First let's get the gender role deconstruction out of the way. One of the things that was interesting about Star Wars IV (the original movie) was that the ostensible leader of the rebellion was Princess Leia, who ruled not by imperial decree but by no-nonsense take-charge authority. She was small, but she stood taller than any of the boys.
Or so it seemed. In Empire she fell down a notch, to the love-sick matriarch with little more to do than notice bad things happening and hearing Luke's telepathic plea for help. By the time we got to the teddy bear movie, she was a bondage sex slave in a skimpy outfit, and peacemaker with the teddybears themselves.
Flash back a generation and we get the two female figures of Queen Amidala as a powerless figurehead, and Anakin's insightful mother. Amidala befriends a child and otherwise plays tag-along. Anakin's mother is around just enough for us to care just enough when she dies in Episode II: The Boredom Wars. In that overlong yawn, Amidala becomes like a star in a really bad soap opera. How did Lucas manage to get Natalie Portman to turn in such a wooden performance?
In the Sith installment, suddenly all the actors seem to perform better -- especially Portman, whose reaction to Anakin's turn to the dark side really gives the sequence impact. But the big disappointment, in terms of any hint at female heroes, is that once she gets pregnant, she's relegated to helpless waif status. The only other apparent females in the show are the Chancellor's silent bald aide, and a lithe Jedi who manages to wear a skimpy midriff top for her shot-in-the-back betrayal. (Where were the women who kick ass? Why didn't someone like Queen Latifah get cast as a Jedi? Samuel Jackson's a great actor, but let's face it, he's done better, and someone else might have thrived in the role of head of the Jedi Council.)
Now that that's out of the way, I can say that I really enjoyed the movie. To be honest, I didn't expect much, especially after that mess of a movie with 45 minutes of action that ran about 35 minutes too long. Sith opens with action, but it seems Lucas has been a quiet fan of Battlestar Galactica, for the action sequences are much more intense for their lack of overt intensity. Explosions don't need close-ups and ear-splitting effects. In fact, the space battles look more like distant fireworks spectaculars. Somehow they're all the more horrifying for it. At one point, the film seems more like Master and Commander than a space epic.
The relationship between Palpatine and Anakin is quite interesting. Hayden Christensen learned some acting chops since the previous movie, so his presence carries much more weight now -- which is important, because with this film in place, we truly realize that Star Wars is really the tale of Anakin's rise, descent and redemption, and Luke and Leia and even Obi-Wan are really just side players.
Yoda and the Emperor get to do star turns in a battle that tops any Jedi-Sith duel to that point. We also get to see Wookies, including Chewbacca, and enough battle droids of various designs and weaponry to fill up an entire fictional issue of Jane's The Galaxy's Fighting Droids.
But the real star of this picture is Obi-Wan. Ewan McGregor carries the film with his charm, smile and intensity. I've never found a man with a thick beard to be so attractive. And the easy way he faces situations is quite engaging. Think of an amiable James Bond.
The heart of the story, however, lies with Anakin's turn to the dark side. It's not an easy path for him -- nor for the Republic itself, which transforms from democracy to fascism, all to the sound of applause. Many of those he kills have it coming. His decisiveness is undeniable. One can see why the conservatives in America might get a little hot and bothered about things in the film: many of the characteristics of the Dark Side of the Force are traits the conservatives like to praise these days -- black-and-white thinking, impatience, reacting emotionally, letting rage and hate determine one's actions, all with a genuine frustration with the quaint niceties that are an integral part of democracy.
But in watching the movie, one isn't thinking about George W. Bush. If the conservatives are serious about making a Sith-like move on Washington, Darth Cheney would have to develop some more in-Sidious powers than a smirk and a fat bank balance. The movie is an adventure, scored by John Williams -- and blissfully free of Frists and DeLays and other dark figures with little cinematic appeal.
It will be interesting to see what Lucas does next. He's making noises about more experimental films. At least he finished this series showing that he can, when pressed, make a halfway decent blockbuster. Since he (along with Spielberg) practically invented the summer phenomenon, it's nice to see that the dark side hasn't destroyed his storytelling talents. It's been a wild ride, but now I'm even more interested in what he'll do next.