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But at least this journey through a galactic Thomas Kinkade gallery keeps viewers awake: Those who dozed through the C-SPAN soporifics of Attack of the Clones will be relieved to find that Sith is crammed with action. Lucas packs his latest with physics-defying deep-space dogfights and zhoozhing lightsaber battles, frequently cutting back and forth between two simultaneous melees on separate planets, deploying his signature Flash Gordon wipes. Deadly glowsticks lop off hands at an alarming rate, with at least five lost in the first hour; the picture's gruesome climactic duel goes for the legs as well, ending up with a scene out of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It's a peculiarly obsessive motif that probably helped garner the film a PG-13 rating. Chalk it up to either the compulsive castration imagery befitting such a famously oedipal epic, or transferred wartime anxiety about an escalating population of limbless veterans. In service of the film's near nonstop string of showdowns, each planet is filled with dramatic architecture: Ports, homes, and congressional chambers are all built on teetering platforms atop vertiginous chasms, connected by dangerously slender walkways. Somehow a galaxy-spanning civilization with faster-than-light travel and intelligent droids never got around to inventing guardrails.
The relatively economic narrative stringing together the action serves as a welcome improvement over the unbearable sloppiness of Lucas's last two endeavors. (Rumor has it that Tom Stoppard performed an uncredited script polishing.) Indeed, this feels like the only prequel that was actually necessary. Most of the plot involves filling out the background details to Episode IV: how the Republic becomes the Empire, how Anakin Skywalker becomes Darth Vader, and how Padmé becomes pregnant with twins Luke and Leia. Though Lucas has called Sith "Titanic in space," the pivotal romance between Anakin and Padmé burns with all the passion of rubbing together two action figurescomputer-generated characters like wheezing cyborg baddie General Grievous and blippeting fireplug R2-D2 emote more convincingly than either Natalie Portman or Hayden Christensen (whose enunciation still shuttles between London and Long Island). A more erotically charged seduction occurs when Palpatine lures Anakin to the dark side; Ian McDiarmid's unctuous Emperorwho bears a strange resemblance to Pope Benedict XVI, sunken eyes and allturns appropriately vampiric as he attempts to draw Anakin into the Sith fold with promises of eternal life.
Anakin's defection from Jediism to Sithdom should provide the film's backbone, but neither the script nor Christensen delivers the needed nuance. "If you are not with me, then you're my enemy," warns the newly minted Darth Vader to his mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi (the still respectable Ewan McGregor). "Only a Sith deals in absolutes," Kenobi counters. Attendees at the New York preview screening responded with cheers, taking the exchange as a blatant Bush bash, but the line also betrays the failure of Lucas to portray the elder Skywalker's moral downslide with anything close to complexity; indeed, the underlying premise of Jedi-Sith duality rests on a fairy-tale Manichaeanism of unpolluted good versus total evil. Convinced to join the dark side in hopes of gaining new powers that will save Padmé from a prophesied death, Anakin thus transforms schizophrenically from broodingly ambitious knight to bloodthirsty killer once he has crossed the line. No wonder the film's space battles still echo nothing more modern than World War II naval combat; the Star Wars cycle remains in a comfortable fantasyland of melodramatic moral choices and unambiguous military tactics. The messy asymmetry of 21st-century warfare has no place in Lucas's retro future.
Even setting aside the clumsy inconsistency of its interior logic, Sith is an underachievement of escapist entertainment. Fans will no doubt argue that the multimillion-dollar walk-through of Episodes I through III exists as merely the most high-profile facet of Lucas's world-building masterwork, that is, his grand "expanded universe" explored through an interlocking body of original novels, video games, comic books, television cartoons, toy setsand further elucidated, presumably, through decades of soft-drink tie-ins, lunch-box art, bedsheet sets, and children's novelty underwear. But surely the imaginations of J.R.R. Tolkien and J.K. Rowlingnot to mention their product management teamshave rolled out fantasy worlds with higher consistency and quality control. Lucas helped invent the Hollywood blockbuster that allowed for the big-screen emergence of the likes of Baggins and Potter, and in the first decade of his career produced some of the best early examples of that global-market art form: big shiny adventures that balanced childhood whimsy with adult sass, high-tech cool stuff with effective storytelling. But blockbusters have since become an overbred species, and Lucas's work has likewise degenerated into unbalanced overproduction. PostJar Jar, our expectations have sunk so low that now fans will celebrate a film just because it doesn't completely suck.