If Star Wars: Episode III ­— Revenge of the Sith is the
best of the Star Wars prequels — and maybe better than a couple of the
films in the original series — it’s not because George Lucas has significantly
changed the formula behind the most successful franchise in movie history (though
the new film is, as promised, the darkest and most violent of them all). Rather,
it’s that this latest and last chapter is the one most pregnant with dramatic
revelation and genuine emotion since Luke Skywalker opened up a Pandora’s box
and found a birth certificate inside. Forget about surprises, though: The lurid
attraction of Revenge of the Sith stems from its utter
predictability, from our knowledge that this is the payoff for which five earlier
films over 28 years were but one elaborate Greek chorus. Here is where the benevolent
Jedi Order will fall to the fearsome Galactic Empire, where the few surviving
Jedi knights will be cast into exile and where Hayden Christensen will somehow
turn into James Earl Jones. Seeing it all unfold onscreen is like witnessing some
grand and terrifying childhood myth made manifest.

Now, as then, the real tension in Lucas’ work isn’t so much between the light
and dark sides of the Force as it is between his knack for classical storytelling
and his restless drive to push movie technology to infinity and beyond. Lucas
even opened his debut feature, THX-1138, with a clip from the 1939 Buck
Rogers serial and had originally hoped to do an entire Buck Rogers
movie before the rights proved too expensive. And long after moving on to
Star Wars’ more elaborate fantasy landscapes, his instinct for cliffhanger
suspense and high melodrama remained razor-sharp. (In Revenge of the
Sith alone, there are enough extravagantly plotted revenges and miraculous
returns from the grave to fill a whole season of All My Children.)

Most of the standard criticisms of Lucas still hold true. He is a far livelier director of animated action heroes than of human actors — which is where both James Cameron and Peter Jackson have eclipsed him — and his approach to romantic scenes is comically asexual. (To come to the Revenge of the Sith screening, as I did, having written all morning about the eros-charged work of novelist James Salter, was akin to falling asleep in a brothel and waking up in a monastery.) But he is also the highly imaginative creator of faraway universes and the creatures, spaceships and brilliant primary colors that inhabit them. (I took particular pleasure in Sith’s General Grievous, who looks like a walking chest of drawers and whose threatening words are persistently interrupted by a phlegmatic wheeze, but who, when push comes to shove, bolts out of the gate with four light sabers blazing.) Lucas has labored for decades to create a new digital language for cinema — his own powerful Force, if you will — and when he is at the top of his game, it’s hard not to be impressed by what he achieves, by way of manipulating that language into a weirdly beautiful, mechanized poetry that exposes the computer-generated imagery in most other movies as little more than expensive white noise. So Lucas is a major figure, and Revenge of the Sith may be some kind of historic achievement — the first movie in which it is fully impossible to tell where flesh ends and digital paint begins.

Finally, it may be that Lucas is a good deal less naive in his absolutist view of good and evil than many would claim. In the year 2005, he has brought the curtain down on his iconic multibillion-dollar franchise with images of a once-democratic land held in the clutches of a despotic leader who controls both the courts and the Congress. As she looks on at the wreckage, the virtuous Padmé (Natalie Portman) has only this to say: “So this is how liberty dies — with thunderous applause.” Not bad for a guy with a famously tin ear for dialogue.

In their eternal whimsy, the movie gods have seen fit to momentarily entwine the destinies of George Lucas and Paul Schrader. On June 9, when Lucas receives the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award, Schrader will be presented with the AFI’s Franklin J. Schaffner Fellow Award (given annually to an alumnus of the school). And beginning today, in cinemas across the country, they will wage a battle for moviegoers’ dollars as the directors of two long-in-the-works prequels to two of the most successful and enduringly popular movies of the 1970s. In truth, it’s not a fair fight. With Revenge of the Sith opening simultaneously on thousands of movie screens across the globe and carrying with it the promise of lifting the box office out of its pre-summer doldrums, the arrival of Schrader’s Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist in somewhere around 100 screens puts it in an entirely different weight class.

It’s been nine months since I first reported on the various misfortunes bedeviling Schrader’s film — which was shot, then shelved by the production company Morgan Creek, then entirely re-shot by director Renny Harlin — and in that time, a movie that once seemed destined for life as a DVD extra and a footnote in film-history textbooks has proved nearly as resilient as the demon Pazuzu. Now Schrader’s version of what was once called Exorcist: The Beginning is finally in general release, and to see it is to realize that this ambitious, serious-minded horror opus is destined to forever remain something of a cursed object — what the French like to call a film maudit. Though Dominion has been “finished,” the money anted up by Morgan Creek was so minimal that the overall condition of the film remains relatively unchanged from the version Schrader showed me on videotape nearly a year ago. The visual effects and sound mix are still far from the standards of most studio releases, and the musical score (added since my first viewing) by Angelo Badalamenti, Trevor Rabin and a growling heavy-metal band called Dog Fashion Disco is not exactly an asset.

The strengths of Dominion, however, have been little diminished by its long shelf life and, in fact, may have grown stronger with age — seeing as how the film now arrives in the wake of the repulsive, Harlin-directed bloodbath that played to disappointing business (and reviews scarier than anything onscreen) late last summer. As I said at the time, Schrader’s version (made from a quite similar script) is both a pensive contemplation of the getting and losing of faith, and a movie that views demonic possession less as a singular occurrence than as a contagion born in the hearts of men and carried across time and space, infecting entire communities in its wake. It is a horror story in which gore is supplanted by ideas and, sadly, for that very reason, Morgan Creek may have been right in thinking that the same audience that lines up in droves for The Ring and The Amityville Horror will have little interest in seeing it.

When I spoke with Schrader last year, he admitted he was an unlikely director for a $40 million studio movie, but said that he’d welcomed the chance “to play with the big toys.” Two weeks ago in Time magazine, Lucas groused that it had taken him years to get over the feeling that he would forever be “Mr. Star Wars” and that, with the series now put to bed, he hopes to embark on the small, personal art films he’s always dreamed of making. So for a weekend, at least, Dominion and Sith will share a few marquees, each the object of the other’s envy, collectively proof that settling upon a single path in life has been no easier for the directors of the Easy Riders, Raging Bulls generation than it has been for a certain young Skywalker.

STAR WARS: EPISODE III REVENGE OF THE SITH | Written and directed by GEORGE LUCAS | Produced by RICK McCALLUM | Released by 20th Century Fox | Citywide

DOMINION: PREQUEL TO THE EXORCIST | Directed by PAUL SCHRADER | Written by WILLIAM WISHER and CALEB CARR | Released by Warner Bros. | At selected theaters

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