by Ed Symkus

Has there been a more anticipated sequel? Has one ever been approached with more trepidation? The two previous Star Wars films, while making gobs of money, weren't exactly treated with the same kind of adulation given to the first three -- OK, the first two. And George Lucas, with all of his high-falutin' philosophical gobbledy-gook about the Force and the need for balance, and black and white separation of Good and Evil (which he had the decency and the smarts to make a little murky in Attack of the Clones), had a lot riding on this one. With this supposedly being the last of the series, he just had to be thinking about his reputation. With terms such as "darkest" and "Shakespearean" being tossed around well before this film's release, Lucas had to create and then fill some very big shoes.

And the shoes known as Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith fit quite comfortably. From its opening moments, the ones just after the famous music and crawl, this is a rip-roaring, action-packed chunk of outer space entertainment.

It opens three years after the last one, with the Clone Wars going full tilt, and General Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and his young buck of a charge Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) streaking through the cosmos in separate single fighter ships, attempting to rescue Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) from the skeletal, ever-coughing General Grievous ... I think. As with every other Star Wars film, it's hard to get every detail in one viewing. Maybe when I see it again, I'll figure out for sure who captured him in the first place.

And I will see it again, as will many others (praise be the marketing genius of George Lucas). But in my case, a strong reason is because the first 20 minutes are so breathtakingly wild. It's a series of loud and fast and furious and dizzying non-stop sequences that run from way up in the skies with laser beams and explosions, to down on the ground where Obi-Wan and Anakin go up against Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) in the first of a plethora of lightsaber fights. Note: If you like lightsaber fights, this is your film.

When everyone returns home (except those who got away or were knocked off), a different kind of action, accompanied by non-frenetic music, gets underway. The love angle between Anakin and Padme (Natalie Portman) in the last film is in full bloom here. They've even been married, in a ceremony so secret, even know-it-all Yoda isn't aware of it. And, wait a minute, is that a little, but continuously growing belly on her? What will folks say? Is this proper behavior for a senator and a future Jedi Master?

The story and the music are gooey only for a short while. Soon it's on to what separates this film from all previous entries. It absolutely is the darkest of the bunch, rife with tragedy and, while not exactly of Shake-spearean proportions, definitely grim. It presents a tale of emotional confusion -- a constant push-pull going on in the head of Anakin due to circumstances foisted upon him by others -- some who are clearly good or bad, and one -- Palpatine -- who appears to have many levels of many behaviors going on at once.

Before this epic film is over, there are questions of trust, along with much betrayal and deception, ongoing discussions of politics and war, more Wookiees than you've ever seen, lots of lopped-off limbs, and some of the best action editing seen yet in the series. Purportedly written with an assist from Tom Stoppard, the dialogue is among the smoothest of the series.

The only standout acting in the film is from Ian McDiarmid, who gives a nuanced, quietly powerful performance as Palpatine. McGregor comes across as reserved, as his character should. But both Portman and Christensen offer flat, uninteresting characterizations in roles which should, in her case, be full of concern, and in his, should sizzle. For the record, Jar-Jar Binks is seen for about two seconds -- and never heard from.

With this conclusion, the two sets of films are neatly tied together, with the emergence of Darth Vader and the results of the Anakin-Padme union, all ending on the planet Tatooine, where Episode IV begins. Too bad that what should have been the most important story component -- the reasoning behind Anakin's eventual turn toward the Dark Side -- is given short shrift. The explanation is simply not important enough for the magnitude of the situation. That's a pretty big miss considering it's the one thing that's been built up to for all these years. But it happens early enough to allow the film's climactic action sequences -- here come those lightsabers again -- to capture attentions and captivate viewers. The Empire Strikes Back remains my favorite of the series, but this one is a strong entry that more than makes up for Attack of the Clones and The Phantom Menace.

Publication date: 05/19/05

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