‘Star Wars’ comes to unsatisfying end

Not being a child of the ‘70s, it is hard to imagine that the first release of “Star Wars” in ‘77 changed our culture in ways that no other film, either before or after, has been able to emulate. “Star Wars” was added to the American lexicon and altered the way we thought about everything from President Reagan’s nuclear deterrence strategies to the crazy Chewbacca impression that your drunken friend does at parties. “Star Wars” transcended itself and became iconic, but there was a “Phantom Menace” lurking.

The prime example in “Return of the Jedi” was the Ewoks: tiny creatures immediately as empathetic to a small child as they were detrimental to a parent’s checkbook. The only filmed spin-offs to the Star Wars movies (“Ewoks: The Battle for Endor” and “The Ewok Adventure”) involved Teddy Ruxpin-like creatures. They symbolized the dark side that had come to film; Yogurt from “Spaceballs” would call it “moychandizing.”

A few special editions, two more movies and a billion dollars later, here enters “Revenge of the Sith.” Chronologically, the only pattern shown by Lucas is that he is slowly and surely making his world more palatable (and thereby more profitable) to the wee little children. “The Phantom Menace” and “Attack of the Clones” were advertising reels used to hype the market for the newest Star Wars toy, video game, or happy meal.

And I forgave him for it. This was the around the same time as “Eyes Wide Shut,” “Minority Report,” and “Gangs of New York.” If our greatest magicians of the ‘70s seemed no longer able to transmogrify celluloid into movie magic, then why should I expect Lucas to? I could spare $18 to a man content on slowly fading away.

“Revenge of the Sith” is the most spectacular of failures. Lucas isn’t trying to sucker you into buying his toys in this one (well, not as much). He’s trying to make a movie – and often times not a mainstream or a commercial movie, but one slyly obstinate to the audience’s demands. Not that “Revenge of the Sith” is that good – it’s not. But I wasn’t expecting the movie to be good in the first place. It labors under the expository weight of two gargantuan commercials that go nowhere, plus it has the added bonus of everyone knowing its ending. What I am surprised by is its Herculean ability to shrug off these issues and tell a story, and tell it in a way that brings added depth to the original trilogy.

Lucas is trying to create something new, and not simply new aliens, or new planets, or new toys, but new mythos. Characters are invested with all new dynamics; some like Mace Windu are finally, after three movies, given a character to play besides Samuel L. Jackson with a lightsaber. Hayden Christenson almost rivals Mark Hamill in surprisingly moving performances coming from actors not known for their surprisingly moving performances. He’s still hammy and stilted as ever, but Lucas creates a Tarantino-esque world that thrives on hammy performances. Ewan McGregor appears to be channeling the ghost of Alec Guinness.

Lucas often talks about how technology has finally gotten to the point where he can tell the stories he wants, yet it seems that only now has George Lucas gotten to the point where he can use his own technology. Perhaps it is the difficulty of trying to create a story about how the bad guys win and the good guys run away with their tails between their legs that inspired him. He uses bold camera angles like a young De Palma. He forces uncomfortable Miltonic themes onto the picture, he paints it darker, more disturbing, where small children are slaughtered and where a man is burned alive. He even makes sly political comments. He creates a film that complicates the Star Wars universe instead of existing uncomfortably parallel to it. In short, he has tried to make a movie for adults.

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I am angry because “Revenge of the Sith” is good enough that it makes everything that came before it look like bantha poodoo. After seeing this movie, there is no excuse for George Lucas making the first two. He has written two fraudulent checks. He has put his artistic John Hancock on two movies that were not his, but those of his computer guys. “Revenge of the Sith” is the only Star Wars movie of the first three that actually feels like it was directed by Lucas. And it’s good, not great, but good. And it might have been something great if this was where Lucas started, but it wasn’t. And now it’s over.

Too little, too late, Mr. Lucas.