Originally published May 18, 2005, in the Post-Dispatch
There's at least one interesting moment in "Revenge of the Sith, " the final release in the "Star Wars" saga. The sneaky senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) issues "Order 66," which instructs the Republic's stormtroopers to turn their weapons against the Jedi knights they've been defending. As the wisest creatures in the universe fall dying to the ground, one can imagine them thinking, "Damn! We've been tricked!"
Maybe you'll know the feeling.
A sizable squadron of "Star Wars" fans came crashing to Earth in 1999, when director George Lucas launched the needless prequel trilogy with "The Phantom Menace." Others bailed out when Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman) and Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) frolicked atop space cows in the abysmal romantic subplot of 2002's "Attack of the Clones." Now only a child who's blissed out on Burger King collectibles could keep from snickering when Anakin hisses to his former friend Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), "If you're not with me, you're my enemy!" A charitable viewer might excuse such dialogue as Lucas' attempt at political parody. That the movie is supposed to be a comedy is the only way to explain why, in the same scene, Padme shrieks at her husband, "I don't know you anymore!"
Whether as a satire, a summary or a state-of-the-art entertainment, "Revenge of the Sith" has more to work with than the previous two installments. But because of how high it's aiming, it makes the loudest thud. Now that it has come to an end, analysts can say that the "Star Wars" serial is many things — a technological testing ground, a triumph of the imagination, even a sly salvo in the ongoing war between fat cats and flower children.
What it's not is artful.
Although the stiff theatrics are part of the design, they're no longer excusable. Lucas is a student of both classic literature and crass entertainment, but the portion of his work that isn't lifted from either Joseph Campbell or Flash Gordon — i.e., the interaction of the humans — is howlingly bad. And it's now clear that, as a director, Lucas will never top "American Graffiti."
Most fans will acknowledge that the best of the six "Star Wars" movies is "The Empire Strikes Back" — which was directed by Lucas' film-school Yoda, Irvin Kershner. Lucas himself is an able producer and an innovative technocrat (which is why the most diverting things in his movies are the pricey special effects and set design); but his storytelling has all the sophistication of a school play (which is why he has so many mute creatures standing stiffly in the background).
Lucas has predicted that the tragic ending of this particular story will have the emotional impact of "Titanic" — as if that's a good thing — and to salute his own prowess at invoking universal themes, he's allowed John Williams to bust open a keg of symphonic schmaltz.
This tale is the centerpiece of the saga, where we finally learn why the virtuous Jedi Anakin Skywalker became the murderous jerk Darth Vader of the original trilogy. Under closer examination, the answer is not so much tragic as appalling. Consistent with the infantilism that underlies the whole "Star Wars" project, the villain turns out to be sex.
The political maneuvering is a total snooze — remind us again, what the devil is a Sith? — and Anakin's rationale for switching sides is as indefensible as Christensen's acting. But the conversion does precipitate the most powerfully creepy action sequences in the entire saga, including a duel in a molten hell where Anakin is literally cut down to size.
Newcomers who endure Lucas' cold effects and inept choreography for the first 90 minutes will count the climactic showdown among the movie's consolations, along with the impish charm of Ewan McGregor, the cheap introduction to Zen metaphysics and the groovy Romanesque penthouses where the characters dwell.
Of course, newcomers aren't the target audience. Lucas knows that most of the fence-sitters who wavered through the previous two installments will give it a chance (and at the very least, they'll thank their lucky stars that Jar Jar Binks is limited to a virtually silent cameo). Sentimentalists will salivate whenever R2-D2 goes beep-beep-beep, diehards will be delighted with the pit stop on a planet full of Wookiees, and if you're hot for hardcore wizard-on-wizard action, it has light-saber fights out the yin-yang. Although "Revenge of the Sith" is masquerading as a different, darker "Star Wars," the Force that will propel so many millions into the theater is the force of habit.
'Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith'
Two stars (out of four)
Rating: PG-13 (for sci-fi violence and some intense images)
Running time: 2:20