*Star Wars III -- Revenge of the Sith (PG-13)
Opening May 19
Star Wars III should silence most critics who found Star Wars I and Star Wars II (the first of the three prequels to the well-loved original trilogy) soft and irrelevant. Director and writer George Lucas burns down everything built up in those films, leaving only the pathway to the famous space saga of Luke, Leia and Darth Vader.
Despite more of the same lousy acting and poor character ideas that marred parts one and two, Sith wins in the end thanks to its unrelenting dark vision. After all, this is what everyone has been waiting for: how Anakin Skywalker -- the boy foretold to unite the galaxy -- becomes a black-clad mass murderer named Darth.
The film opens in a bewildering but fantastic action sequence that follows Anakin (Hayden Christensen) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) as their spacecraft twist through enemy fire. This battle is really the ending climax of part two, in which a clone army threatens to destroy the Republic.
But even with triumph, clearly not all is well. Anakin appears stoned, eyes glazed and his behavior cocky, which creates foreboding. Despite his appearance, inner conflicts are multiplying. He learns that his secret wife, Senator Padm Amidala (Natalie Portman), is pregnant, a violation for a Jedi knight like Anakin. His loyalty to Chancellor Palpatine, who we learn is none other than the Lord of the Sith Empire, is soon questioned.
Anakin's conflicts collide when he begins to experience nightmares in which Padm dies giving birth. Looking for a way to prevent her death (and without spoiling too much of the plot), Anakin falls into the Emperor's clutches.
The ensuing brutal rampage includes the murder of children, the massacre of Jedi knights and too many decapitations to count -- the dramatic substance we've been waiting for. This catharsis creates the darkness from which Star Wars IV (released in 1977 and subtitled A New Hope) sprouts. It's part of the mythic arc that made the original trilogy great and Lucas a household name.
With Episode III, Lucas excels further in technological mastery. (He created the company Industrial Light and Magic to make the first Star Wars film and was the first director to shoot a feature, with actors, entirely in digital.) Although the special effects are at times too much to grasp, they're stunning nonetheless.
When it comes to commanding believable acting and penning good dramatic transitions, however, Lucas has a wooden heart. Portman should be ashamed of her hapless performance. In a more important scene, she blurts out, "you're breaking my heart," bereft of heartfelt delivery. Christensen doesn't quite understand Anakin's turn toward the dark side, and the scene is unfortunately rushed. Even John Williams' music veers into cheese from time to time, with nothing new to rival the great music of Return of the Jedi.
Yet for all these failings, a few nice surprises compensate. We learn that even R2D2 can kick ass. Yoda is given an extended action role and, upon Chewbacca's return, delivers a priceless line: "Good relations with Wookies I have." Lucas even pokes fun at George W. Bush: When Anakin claims he's provided peace, freedom, justice and security to the new dark empire, he says, "If you're not with me you're my enemy."
And as for the showdown between Anakin and Obi-Wan, it's enough to say Episode III is worth watching on the big screen.