For six years, it's like I've had a disease or something. Leprosy, maybe. A nerdy sort of leprosy. Lucasium leprae.

I am, when it comes down to it, an embarrassingly big geek. And the thing I'm geekiest about? Star Wars. I've been hooked on George Lucas' space operas since I was six or seven, when I first saw Obi-Wan Kenobi--then played by Alec Guinness--whip around his lightsaber, neatly removing an alien's arm in that scummy, villainous cantina in the first Star Wars.

For a while, I wasn't alone. Almost every kid in the '70s or '80s loved Star Wars, beginning in 1977, and continuing with 1980's The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi in 1983. But in the '80s and '90s, that shared experience of Star Wars became something bigger: A communal mythology. More than any other recent story, Star Wars injected archetypal characters and themes into the pop cultural canon. Ask anyone about Sisyphus, or Achilles, or Hera, and you get blank stares. Mention Darth Vader or Han Solo? Everybody's on the same page.

And then Episode I happened.

Enter Jar Jar

When Lucas announced that he was making a new Star Wars trilogy, he sold them as the story of how a young Jedi, Anakin Skywalker, became cinema's most recognizable bad guy, Darth Vader. He spoke of favorite characters--Yoda, Obi-Wan Kenobi--and the downfall of the Galactic Republic. Instead, he delivered Star Wars: Episode I--The Phantom Menace.

Six years later, it's clear that even a great movie wouldn't have lived up to fans' expectations. And Menace wasn't great--shit, it wasn't even good. As quickly as people gravitated to the original Star Wars, they distanced themselves from Menace, a kiddie-targeted, pseudo-comedic romp whose most memorable aspect was the infuriatingly annoying, gibberish-spouting Jar Jar Binks.

Even the exponentially improved Episode II--Attack of the Clones suffered the same fate. Despite its kickass action sequences and darker tone, moviegoers were put off by the strained romance and the lack of plot. Lucas offered eye-candy, but failed to give a reason for anyone to care.

In the New York Times in 1977, critic Vincent Canby called Star Wars "the most elaborate, most expensive, most beautiful movie serial ever made." He noted, "One of Mr. Lucas' particular achievements is the manner in which he is able to recall the tackiness of the old comic strips and serials he loves without making a movie that is, itself, tacky." And that was just it: Menace and Clones were elaborate and beautiful--but they were tacky, boring, infantile.

A Certain Point of View

And yet: I enjoyed the prequels. I can't explain why. I can't justify it. The fact that I even try to do so has earned me nothing but bewildered scorn from my friends. And it's become an issue: At what point in my associations should I admit that I still like Star Wars? Will there be a fight about Jar Jar? Will an unsuspecting girlfriend stumble upon my Aayla Secura action figures? (Or--even worse--the toy lightsaber in my Jeep's trunk?)

I'll admit it: I'm a shameless, Lucas-fellating Star Wars apologist. And ever since Menace, that's been my undoing. Post-Menace and Clones, everyone seemed to take a sardonic delight talking about what failures the films had been. Out of a weird combination of hope and loyalty, I did my stammering best to defend Lucas.

I wasn't lying, per se--I still like Menace and Clones--but I've definitely seen the films from a certain point of view. And a lot of it came down to one thing: A desperate hope that they'd be redeemed by Episode III; that my childhood love for the originals and my irrevocable fandom wouldn't be for naught.

Lucas Strikes Back

Two weeks ago, I went to a press screening for Star Wars: Episode III--Revenge of the Sith. I couldn't sleep the night before. I probably shouldn't have just admitted that in print.

The advance buzz for Sith was far stronger than the worried rumblings that preceded Menace or Clones. Filmmaker/Star Wars geek Kevin Smith raved that "Revenge of the Sith is, quite simply, fucking awesome. This is the Star Wars prequel the haters have been bitching for since Menace came out, and if they don't cop to that when they finally see it, they're lying." Time's Richard Corliss, meanwhile, added that "Lucas found the skill to make a grave and vigorous popular entertainment, a picture that regains and sustains the filmic Force he dreamed up a long time ago." Still, I was scared shitless. I was prepared for the hype to be false.

But Smith was right. Revenge of the Sith is fucking awesome. Unquestionably the best of the prequels, it's even better than Return of the Jedi. It's that good.

The fast-paced Sith begins where Attack of the Clones left off, with the Clone Wars raging across the galaxy. Cue two of the Galactic Republic's Jedi generals: The patient, wise Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and the brash, volatile Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen). As Anakin's wife, Padmé (Natalie Portman), discovers she's pregnant, Obi-Wan is sent to track down General Grievous, the leader of the armies that have been attacking the Republic. Meanwhile, Anakin's friendship with Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) takes a sinister twist--Palpatine, it turns out, knows the ways of the dark side, and is more than willing to teach them to Anakin.

And you know how the rest turns out--Anakin becomes Darth Vader, his kids end up saving the galaxy, blah blah blah. But Lucas gets in a few surprises--while the one event that pushes Anakin to the dark side is pretty unconvincing, the rest is affecting and nuanced. It's the strong characters and tragic plot that differentiate Sith from its predecessors: Finally, here are the visual nods to the originals, the answers to Lucas' dangling plot threads, a shit-ton of lightsaber fights. Hell, Lucas even makes some successful stabs at political allegory. (Oh, and Jar Jar? Doesn't say one goddamn word in Sith, thank Christ.)

Sith is also the darkest of the Star Wars films. (Its PG-13 body count and gore are pretty tame by adult standards--but this from the guy who invented Ewoks? Holy shit.) Maybe that's good--whether he likes it or not, Lucas hasn't been making the Star Wars films for kids for a while now. He's making them for the adults who were kids when they first saw the films.

That said, sometimes Sith--mostly in its uneven first act--resorts to the painfully cutesy stuff that alienated many from the prequels: Chittering droids, hooting CG lizards, cartoonish gags, stilted dialogue. But the actors--especially Christensen, McGregor, McDiarmid, and, weirdly enough, a great CG Yoda--handle Lucas' melodramatic shtick far better this time around. The best parts of Sith might be those without words, anyway: Obi-Wan and Anakin's climactic lightsaber fight, a dizzying space battle, a sequence that ominously, wordlessly cuts between Anakin and Padmé, a simple shot of the Jedi Temple in flames. Visually, emotionally, and mythically, this prequel finally feels as epic, as touching, as cool as the original Star Wars films. Better late than never.

Still Giving a Fuck

The big question--well, to the few who still give a fuck about Star Wars, post-Menace and Clones--is if Sith justifies its predecessors. (No, not really--though it does make them a bit better, as without Menace or Clones, Sith wouldn't possess its resonance.) But perhaps Sith is such a relief because it justifies the often futile faith of fandom. For six years, I've had to put up with shit for liking Star Wars. That probably won't end. But at least the final Star Wars is good enough that I don't have to be quite as embarrassed about my obsessive fandom. Well, unless someone brings up The Phantom Menace. Then I'm screwed.