't need to hear lines like "You are going to have to stay here. These are good people, Padmé. You'll be safe."  The visuals sufficed.

Bring back the rest of Star Wars - Getting back to the core purpose of the edit: While the story is made the focus of the film, many of those "distractions" are in fact essential elements of Star Wars.  Sure, it's the story of the transformation of Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader, but it's also a tale of droids getting caught up in the action, only here they aren't.  Threepio in particular has only a few lines.  It seems almost as though "Last Hope" went too far in making cuts because the "Turn to the Dark Side" edit retains many moments with Threepio.  The only constitute perhaps two minutes or less, yet they restore him as a character.  This edit is so severe that it even leaves plot holes such as removing the scene mentioning Threepio having his memory wiped!

Overall these are interesting exercises in a pool of many, many smaller experiments on YouTube.  For example, I've seen a number of clever use of prequel footage inserted into scenes from the original as flashbacks (e.g., Vader recalling emotional moments from his past as Anakin).  These exercises in story revision are helpful in a number of ways, including helping dissect the characters' motivations rather than merely accepting one view.  As Ben says to Luke: "You're going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view."  Re-edits like these give us new perspectives on which to reexamine familiar stories.




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