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Wednesday, May 18, 2005 - Page updated at 01:41 p.m.

Movie Review

The Force is with Lucas in his "Star Wars" finale

Seattle Times staff reporter

Enlarge this photoROBERT SONDGROTH

George Lucas had lost his way for many years, gone to filmmaking's dark side. But now he's mustered up completely unexpected reserve for a last-minute redemption.

Put another way: All those nerds who have been camping in line at theaters will find something in "Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith" to make their wait worthwhile. To say it's the best one since 1980's "The Empire Strikes Back" is insufficient, since each of the three since that one has reeked worse and worse.

But for his swan song, Lucas must have taken heed of the criticism and gotten some distance from the sycophants surrounding him. "Jar Jar Binks — brilliant character, George!" The hated Jar Jar only appears for a glimpse, and doesn't open his shuckin'-and-jivin' yap at all. If "Episode III" were a person, it would be like Roy Hobbs in "The Natural," not as perfect as it had the potential to be, but exceeding low expectations for a hell of a whack out of the park. It's a fun, exciting, satisfying goodbye to the saga that's spanned a generation, and it ties gracefully to the original.

(By the way, despite Lucas' intent that prequel episodes I-III be watched before originals IV-VI, you wouldn't want to watch "Sith" before you'd seen "Star Wars" — aka "Episode IV: A New Hope." The foreshadowing and iconography of this one wouldn't have the emotional resonance without the 28 years of history.)

Movie review

Showtimes and trailer 3.5 stars

"Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith," with Ewan McGregor, Hayden Christensen, Natalie Portman, Ian McDiarmid and Samuel L. Jackson. Directed and written by George Lucas. 140 minutes. Rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and some intense images. Several theaters.

The story and how it ends are no secret: In the third installment of the prequel trilogy to the original three films, ambitious young Jedi Knight Anakin Skywalker — "the chosen one" meant to bring balance to the Force — transforms into the evil Darth Vader who first set Princess Leia's hair-buns twitching in 1977.

Anakin (Hayden Christensen) is still apprentice to Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor). The uptight Jedi order of superhuman monk-cops is holding him back. He's impatient to be named a master, and powerless to stop visions of his secret wife Senator Padme (Natalie Portman) dying in childbirth. The theme's a familiar one to genre fans: Would you sacrifice the universe for love? The larger plot's presented more clearly than the last movie's. The Clone Wars have raged for years, and the movie begins with Obi-Wan and Anakin's hair-raising rescue of the Republic's Chancellor Palpatine (secretly the evil Darth Sidious) from separatists.


George Lucas, "Star Wars" mastermind

Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) uses the circumstances to gain emergency powers and become emperor, plotting the demise of the noble Jedi order, who are his last barrier to total power. He becomes a Mephistopheles to the frustrated Anakin, reeling him in to the dark side with such promises as, "Morality and the Force contain more subtleties than the Jedis allow."

Lucas adds an unexpected dimension to the story line that's gotten unbearably juvenile in the past: a critique of events in our own wartime America. "This is how liberty dies," someone says as Palpatine ascends to power before the galactic senate, "with thunderous applause."

Later, Padme pleads with Anakin, "What if the democracy we thought we were serving no longer exists, and we're becoming the evil we've been fighting to destroy?"

And before their climactic duel, Anakin/Vader tells Obi-Wan, "If you're not with me, you're against me." Obi-Wan replies, "Only a Sith deals in absolutes."


Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) fight on the planet Mustafar in "Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith."

Without naming Bush or the Patriot Act, it's all unmistakable no matter what your own politics may be.

If "Empire" was the darkest and best of its trilogy, the same's true of this one. It's way darker, not to mention brutal enough to catch me off guard in a good way. (It's the first "Star Wars" to earn a PG-13 rating.) Along with copious light-saber fights, a major character gets decapitated. Events leading to Anakin's final transformation into the black-armored Vader are positively grisly. And an offscreen crime involving "younglings" (kids) is surprising by its mere implication.

Yeah, "younglings." Ugh. Lucas hasn't risen above all his weaknesses. Just as in "The Phantom Menace," there's painful dialogue between Anakin and Padme — particularly an exchange that goes something like "I love you more." "No, I love you more."

Lucas still can't do much with actors, either. Christensen proved in "Shattered Glass" that he could act, so his awkwardness here is puzzling. As for Portman's abilities, I believe a story that, during her Broadway portrayal of Anne Frank, someone in the audience yelled out to the stage Nazis, "She's in the attic!"

A new character, the droid separatist leader, General Grievous, is too cartoony even for a "Star Wars" movie. He's robot with a tubercular hack — what is it with these Sith guys and their respiratory issues? And in the silly-but-kind-of-cool department: Grievous can wield four light sabers, and little Yoda once again twirls into action like one of those buzzing Fourth of July fireworks that you light and step away from quickly.

There are two terrific performances. McGregor settles into Obi-Wan's skin and brings such an irresistible Errol Flynn jauntiness that I'd watch a series of his adventures alone. And McDiarmid owns the joint like Jack Nicholson's Joker as the increasingly reptilian, slightly Rowan Atkinsonian, emperor.

So this is the end — and not just of hack writers starting pieces with "A long time ago... "

For those of us who love good science fiction/fantasy, the original "Star Wars" was a mixed blessing. Its smash success ended a drought in the genre and opened its floodgates — most famously for the then-dormant "Star Trek" franchise. But it also infantilized the genre whose landmarks at the time were smart stuff like "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "The Andromeda Strain." As exhilarating and groundbreaking as "Star Wars" was, it was also remedially obvious (a bad guy in black named Darth Vader was as subtle as Snidely Whiplash) and downright simple-minded (starting with the zooms and booms in the vacuum of space).

"Revenge of the Sith" mostly brought back the good for me. Wookies and not Ewoks. Even a brief computer resurrection of Peter Cushing's Grand Moff Tarkin seems benign. And I'll always have a thing for chicks with their hair done up like a sweet roll on each side.

Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259 or mrahner@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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