If RevengeoftheSithis the best of the StarWarsprequels—and maybe better than a couple of the films in the original series—it's not because Lucas has changed the formula in any significant way (though the film is, as promised, the darkest and most violent of them all). Rather, it's that this chapter is the one most pregnant with dramatic revelation and genuine emotion. Forget about surprises, though: The lurid attraction of RevengeoftheSithstems from its utter predictability, from our foreknowledge that this is the payoff for which five earlier films over 28 years were but one elaborate Greek Chorus. Here is where the benevolent Jedi Order will fall to the fearsome Galactic Empire, where the few surviving Jedis will be cast into exile and where Hayden Christensen will somehow turn into James Earl Jones. Seeing it all unfold onscreen is like witnessing some grand and terrifying childhood myth made manifest.
The real tension in Lucas' work isn't so much between the light and dark sides of the Force, as it is between his knack for classical storytelling and his restless drive to push movie technology to infinity and beyond. Lucas opened his debut feature, THX-1138,with a clip from the 1939 BuckRogersserial and had originally hoped to do an entire BuckRogersmovie before the rights proved too expensive. And even after moving on to StarWars'more elaborate fantasy landscapes, his instinct for cliffhanger suspense and high melodrama was little dulled. (In RevengeoftheSithalone, there are enough elaborately plotted revenges and miraculous returns from the grave to fill a whole season of AllMyChildren.)It must also be noted that Lucas has wrought into being more significant changes in the way we see and hear movies than perhaps any filmmaker this side of Thomas Edison. He is a major figure, and RevengeoftheSithmay be some kind of historic achievement—the first movie in which it is fully impossible to tell where flesh ends and digital paint begins.
Most of the standard criticisms of Lucas still hold true. He is a far livelier director of animated action heroes than of human actors—which is where both James Cameron and Peter Jackson have eclipsed him—and his approach to romantic scenes is comically asexual. (To come to the RevengeoftheSithscreening, as I did, having written all morning about the eros-charged work of the novelist James Salter, was akin to falling asleep in a brothel and waking up in a monastery.) But he is also the highly imaginative creator of faraway universes and the creatures, spaceships and brilliant primary colors that inhabit them. (I took particular pleasure in Sith'sGeneral Grievous, who looks like a walking chest of drawers and whose threatening words are persistently interrupted by a phlegmatic wheeze, but who, when push comes to shove, bolts out of the gate with four light sabers blazing.) Lucas has labored for decades to create a new digital language for cinema—his own powerful Force, if you will—and when he is at the top of his game, he manipulates that language into a weirdly beautiful, mechanized poetry that exposes the computer-generated imagery in most other movies as little more than expensive white noise.
Finally, it may be that Lucas is a good deal less naive in his absolutist view of good and evil than many would claim. In the year 2005, he has brought the curtain down on his iconic multibillion-dollar franchise with images of a once-democratic land held in the clutches of a despotic leader who controls both the courts and the Congress. As she looks on at the wreckage, the virtuous Padmé (Natalie Portman) has only this to say: "So this is how liberty dies—with thunderous applause." Not bad for a guy with a famously tin ear for dialogue.
STAR WARS: EPISODE III—REVENGE OF THE SITH WAS WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY GEORGE LUCAS; PRODUCED BY RICK McCALLUM. NOW PLAYING GALAXYWIDE.