The Force, but with Feeling
George Lucas and his talented minions have been busy in the three years since Attack of the Clones hit theaters. The fruit of their labors -- the culmination of three decades of toiling when you count the original Star Wars released in 1977-- is a fitting conclusion to a landmark franchise.
Admittedly, the dialogue in Revenge of the Sith can be leaden and consequently the acting stiff, yet this installment has enough emotion to render it accessible and satisfying for devotees and newcomers alike. Watching Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) embrace the dark side of The Force and become Darth Vader is compelling on more than a visual level.
The special effects bar has been raised since 2002, most notably by the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and Lucas and company have elevated their technical game along with their storytelling. Revenge of the Sith is essentially a political tragedy, with the Jedi Council and Chancellor Palpatine (the snakelike Ian McDiarmid) battling for Anakin's sensitive soul. The saga comes full circle as both the Empire and the seeds of the rebellion are born, and the original magic of 1977 is rediscovered.
Lucas taps into the old-fashioned, Saturday matinee quality he brought to the first Star Wars along with revolutionary craftsmanship. His vision remains middle-class Manichean, with dual impulses toward good and bad competing for dominance. Anakin's journey is more engrossing than one might expect, hinging on his relationship with the Iago-like Palpatine, whom Anakin and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) rescue in a swarming opening battle sequence, killing renegade Jedi Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) in the process. On their return, the Jedi Council is suspicious of Anakin's closeness to Palpatine; the young knight is named to the Council without being promoted to Master.
Meanwhile, his secret wife Padme (Natalie Portman) is pregnant and he has a premonition of her death during childbirth. Yoda remarks on Anakin's obsession with finding a way to save her: "The fear of loss is a path to the dark side." Indeed. The wily Palpatine lures him away by appealing to baser instincts, but he's also motivated by love. Although it comes through loudly and clumsily, introducing this smidgeon of moral complexity is vital to the movie's success because it generates sympathy for Anakin.
A handful of scenes, such as when Palpatine morphs into Darth Sidious and when Anakin finally crosses over and wages war on innocent Jedi, may frighten young viewers. They'll leave any trepidation behind during the transfixing payoff. The last half hour features two amazing fight sequences -- Kenobi versus Anakin against a flowing lava backdrop, and Yoda versus Darth Sidious. These battles are then mirrored in parallel deathbed scenes that result in rebirths.
Sounding perplexed and straining to find additional meaning in his lines, Christensen is the weak link acting-wise. It's a titanic role and he's adequate physically if not vocally. As stalwarts on the side of right, Jimmy Smits and Samuel L. Jackson also seem too contemporary. McGregor and McDiarmid's thespian (i.e., Scottish and British) intonations serve as a counterweight to these three performances. The special effects have a magnificent complexity, with a dazzling variety of space scapes. Plus, trademark Lucasian devices like multiple dissolves are reassuringly nostalgic. John Williams' score supports the operatic nature of the action without being distracting.
Much stronger than Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith will burnish if not significantly alter the staus of Star Wars in cinema history. Lucas and company have melded technology and traditional storytelling into the equivalent of classic westerns in space. It's an achievement that won't soon be forgotten by film scholars or fans.
(Released by 20th Century Fox/Lucasfilm Ltd. and rated "PG-13" for sci-fi violence and some intense images.)