George Lucas can say what he likes in interviews, but Star Wars: Episode III—Revenge of the Sith suggests that the pressure was basically off the day he delivered Episode II. Here at last is the story for which George has been rubbing his hands with gleeful anticipation ever since he committed to filming the first three chapters of his "Star Wars Saga." As promised, the story is dark, very dark, but writer-director Lucas's "carpe diem" relish is apparent from the cheeky word one of the trademark opening-credit scroll: "War!"
Yes, the John Williams stinger and receding yellow logo still pack a punch for kids of all ages, this time kicking off Lucas's fond farewell (of sorts) to childish things. Lucas reminds us of his early inspirations—Flash Gordon, Commander Cody, Tarzan, King Kong, Frankenstein, and (again) the oeuvre of Ray Harryhausen—but also alludes to Biblical and Greek Tragic conundrums, Faust, and buddy Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather. Even as he mines our pop-culture collective unconsciousness, Lucas proves once again that he invented the weapons of modern blockbuster cinema and knows how to wield them for maximum imaginative impact. Prepare to bow down before Master Lucas, once and for all.
Star Wars: Episode III—Revenge of the Sith is so sound in its construction and so confident that its built-in audience is primed for space-operatic catharsis that even the nitpickiest fanboy should adopt a humbly mumbled "All is forgiven" as a daily mantra. The third time's the charm for Lucasfilm's near-flawless digital skill and the audience's aesthetic adjustment to the same (ditto the corny dialogue, whose themes get added punch from a Tom Stoppard polish).
Beginning with the awesome spectacle of a dizzying dogfight in space (the Clone Wars begun in Episode II continue to rage) and elaborate rescue from the bowels of a battle cruiser, Lucas gives fans what they want: sprightlier banter and action that's simultaneously nostalgic and inventive. The winking fun of the first twenty minutes or so (even Ewan McGregor can't suppress a series of smiles) also introduces a new baddie named General Grievous, a coughing droid with fleshy bits that shambles and springs around with weaselly fervor.
Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) is still a Jedi Knight with a burdensome secret: in flagrant violation of Jedi guidelines, he has married and impregnated Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman), the Senator who has been queen. Every encounter Anakin has with the the Republic's shadowy and (ahem) insidious Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) gives Anakin occasion to bristle pridefully at still being a Padawan learner to Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor). The Jedi oppose the dark ways of the power-hungry Sith, still represented by Count Dooku (Christopher Lee), who intones with silky menace, "Twice the pride, double the fall."
The enacting of duality is half the fun of this twin trilogy that pits "heroes on both sides"—imperfect Jedi against seductive Sith—against each other, climaxes with two duels (one in the Senate chamber, one in a lava-spritzing "hell"), and temporarily "ends" with a birth of twins counterpointed by death and rebirth (the final moments presage the already released Episodes IV, V, and VI). Lucas's willingness to indict both sides in his morality play deepens stakes and relevance in a socio-political allegory even a child can understand.
Adults will understand it a little more specifically, of course. A hurt Obi-Wan speaks for a widespread modern faithlessness in leadership when he blurts to Anakin, "You were the chosen one!" Lucas refuses to be coy this time: Bush-bashing shares screen-time with the usual cautionary Leni Riefenstahl quotes (in 5.1 digital surround sound, droid stormtroopers jackboot their way from good to bad). When Anakin tells Obi-Wan, "If you're not with me, you're my enemy," and Obi-Wan replies, "Only a Sith deals in absolutes," Lucas deals out poetic justice to America's "Chosen One" du jour, heir to an Empire that believed "Star Wars" was not fantasy but a natural outgrowth of our manifest destiny of military expenditure.
On a more basic level, Star Wars continues to champion sensitivity to the power of the spirit alongside martial skill, healthy self-doubt alongside convictions, and the dangerous secular and sacred pursuits of love and justice. Awareness and positive thinking isn't easy with so many cloudy causes for negative emotions (jealousy and avarice are traits Lucas recognizes in his characters, his audience, and, by extension, himself). The most striking narrative impact of Episodes I-III is that Vader is more than a redeemable villain: he is an Everyman in a cold universe only too happy to custom fit us into our own iron lungs. As the saga's only PG-13 entry, the boldly violent Revenge of the Sith questionably pushes the kid-friendly envelope (if not sealing it); as proof, Jar-Jar's token walk-through is of the "blink and you'll miss it" variety.
Lucas's myth-making staff is second-to-none all around. In addition to old favorites C3-PO (Anthony Daniels), R2-D2 (Kenny Baker), and Yoda (Frank Oz), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) shows up to do his bit for the Jedi cause. Portman's reduced to a plot point on autopilot, but Christensen makes the most of meatier material: roiling with confusion fueled by anger and resentment, Anakin allows himself to compromise for his own presumed benefit. As the beastly prime mover, McDiarmid lights up the screen with devilish smarm that eventually erupts into naked, Satanic evil (his "Order 66" is just as unpleasant as it sounds). Outside of Lucas, no individual stamps more style on a Star Wars movie than John Williams, with his choir-laced pomp of circumstance, but photographer David Tattersall and editors Roger Barton and Ben Burtt also qualify as invaluable players.
Star Wars: Episode III—Revenge of the Sith can only be judged as a part of a "bigger picture," and (inconsistencies be damned) Lucas delivers an emotionally resonant cautionary tale that feeds on all of the other films even as it makes each of them a little better. Of course, the end is the beginning, as Revenge of the Sith opens an old chapter. The bad guys' seductive promise that "we shall have peace" (by way of conquest) sets the stage for the dire straits answered by "A New Hope" under the suns of Tattooine.
I know, there's nothing new under the sun(s), but Lucas's talent for making everything old new again attacks with full Force. Lucas remains a better general than director, but his ongoing desire to tinker the six films into a better mousetrap never seemed like a better idea (as long as film history is also preserved in the alternative), and time will undoubtedly be kind to Lucas's capping achievement. Vader speaks for a wide audience hooked on Star Wars when he laments, "I want more, and I know I shouldn't."