The title scrolls that open each and every Star Wars film have always brought to mind the visual outline of the monoliths in 2001: A Space Odyssey, which, in the way they point toward the sun and the moon and the mysteries that lie therein, have come to represent avatars of human progress. Though George Lucas’s scrolls may follow in the monoliths’ aesthetic and spiritual footsteps, they don’t point to anything in particular—they simply spill into a black hole. It’s like R2D2 spitting and burping behind Luke Skywalker with no real sense of direction: however iconic, these scrolls represent nothing but shallow exposition. But Star Wars fans still choose to cheer and follow the scroll’s path, perhaps because a Star Wars film is, like 2001, an effigy of sorts: Kubrick’s masterpiece canonizes evolution in the same way Lucas’s films enshrine juvenilia.
The old Toys “R” Us motto (“I don’t want to grow up”) could apply to every Star Wars film that has come out since 1999. It’s why we root for Yoda in Attack of the Clones and, now, Revenge of the Sith: the little green dude is like some childhood pet or stuffed animal coming to life and kicking some major ass, using a light saber that, face it, no human penis could ever hold a candle to. Lucas understands his audience’s thirst for fantasy and hunger for nostalgic relief, but this is precisely why I’m hesitant to call him a filmmaker. He’s more of a savvy businessman: he knows how to pick good collaborators (in Tell Them Who You Are, he all but credits Haskell Wexler for the success of his one good film, American Graffiti) and he uses the release of each new Star Wars film not so much to expand our minds but to roll out a new line of merchandising, like the cute lil’ buzz droids that latch on to Obi-Wan’s ship in the first few minutes of Revenge of the Sith.
Though Revenge of the Sith is single-mindedly obsessed with setting up the mystique of the first Star Wars film, the two films still look and feel completely unrelated. That’s because these new Star Wars films, with their maddening obsession with digital photography, aren’t very film-like and don’t feel like they’re challenging or responding to the mythology of the first three films, simply setting them up. Like Attack of the Clones before it, Revenge of the Sith is just another Reloaded-style mock-up of A New Hope, a faster, longer, taller Six Flags ride trying to outperform some dinky old thing from Coney Island. Gene Shalit might call Revenge of the Sith—which begins with an exciting space battle between Republic attack cruisers, Jedi fighters, and enemy battle cruisers—a “roller coaster thrill ride,” and he’d be right, seeing as the battle’s pleasures are more adrenal than aesthetic or emotional.
The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones were deadly bores, mostly because Lucas was staving off the inevitable, and if there’s one thing that’s good about Revenge of the Sith, it’s that it knows how to keep things moving. It’s not a great film, but it’s better than its prequels and I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t without its pleasures: the film’s emotional center is both childish and childishly developed but the presentation is more elegant (a creepy, synchronized light show in the Senate hall may be Lucas’s version of Eyes Wide Shut’s masquerade ball), the music and villains (namely the spidery General Grievous) are compellingly insidious, and the light saber fights are awesome (four penises are better than one, right?). The sets still look like Oscar stages made from leftover materials used to build jungle gyms (Princess Amidala and Anakin Skywalker’s first scene together appears to take place in the Egyptian temple from that Dolby Digital logo that kick-starts so many movies on DVD), but it’s obvious that Lucas has learned from his more egregious mistakes: In spite of all the embarrassing digital fakery (like the 83-year-old Christopher Lee’s face clearly having been plastered onto his stunt double’s body), I can happily confirm that audiences won’t have to sit through another piss-long senatorial meeting.
During the film’s epic-length last stretch (minor spoilers lie herein), Lucas excitingly contrasts the death of Amidala (Natalie Portman) with the birth of Darth Vadar (Hayden Christensen). We know how it all pans out but the moral uncertainty of these characters is palatable enough to suggest that they might be able to stave off the inevitable if they choose to make the right decision. When, in an earlier scene, Amidala looks into Anakin’s eyes and declares that he’s breaking her heart, this brief emotional interruption from the ruinous explosions of the film’s second half is much appreciated. Though Lucas writes love scenes with the naïveté of a suicidal schoolgirl (“I love you”…“No, I love you more”…or something to that effect), the film’s central Sirk-in-space romance is at least earnest and poignant. Better yet, Lucas is surprisingly interested in examining what constitutes right and wrong here, and while Anakin’s trip to the dark side is hurried, incredulous, and somewhat tawdry (the sniveling Darth Sidious seduces the young man like some lascivious priest luring a choir boy into his chambers), Anakin’s moral struggle reveals itself as a complicated fusion of frustrated romantic and familial duty and thwarted ego.
I imagine that Revenge of the Sith is very much the film Lucas’s fans want to see, but are some of them ready for an anti-Bush diatribe? Though every Star Wars film until now has existed in an insular comic-book world, a lot has happened since 1999 and 2002 in the real world and Lucas dares, for the first time, to address how the hollow political conflict in his franchise correlates with the reality outside its panels. (It would have been stupid not to strike a parallel.) Revenge of the Sith’s two greatest moments tap into the uncertainty of our own political climate: the dazzling battle between Yoda and Darth Sidious (an outstanding Ian McDiarmid) inside the beautifully spiraling Senate hall evokes Democrats and Republicans scrambling for power and, during an obscenely over-the-top duel in Mustafar, Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor) declares, “Only a Sith Lord deals in absolutes,” after Anakin says, “If you’re not with me, you’re my enemy.” Lucas’s political gestures would be easier to appreciate if he himself didn’t trade in absolutes and generalities (you know the drill: the darker the couture, the closer you are to the dark side), but it’s still a welcome step forward. Pity we had to wait so long for it, but, as they say, better late than never.