(Minor spoiler ahead. See if you can even pick it out.)
Maybe I should recuse myself, because I'm a hardcore Star Wars geek from way back, having seen the original version in the theatre (before it was called Episode 4) - a theatre with a HUGE screen that showed "Scope" movies in their proper frame format. I was unable to hoist my dropped jaw for about a month after seeing it the first time. A buddy who'd seen it in L.A. before it made its way to my small town had warned me of its awesomeness, but it surpassed all expectations and became my favorite movie of all time, for a while. I can pretend no objectivity in these matters. Even though the newer Star Wars movies have been flawed to the point of surpassing newer iterations of Star Trek in terms of suckitude, I am required to see them, if only to witness the death spiral of a dream.
The wonderful ubergeek hisownself, Harry Knowles, usually frames his reviews with a description of what he did that day, leading up to a viewing, because he believes it helps portray his frame of mind going into the flick. I'm going to borrow that trick, since my circumstance probably colored my mood, further absolving my eventual opinion.
The long weekend loomed, and I was ready for fun until a surprise visit by the in-laws, who intended on staying the night. My in-laws are decrepit, amazingly narcissistic chatterboxes who can't stay on topic any better than your garden-variety aphasic. Their kids are used to this, and have developed a strategy to ignore most of the noise, only cherry-picking the occasional word to appear interested, but I'm used to people actually having something to say when they open their mouths, so their visits are sheer torture for me. When they descend, I end up having to hide out in a remote part of the house to avoid their gapped, circular, incessant patter lest I go nuts and end up being dragged away screaming in my underwear like that poor soul at the end of Fargo.
Sunday morning presented itself, and MPC1 and I were listlessly trying to fill our time, awaiting with dread the eventual rising of the wordstorm troopers (they sleep 'til noon). My wife was also abed, catching up on being awaked for nursing during the night. We had scheduled Monday for seeing Star Wars at the big screen here in town, but as the tedium of the coming morning yawned before us, I grabbed the paper and saw there was a showing we could just catch at another theatre. I procured release from my lovely wife, and off we went. We had escaped! (Or so we thought. When we got back, we discovered our absence merely prolonged the visit.)
So, as the famous intro scroll began, letting us know that Obi wan and Anakin are in the midst of saving Palpatine from a kidnapping attempt, I was in a foul mood, brightened only by our respite from the destroyed weekend and the fact I was there with my daughter, whom I love to go to movies with. I'd heard largely positive reviews, so I was expecting enjoyment rather than a two-hour cringefest for once. In other words, a small spark of hope was alight in my breast, much like ET's when he first comes back to life.
The initial action sequence is good and wisely has a little humor in it, but once that's over, we dive back into what made the other new eppys suck - a lot of yadda yadda about political maneuverings, angst over who's a more righteous or kickass Jedi, etc. The movie doesn't pull it's head out of its black hole until Mace Windu (Samuel Jackson) fights Palpatine, converting the latter into the burned lizard we know and love as the Emperor from the earlier, final 3 movies.
It's revealed that "the force" is really a form of Buddhism that's practiced only by people lucky enough to have the cellular component called "midichlorians" that empower one to manipulate the force - kinda like Harry Potter's (or Samantha Stevens') magic powers where you're either born with them or not. Attachment, meaning personal love and not a vague love for mankind at large, leads to jealousy and inappropriate feelings of possession, which lead to the dark side, and thus all passion is directed inward, selfishly. So, by extension, having a wife and kids is a path to the dark side, if you wanna cut to the chase. Therefore, in the Star Wars universe - where it now appears to a blessing that it occurred a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away - if you are born with enough "midichlorians" (which makes me think of badly synthesized computer music that occurs during photosynthesis), you are destined to roam the galaxy as a sexually frustrated monk, putting on a game face while working out your tension by lopping off limbs with a noisy glowstick.
Anakin finds himself in the midst of The Thornbirds in Space, because Natalie Portman is just a drop-dead full-press mondo ultra hottie of galactic proportions, and she's got a kingdom to boot. What's a young monk to do? It's time to get out the light saber that's way more fun, that's what ya do. Even Yoda have a hard time justifying that not, would he.
Now, pardon me whilst I lurch into dime-store psychology here, but I've noticed that Darth's story arc has a lot in common with George Lucas' renowned, self-admitted troubles with women. Seems one of the richest, most well-known directors/screenwriters/auteurs in Hollywood history has trouble holding on to women. This guy ended up having to raise his kids all by himself, even given his wealth and influence. It's hard to face that we live in a world where Donald Trump and His Amazing Wind-resistant Comb-over can get a date, and even marry a pretty young gold-digger, but George can't find one bucktoothed girl who has a secret thing for Ewoks to provide ballast for the other side of the waterbed. Apparently for George, it all comes down to it being preferable to having appendages sliced off rather than face the agonies of a relationship.
The twist in "Sith" that causes Anakin to become Darth, hinted at here, is actually kinda cool and compelling, and I imagine it's the source of the positive reviews out there - along with the fact that this installment doesn't just totally suck out loud. Sometimes just crossing the finish line is enough, dear heart.
Once the freefall of Anakin begins in earnest (which, for those of you in the cheap seats, begins with another character's literal freefall), the movie picks back up and is a decent entertainment (as evidenced by my daughter's losing interest in the crowd behind us and something stuck to her shoe, and tuning back into the movie). As we near the end, we begin to come full circle and see the sets and costumes we did at the beginning of eppy 4, which is a visceral rush for old fans like myself. We are back where we started, after all.
So, my thumbnail review is that this is better than any of the previous new Star Wars, but it's only just as good as the last one (chronologically) in the series - the futzy Return of the Jedi - which is pretty lukewarm praise, my friends. I did not like it as much as Kevin Smith did. My reaction is approximate to Harry's. As always, Ebert is close to the mark, though he gave more stars than "Stars" is worth, imvho.
And now that it's all said and done, I can put my finger on why these movies weren't that good.
I doubt I'm the first one to point this out, but what was wrong with the first (er, last) three Star Wars films was there is no Han Solo. His character helped a lot towards leavening the space opera. Luke was too busy becoming a Jedi, saving everyone's ass, and feeling icky for snogging his sister to provide much humor. Come to think of it, Princess Lea contributed some of the best female smackdown lines, too. How come no one in the new films was a smartass? I'm guessing that Lucas had Jar-Jar in mind for that role, but the mass hatred for the character (not counting the little tots who dug him) must've had him remove the smartass component altogether.
Irreverence, along with great action sequences, was the central joy of the original films. Without it, the new ones just seem like channel surfing between C-SPAN and a lengthy CNN report that features spaceships instead of tanks. (And talk about your classic victim of bad timing, we get this humorless trope right when the majority of us (according to recent polls) are seeking escapism from that very sort of thing.) Alas.
TLD: Whilst writing this post, I discovered that Microsoft Word 2000 actually knows how to spell correctly the names of the main Star Wars characters, but it doesn't know how to spell "shithead." Interesting, no?