Lucas signals early on that this movie will not be like the new-and-unimproved The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones. Both of these more recent movies felt like the filler they were; audiences might have felt a sort of residual affection for each because of their distant kinship to a much-loved mythology, but neither really wowed anyone. No, it's always been mostly about the slow march to Sith, with its potent promise of a return to the beginning. What's best about this new Star Wars installment, then, really isn't very new at all.
The action begins within about a second and a half after the requisite crawl shouts 'War!' Right away, Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) and his Jedi mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan MacGregor) find themselves in a roller coaster of a dogfight above the planet Coruscant -- exactly the kind of dizzy-making derring-do that would make Han Solo and his beloved bucket of bolts the Millennium Falcon feel right at home. In the midst of the Clone Wars, Anakin and Obi-Wan are on a rescue mission: The dastardly, digital General Grievous has kidnapped Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid). An impressive young Anakin almost single-handedly saves Palpatine, thus embarking on the series' most fateful friendship. Swimming far beyond his political depth and still stalked by his twin tormentors, loss and ambition, Anakin begins to change as the times around him grow more treacherous. In the growing instability, the young Jedi's lunge for personal power holds huge political ramifications. As the Republic slowly dies, Darth Vader is born. The stage is set for the intergalactic adventures of Luke and Leia.
Sith benefits from the best of what has come before. The original three films had heart and mouth to spare; the latter episodes banked on mastery of the new digital medium. In this last act, Lucas has recaptured some of the series' swagger and vitality, mostly by pumping up the action quotient and undoubtedly by bringing Lord Vader back to the big screen if only for a mere moment. Lucas' imagination continues to explode with bizarre worlds (the lava planet of Mustafar, the Edenic Wookie planet of Kashyyk) and creatures (ravenous vulture droids, a wheezing Grievous with literal tricks up his sleeves).
It's never easy for a script to stay compelling when 99.9 percent of the audience is equipped to anticipate every outcome. If Sith is Lucas' greatest triumph (and it's fair to argue that it is), the film also had the potential to disappoint. Surprisingly, there are elements of Sith receiving spoiler treatment in features and reviews, but anyone who's been remotely paying attention for the past three decades ought to be able to predict Sith's every move. The beauty, then, of Lucas' maturity as a storyteller is that the prescience he handed his audience when he chose to start in the middle of his epic all those many years ago doesn't matter one bit. Yes, he's telling us something we largely already know, but he's telling it with an irresistible combination of intelligence, craft and love. He trusts the still-vibrant outlines of his original threads and themes. Not even Christensen and Natalie Portman's continuation of the series' legendarily extreme acting (known to range from annoyingly wooden to deliciously melodramatic within the confines of a single scene) gets in the way of the sweet symmetry of Sith.
Is it darker? Yes. Is it dark? Not quite. The hype surrounding the PG-13 rating may cause viewers to expect more. There is a higher level of actual violence, although much of it is strictly implied. What is shown remains fantastical and largely blood-free. Seeing how Anakin physically transforms from a strapping young knight to Darth Vader's machine-supported gelatinous mass (first fully revealed in Return of the Jedi) will no doubt disturb younger viewers. But this is still a George Lucas movie, and 'dark' remains a relative term. Lucas is fond of saying that the Star Wars saga is really just a story about a father who is redeemed by his children. The same could be said of his maverick career. He has forged his own path to make these six movies, revolutionizing the art (and science) of visual effects and testing the endurance of even his most committed fans. In all its fabulous finality and sentimental glory, Sith succeeds where at least two of its older siblings have failed. Lucas is a proud, unapologetic patriarch, at long last achieving the redemption he never thought to seek.