A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, a young filmmaker named George Lucas directed a modestly budgeted sci-fi adventure romp called Star Wars. The movie was released in May 1977 and became an instant success, smashing box-office records, spawning two sequels and influencing a whole generation of moviegoers, not to mention filmmakers. But a funny thing happened on the road to pop-culture immortality-the movies themselves became almost secondary things. Egged on by Lucas, the Star Wars brand name took on a stature of mythic proportions, with discussions of the films revolving almost exclusively around their place in cinematic history (or, more insufferably, the speaker's own personal history) and their resemblance to the work of high-minded storytellers like Joseph Campbell. Suddenly, Star Wars was more than just an entertaining trio of movies-it was a legend for our time.

It's no wonder, then, that the prequel trilogy has suffered so much in comparison. Unlike the original films, the new episodes have had to labor directly under the weight of Lucas' grand pretensions. As a result, they resemble stately museum pieces: handsome to look at, but lacking that essential creative spark. Viewed again, it's clear that both The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones serve little purpose outside of providing a lot of dull exposition and giving Lucas' F/X company Industrial Light & Magic a chance to play with their newest toys. By all rights, Revenge of the Sith should have been more of the same. But damned if Lucas didn't rouse himself from his slumber to deliver a genuinely thrilling final chapter. When Sith works, which it frequently does, it reminds you of why you fell in love with this universe in the first place.

Before you pull your Darth Vader costume out of mothballs, though, be warned that the film is not perfect. (In other words, it ain't no Empire Strikes Back.) Many of the problems that plagued Menace and Clones surface again in Sith, most notably some truly awful dialogue and wooden acting from otherwise talented performers. Natalie Portman seems particularly adrift here, perhaps because she's been given little to do besides model a variety of hairstyles while gazing sadly at her onscreen hubbie as he's slowly consumed by the Dark Side. At least Hayden Christensen is better this time around-he actually seems conflicted instead of just whiny-although the Padmé/Anakin romance is once again the worst thing about the movie. Far more effective is Anakin's transformation into Darth Vader and his subsequent betrayal of the Jedi. This is the story that viewers have waited six years and two underwhelming movies to see and the film doesn't hold back in showing the consequences of his decision. In the darkest scene that has ever appeared in a Star Wars movie, the newly minted Sith Lord slaughters a roomful of young Jedi students without batting an eye. No wonder Lucas has been so adamant about telling parents to leave the kiddies at home.

In general, Sith has clearly been made with an eye towards the fans. The movie is filled with visual references and callbacks to the original films. Some of these seem excessive (a trip to the Wookiee planet serves little purpose), but most are guaranteed to melt the heart of even the most jaded Star Wars aficionado. It's great fun to see early versions of the X-Wing fighters zoom across the screen in the space battles. And, as cheesy as it sounds, the birth of Luke and Leia is quite moving. Best of all, however, is the scene where Vader finally dons his famous costume. As the helmet is locked into place and that famous respirator kicks in, followed by James Earl Jones' rumbling voice, you can feel a collective gasp sweeping through the audience. Unfortunately, Lucas then goes and almost ruins the moment by having him shout a cheesy "Nooooo!!!!" when he's informed of his lover's death.

It will be interesting to view the original trilogy again in the wake of Sith. Certainly, Lucas has left a lot of loose ends dangling between the two series. For example, we never get a firm answer as to why the older Obi-Wan doesn't recognize C-3PO and R2-D2 when they turn up on Tatooine in A New Hope. (At least we're informed that Threepio himself has his memory wiped). And don't expect to learn anything more conclusive about that virgin-birth nonsense that was brought up in Menace. In some instances, the characterizations seem off as well. Alec Guinness' Merlin-like Obi-Wan doesn't quite match up with the quipster Ewan McGregor plays here. (This version of Obi-Wan actually bears a closer resemblance to Han Solo). Then there's Vader himself, who has gone from being a force of pure evil to a mixed-up mama's boy hiding behind a mask. While I'm not entirely certain that I like how Lucas has altered the character with the prequels, it does add a new dimension to the father/son theme that runs throughout Empire and Return of the Jedi.

Finally, a word must be said about the true star of Sith: the digital photography. Lucas has often been taken to task by critics for his obsession with all things digital, but his faith in the technology pays off here. From the opening battle scene to Obi-Wan and Anakin's climactic lightsaber duel, the film is filled with eye-popping images and dazzling special effects; this is a movie that demands to be seen only in a theatre with digital projection. And while some of the CGI remains distracting, on the whole the film looks far less cartoonish than the previous prequel episodes. At long last, Lucas has produced a film that measures up to his epic intentions for Star Wars. For that alone, he deserves the applause that erupts as Sith comes to its tragic but hopeful conclusion.
-Ethan Alter