Six years ago, while in my first or second year as a movie reviewer for Willamette Week, I was extraordinarily excited to attend a press screening of Star Wars: Episode I-The Phantom Menace a couple weeks before the movie opened in theaters. It turned out that Phantom Menace was a disappointment. But what bothered me just as much as that, if not more, was the venom with which some reviewers attacked the movie. It felt as if they actually were glad Episode I wasn't very good, because now they could really enjoy bashing it.
Three of us at WW reviewed the movie. The idea was to bring a variety of perspectives since it was such a watershed cultural moment: the return of Star Wars. My review was the most even-handed. I didn't deny Phantom Menace had faults, but I also argued that it had principally the same faults as the very beloved original trilogy had had: bad dialogue and acting, as well as an overabundance of cute aliens (this time Jar Jar Binks instead of the Ewoks). You had to take it for what it was. I also felt Phantom Menace had one of the best light saber battles I'd seen in any Star Wars movie. As Obi-Wan would go on to warn Anakin in Episode III, "Only a Sith deals in absolutes."
That said, did I go easy on Episode I back in 1999? Absolutely. But I admitted in the review that I was biased in favor of George Lucas because I adored the original trilogy. I was a Star Wars fan first, and a movie reviewer second. Which is not to say those roles are mutually exclusive, but just to be forthright about their order of importance in my mind. I'm very loyal when it comes to this series.
Besides, how I reviewed Phantom Menace was also a reactive move: I knew the other reviews in the paper would be scathing. While I couldn't disagree that the movie was a disappointment, I felt the other reviewers were not representing the millions of Star Wars fans out there who, like me, grew up with and had a very personal connection to the original trilogy. That's why I very deliberately chose to take a personal perspective in my review at the expense of outright critical objectivity. I stand by what I wrote.
For the most part, reviewing Episode II-Attack of the Clones was a less heated experience all around. The opposing sides in the war of words had already been defined. I thought the movie was a sizable improvement over Episode I, but this time I was more prepared for the negative critical response, at WW or otherwise. Besides, I never minded someone else giving these movies a bad review. I just got defensive when people seemed to be making a sport of it. I felt obligated to defend Star Wars like the Jedi defend the Republic.
Now, however, comes the third and final episode in both the trilogy of Star Wars prequels and in my personal drama negotiating the dual role of critic and fan. This time around, though, I firmly believe George Lucas has got my back.
I can tell you without reservation that Episode III is an excellent movie. And while there is still a wide spectrum of critical opinions out there, the overwhelming majority of significant movie critics in America agree with me. And it feels great.
Is Episode III a masterpiece? Probably not. But it has virtually everything we loved about the original trilogy. It's an epic that draws equally from classical mythology and 1940s-50s movie serials like Buck Rogers. It's heartrending one moment--resonating with the most primal of familial, romantic, cultural and societal strugles--and just a great fucking thrill ride the next.
Revenge of the Sith also minimizes virtually everything we disliked about the first two prequels: Jar Jar utters not one word in this movie, for example. The romantic scenes between Padme and Anakin, painful at times in Episode II, are lean and get right to the heart of their affection and the emerging tragedy driving a wedge between them. And while I thought the digital effects were often fake-looking in the first two prequels, they've gotten better. The movie opens with space battle that is every bit as grand and epic as anything imagined by Cecil B. DeMille.
I have a weakness for moralizing with the original Star Wars trilogy. I've never trusted people who outright don't like them...unfair as that kind of judgment may be. So unfortunately, as redemption comes to George Lucas and the Star Wars saga, I find myself acting, at least in my mind, more like the gloating Emperor than the humble Jedi. (Lucas, remember, changed Return of the Jedi from its original title, Revenge of the Jedi, because "revenge isn't a Jedi concept.")
But after the adrenaline and relief and euphoria of Episode III being as good as I had hoped have run their course, perhaps I'll take a more noble approach...in deference to the Jedi, of course.