It's good. I mean really good.
Has this been George Lucas's master plan all along? Make the first two episodes in his new ''Star Wars" trilogy so dramatically inept, so stiffly played, so humorlessly locked into its maker's private mythology that anything would look better in comparison?
No. Even a doubter has to admit that on any terms ''Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith" is the real deal, an often awkward but nonetheless terrifically compelling high-stakes human drama. That's right, human, and this from a director who has always seemed more comfortable turning actors into plastic action figures. Is ''Sith" the best of all the ''Star Wars" films? Let the arguing begin. But I'll go on record as saying that it is, without question, the most emotionally powerful of the six.
It's also hard, hard stuff -- a dark, not-for-the-little-ones epic that, as promised, ends with the triumph of fascism over the entire universe. Yes, the original 1977 ''Star Wars" now takes its place as ''Episode IV," leading the series back into the light. But everything in the past decade of ''Star Wars" mania has been a buildup to the climax of this movie, which is, effectively, the appearance of a galactic Hitler.
The situation is exactly as we left it at the end of ''Episode II -- Attack of the Clones," and that's cause for concern, since by common consensus ''Episode II" stunk up the room. Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) is still leading a separatist army of clone warriors against the Republic, assisted by the hulking cyborg General Grievous. Viewers whose minds have not been warped by 30 years of ''Star Wars" will note that these are extremely silly names, but here's the catch: The general himself is a splendidly nasty CGI creation: part bug, part robot, part Soviet field officer having a lousy day.
Lucas also forestalls the inevitable groan-inducing love scene between Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman) and Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) by filling the first 22 minutes of ''Sith" with a magnificent outer space battle in which Anakin, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), and assorted Republican forces temporarily rout Count Dooku's rebels. The sequence is just the sort of thing Lucas does best: visually ingenious, breathlessly exciting, inhuman. But it gets the fanboys primed and keeps the rest of us diverted.
Then, oh dear, here are Anakin and Padme having a squabble and a kiss. They were secretly married at the end of the last episode, and now Padme is pregnant and unsure whether her husband's angry fits should be written off to workplace stress. She's also modeling a fetching new style of hair bun that will have repercussions in the future. As in ''Attack of the Clones," the dialogue and performances in the domestic scenes are just atrocious -- there's nothing any actor, even one as talented as Portman, can do with lines like: Anakin -- ''You are so beautiful"; Padme -- ''You say that because you are in love"; Anakin -- ''No, I say that because I am in love with you." Christensen, for his part, merely sends up flare signals of confusion.
Thankfully, ''Revenge of the Sith" shunts Portman off-screen for much of the running time and concentrates on Anakin's inner struggle. The angel on his right shoulder is Obi-Wan, and behind him all the Jedi: Yoda (Frank Oz), Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson, lacking his customary anarchic gleam), the rest of the clubhouse. The devil on his left is the hooded Sith lord Darth Sidious, who any preschooler could tell you is really Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), although the great intellects of the Republic seem to miss this detail.
The film's emotional motor runs on Anakin's anger and impatience, and his sense of resentment that the other Jedi are shutting him out because he's Palpatine's favorite. In other words, ''Episode III" is office politics on a Wagnerian scale. As Obi-Wan is sent off to deal with the remnants of the separatists, and Yoda and Mace Windu worry about the Dark Side, and Chancellor Palpatine plots to turn the Jedi into scapegoats and silkily fills Anakin's ears with the side benefits of Darthdom, Lucas punctuates the drama with an almost unseemly number of duels. Some are a tad rote, but the best have a windmilling visual cleverness, such as the one in which General Grievous comes at Obi-Wan with four arms flashing four sabers, like a post-industrial Kali.
The heart of ''Revenge of the Sith" is in the film's final half, as all the pieces Lucas has been building for three decades come hurtling toward endgame. Anakin is sucked ever deeper into the Dark Lord's orbit, and while I don't want to spoil what happens, I think we all know that without the helmet going on, there ain't no ''Star Wars." Lucas and Christensen both make this process inexorable and, yes, powerful, especially in one particularly dire sequence in which Anakin goes over to his mentor once and for all.
Is Hayden Christensen a great actor? Not even close, but you could argue that a great actor might have done too much with the role. By setting his chin low and keeping his voice to a truculent whine, Christensen effectively portrays the kind of talented kid whose moral ruin is that it's always somebody else's fault. At the same time, Anakin feels like a legend unfolding in real-time. The actor grows into the role here, and the role grows with him.
In truth, the whole movie grows with him, and maybe the series too. In the first two films of the recent trilogy, Lucas seemed to believe his own press: The dramatic scenes were sludgy with import, and the Joseph Campbell primal-myth stuff hung around the story's neck like a rock. With ''Revenge of the Sith," Lucas finally achieves the sense of epic narrative weight his fans have always claimed for him.
Some may ascribe the improvement to the uncredited assistance of playwright Tom Stoppard, who helped Lucas out with the script. More likely, it's simple momentum -- that and a filmmaker getting to the part of the story that interests him in the first place. ''Revenge of the Sith" dramatizes archetypal notions of good and evil, but the quandary at the heart of it is this: Sometimes we can't see the difference between the two without help.
It's Anakin's fatal mistake to not step back for a larger perspective, and here Lucas (and, I'm betting, Stoppard) rather daringly draws a parallel to earthly political concerns. Plainly put, there are a number of provocative anti-Bush thought bombs woven into the script, and they go off all the louder for being so organic to the story being told. ''Have you ever considered," says Padme to her brooding husband, ''that we're on the wrong side? That the democracy we've been fighting for no longer exists?" Perhaps some of us have, but never as it affects trade relations in the outer galactic rim.
All this intensity comes at a cost, at least where younger audiences are concerned. Anakin's fate and transformation are grisly, and they may be more so to young minds who have followed the character since he was a pod-racing twerp and are hoping for any resolution but the logical one.
Not for young children, then, and maybe not even for grown-ups, ''Revenge of the Sith" is, finally, adolescent in the best and most impassioned ways. Which makes sense, since ''Star Wars" was always a teenage loner's fantasy -- it just happened to be one that conquered the world. In the process, George Lucas remade Hollywood as a playpen for blockbuster triviality, and some of us have always considered him a bit of a Dark Lord for that. With this film he makes amends, and in the process brings not only the biggest film series of all storming to an end but gives closure to a transformative mass-culture experience. Those don't come around very often -- the Beatles, MTV, the Internet -- and they tend to end ugly. George Lucas may still not understand the mysterious wiring of the human soul, but he knows the angry, idealistic dissatisfaction with life that drives us to make up legends in the first place.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.