The final episode of George Lucas' cinematic epic Star Wars ends the six-movie series on such a high note that one feels like yelling out, "Rewind!" Yes, rewind through more than 13 hours of bravery, treachery, new worlds, odd creatures and human frailty. The first two episodes of Lucas' second trilogy -- The Phantom Menace (1999) and Attack of the Clones (2002) -- caused more than a few fans of the original trilogy to wonder whether this prequel was worth it. The answer is a qualified yes. It did take a lot of weighty exposition, stiffly played scenes and less-than-magical creatures to get to "Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith." But what a ride Lucas and Company have in store!
Needless to say, international boxoffice will register in the hundreds of millions. The real question is how much money the entire series, now ready for packaging and repackaging for all sorts of formats and media, will eventually take in. Let's just say a lot.
What seems like the biggest drawback to Episode III turns out to be its strongest element. Even casual moviegoers know what is in store for the characters, who will wind up at the point where the original Star Wars -- now dubbed Episode IV -- A New Hope -- began the whole saga nearly 30 years ago. We know how Jedi Knight Anakin Skywalker will turn to the dark side of the Force, how his twin children will be separated at birth and how his former master Obi-Wan Kenobi and the tiny Jedi Master Yoda will turn into his mortal enemies. Yet watching these fates unfold with such tragic inevitability, watching each piece fall into place, is genuinely thrilling. In fact, knowing that these strong characters cannot and will not escape their fate is what moves us.
The movie opens with a bang. Anakin (Hayden Christensen) and Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor), swashbuckling Knights in jet planes, swoop into a Sith space armada, batting off various attack forces with seasoned aplomb. In the main battleship, Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) and his coyote-faced, metal-skeletoned droid ally General Grievous -- one of many computerized characters -- hold the Republic's Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) prisoner.
Action goes nonstop for more than 20 minutes as the two Jedi Knights supply the jaunty, gravity-defying heroics, while the robot R2D2 (Kenny Baker) delivers brilliant comic action. This holds true throughout the new film as writer-director Lucas does a much better job of interweaving comedy with the dramatic and even tragic.
The seduction of the troubled Anakin to the dark side and the turn of the cool, cerebral Palpatine into the dictator of the Galactic Empire occur in an intelligent and persuasive way. The movie opens with the now traditional receding title crawl, which informs us that in the galactic warfare that has broken out, there are "heroes on both sides" and "evil is everywhere." Understandably, Anakin doesn't know whom to trust.
As it is, he leads a double life, having secretly married beauteous Sen. Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman). Her pregnancy will now force that secret into the open and cause him to lose his knighthood. Even more pressing, the rescued Palpatine brings Anakin into his confidence and plants doubts in his mind about the Jedi council. Sure enough, Council head Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) signals that he has lost his trust in Anakin.
Palpatine gets Anakin appointed to the council, but Anakin is not allowed to assume to title of master. Even more troubling, each side -- Palpatine and Obi-Wan -- comes to Anakin to ask him to spy on the other side. Soon dreams suggest to Anakin that Padme will die in childbirth. Palpatine hints to the distraught husband that only by exploring the Force more fully can he save his wife.
Poor dialogue and wooden acting still inflict the second trilogy. The tragic dimension of Anakin's dilemma can only barely withstand lines like this from Padme: "You're a good person. Don't do this." Many dialogue scenes, brief as they are, feel awkward and unnatural. Such scenes start cold -- we can almost sense the clapboard moving out of camera frame -- and end with long, lingering shots of actors' blank faces. Yet in face of the epic grandeur of the film's design and action, these are mere quibbles.
Now completely at home with digital filmmaking, Lucas can blaze a pioneering path as no one else. Shooting on soundstages in Australia and Britain with additional photography in China, Thailand, Switzerland, Italy and Tunisia, Lucas thrusts viewers into pitched battles in looming caverns and giant space ships or a lightsaber duel on a river of Molten Lava. Combining choreographic action aesthetics that are American, Chinese and other worldly, Lucas has redefined fantasy filmmaking with Star Wars, while teaching a generation of filmmakers to accept no limitations.
Cinematographer David Tattersall makes everything match beautifully, while editors Roger Barton and Ben Burtt (the latter also credited with the ingenious sound design) propel the story ever forward. John Williams, Lucas' music collaborator through all six films, is content to rumble melodically in the background with only brief emotional swells at key moments. Trisha Biggar's costumes and all the props and makeup are delicious fun, genuinely integral parts of the storytelling. And the CG creatures are more lifelike than ever. A particular standout is a giant lizard McGregor gets to ride.
Yes, by all means, rewind!
STAR WARS: EPISODE III -- REVENGE OF THE SITH
20th Century Fox
A Lucasfilm Ltd. production
Writer-director: George Lucas
Producer: Rick McCallum
Executive producer: George Lucas
Director of photography: David Tattersall
Production designer: Gavin Bocquet
Music: John Williams
Costumes: Trisha Biggar
Editors: Roger Barton, Ben Burtt
Obi-Wan Kenobi: Ewan McGregor
Padme: Natalie Portman
Anakin Skywalker: Hayden Christensen
Supreme Chancellor Palpatine: Ian McDiarmid
Mace Windu: Samuel L. Jackson
Sen. Organa: Jimmy Smits
Yoda (voice): Frank Oz
C-3PO: Anthony Daniels
R2D2: Kenny Baker
Count Dooku: Christopher Lee
Queen of Naboo: Keisha Castle-Hughes
MPAA rating PG-13
Running time -- 140 minutes
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