Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (United States, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The saga is complete. What George Lucas began in 1977 as a little movie that took the box office by storm, he has completed in 2005 with the most heralded motion picture of the year. With the arrival of Revenge of the Sith, Lucas places the missing piece of the six-film arc that tells of the rise, fall, and redemption of Darth Vader. It's a rousing and tragic sendoff to a beloved franchise, and the best installment in the Star Wars series since 1980's The Empire Strikes Back. If this is to be the last big-screen installment of the space opera, Revenge of the Sith ushers things out on a high note. Those who have disparaged the previous two prequels (1999's The Phantom Menace and 2002's Attack of the Clones) will find few things to complain about this time around. Lucas has delivered the film that Star Wars fans have been yearning for.

Revenge of the Sith exhibits its writer/director's strengths and weaknesses for all to see. Lucas, who can at best be described as a journeyman writer of dialogue, delivers plenty of clunky lines. And the romance between Padme (Natalie Portman) and Anakin (Hayden Christensen) is as forced here as it was in the previous installment, the sincere efforts of the actors notwithstanding. Nevertheless, although weak in specific areas of screenplay-writing, Lucas is a masterful storyteller. That aspect of his creativity is in evidence here as he spins a tale as compelling as any Greek or Shakespearean tragedy: a man who attains power only after sacrificing everything dear to him, including his soul. There is bitter irony in Anakin's situation: by embracing the dark side of the Force, he loses the very thing he seeks to protect.

When it comes to technical wizardry, no one - not Peter Jackson, James Cameron, or Steven Spielberg - can top Lucas, who has been on the special effects cutting edge since he pioneered various techniques in Star Wars. From a purely visual standpoint, no movie to-date can equal Revenge of the Sith. Even the inconsequential background shots are eye-poppingly spectacular. As for the space battles… "incredible" doesn't begin to do them justice. They astound with their vividness and complexity.

Revenge of the Sith doesn't really answer any questions, since we know the answers already. Anakin Skywalker is seduced to the dark side of the Force and becomes Darth Vader. Chancellor Palpatine is revealed to be Darth Sidious. The Jedi are annihilated. Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda go into exile on different planets. The democratic Republic is devoured by the Empire. Instead of answers, what we gain from watching Revenge of the Sith is details. These events come to life and we are presented with the opportunity to understand the particulars of each event. The jigaw puzzle is complete. In the process, Vader has been humanized in a way that even the ending of Return of the Jedi was unable to accomplish. It will not be possible to watch the original trilogy in the same way again. Revenge of the Sith changes everything. It invests so much else in the light saber duel between Obi-Wan and Vader in A New Hope and shifts the dynamic surrounding the Emperor's attempted seduction of Luke in Return of the Jedi. It's during that titanic struggle that Anakin finally emerges as the Chosen One and returns balance to the Force.

Revenge of the Sith opens with the kind of action/adventure derring-do that has characterized the previous five installments, and the prequels in particular. After the introductory crawl announces "War!", we accompany Anakin and Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor, looking more like Alec Guiness than in either of his previous appearances in this role) on a rescue mission - to save a kidnapped Supreme Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) from Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) and his ally, General Grevious, leader of the droid army. It's all a ruse, but our heroes don't know that at the time. We're treated to a spectacular light saber fight and some stunning space battle sequences before politics enter the fray and Anakin begins to inch closer to where he is receptive to Palpatine's hints that the dark side of the Force offers limitless power to those who learn how to use it.

Secondary stories abound. Anakin's wife, Padme, is pregnant. The marriage is secret, because it is forbidden for Jedi to form permanent attachments. Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) does not trust Anakin. He believes the young man is too ambitious - an assessment with which Yoda (Frank Oz) agrees. And, as the Clone Wars approach their final battle, a pending betrayal lurks. Revenge of the Sith features two classic confrontations: Anakin against Obi-Wan and the Emperor against Yoda. Once again, Revenge of the Sith is not about answering questions or providing surprises, but of fulfilling expectations. We may know how the Anakin/Obi-Wan duel ends, but the thrill here is seeing how it plays out to get to that ending.

It's necessary to say a word or two about Darth Vader. After all, Revenge of the Sith shows us the birth of one of the 20th century's most iconic villains. By avoiding excessive reverence, Lucas makes the first appearance of the black mask and costume a moment of profound sadness. In that moment, we aren't so much experiencing the emergence of Vader as we are seeing the final death throes of Anakin. And, while there's an admitted thrill to hearing the voice of James Earl Jones, the content of some of Jones' lines is unlike anything we have previously heard from the voice-box of Vader. Not all eyes will be dry by the end of Revenge of the Sith. It has an emotional kick that no Star Wars film other than The Empire Strikes Back has achieved.

Revenge of the Sith contains several masterfully edited sequences. Near the end of the film, the two big battles - Anakin against Obi-Wan and the Emperor against Yoda - are brilliantly intercut. Lucas repeats the feat shortly thereafter with another example of parallel action. That second instance is particularly effective because it offers one of the film's most uncompromising emotional jolts. John Williams' score is nearly perfect, and contains more cues from the original trilogy than his work for either The Phantom Menace or Attack of the Clones.

One thing that will please fans is the comfort of the familiar. Lucas includes numerous links and connections to the 1977 feature (which is the next in the chronology). Padme wears Leia's bun-style hairdo. The one-man fighters resemble TIE fighters and X-wings, and the larger cruisers are rough-hewn Star Destroyers. Tarkin and Chewbacca make appearances. Obi-Wan uses the lightsaber he later wields against Vader on the Death Star. Scenes are set in the antiseptic white corridors of the rebel blockade runner. And the clone troopers look a lot like the storm troopers they will become. We haven't quite come full circle, but it's close.

It has been said that George Lucas is not a great director of actors, yet Revenge of the Sith contains some fine performances. First and foremost is Hayden Christensen, who was maligned in some circles for his petulant interpretation of Anakin in the previous film. This time around, he essays his character as an introspective, tormented man torn between loyalty to his friends and his beliefs and an overwhelming desire to embrace power. Christensen is not daunted by the task of playing an increasingly twisted character, and he makes the transformation to Vader work.

Also impressive is Ian McDiarmid, who never gets enough credit as the frighteningly evil Emperor. Ewan McGregor and Natalie Portman are more solid than in previous films - they have grown into their roles. Portman, who occasionally seemed uncomfortable as Padme in Episodes I and II, is now at home in the role, even though her screen time in this installment is limited. And it's always nice to see old friends like Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca), Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), and Frank Oz. Jimmy Smits (as Senator Bail Organa) and Samuel L. Jackson have significant supporting roles.

Revenge of the Sith starts out a little unfocused. While there's plenty of action in the first hour, the direction of the storyline is uncertain. By the time the film has reached its halfway point, however, and Anakin's moral compass has been shattered, the picture picks up a momentum that never flags. We are kept on the edge of our seats for over an hour. Those who doubt Lucas' ability as a filmmaker need only watch the second half of Revenge of the Sith to be convinced otherwise.

The movie's tone grows grimmer as the film wears on. This is not a happy movie. Even the victories are tinged with bitterness. There is an element of catharsis at the end, but it's only a taste. Salvation is left for the next chapter. How many people, I wonder, will return from seeing Revenge of the Sith and immediately pop A New Hope into the DVD player. It's almost a necessity. Revenge of the Sith offers little in the way of optimism. I applaud Lucas for taking this route and having the courage to believe that Star Wars fans can accept all of this darkness.

Regardless of how Revenge of the Sith is received at the box office, it represents the conclusion to an unparalleled cinematic achievement. Finally, after 28 long years of waiting that were only occasionally punctuated by the appearance of new story fragments, Lucas has ended with an exclamation point. The tale of a galaxy long ago and far away is complete. Only now can we truly step back and admire the full tapestry that it has taken George Lucas and his ILM wizards nearly three decades to weave.

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (United States, 2005)

Run Time: 2:20
U.S. Release Date: 2005-05-19
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1