- Obi-Wan (left) and Anakin deliver the best combat from either trilogy.
So it was a shock to many a couple of decades later when George Lucas produced Episode I, and it was indeed revealed as just a movie -- one with dubious dialogue, poor pacing, and stiff acting even by the likes of Liam Neeson. Some argued (wrongly) that the performances were no worse than Mark Hamill's, but few dared defend the toilet humor or the infamous Jar Jar Binks. Episode II was better: Despite a cringeworthy love story, it returned a sense of danger to the Star Wars universe, reintroduced Stormtroopers and Boba Fett, let Christopher Lee chew the scenery much as his late colleague Peter Cushing had in Episode IV, and delivered a final battle worthy of a blockbuster. For most, however, it still didn't measure up to the original three.
With Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, it seems safe to say that if you've ever loved Star Wars, you will again. Gone is the cheesy dialogue (Tom Stoppard reportedly had a hand in that); instead we get battles galore, genuine intrigue, a bevy of familiar sights and characters, key moments fans have long wanted to see, and at least one truly great acting performance, courtesy of Ian McDiarmid, whose Senator-turned-Emperor Palpatine has been the highlight of the prequel trilogy, much as he was in Return of the Jedi. If the final scenes -- and especially the very last shot -- stir nothing within you, chances are you didn't like Star Wars that much to begin with.
Palpatine is front and center here, serving as father figure to the very confused, virgin-born Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen). Secretly married and disturbed by prophetic visions of the death of his wife, Padmé (Natalie Portman), Anakin seeks the power to raise the dead, but not only can he not confide in the well-meaning Jedi Council, he doesn't have its trust anyway. Only Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) has faith in Anakin, but he lacks the power and connections of Palpatine, whose fatherly demeanor masks the dark secrets of the Sith -- the evil version of the noble Jedi.
Frankly, it's hard to blame Palpatine -- if you were born and raised on a planet where the dominant species is a bunch of semi-retarded amphibians with bunny ears and faux-Jamaican accents, you'd probably be tempted by the Dark Side too. Feminists, however, could have a field day with Anakin's motives. Lucas clearly believes in male bonding -- Anakin/Darth Vader will, of course, ultimately be redeemed by his son -- but his attitude toward women is a bit off, to say the least. Anakin appears doomed to fall because he cares about his mother and his wife.
What Lucas can do, when he puts his mind to it, is effectively channel the man who inspired him -- Joseph Campbell, the late anthropologist who was fascinated by cultural myths. Here Lucas returns to those mythological roots, invoking not only the legend of Faust selling his soul to the devil, but also the classic template of Greek tragedy, in which a protagonist goes to such extremes to avoid the consequences of a dire prophecy that he ends up making it come true. As brothers-in-arms-turned-enemies, both Christensen and McGregor take things up a notch, revealing that they have more acting chops than was evident in the previous episodes. (Anyone familiar with their other work already knew this.)
Along the way, we get a pointless-but-fun diversion to the Wookiee planet for a taste of how Return of the Jedi could have ended had Lucas gone with his original impulse, a look at Princess Leia's home planet of Alderaan, several familiar starships, an action-hero scene for R2-D2, and a pre-Vader cyborg model named General Grievous (voice of Matthew Wood, after Gary Oldman bowed out), who appears to have tuberculosis, but still manages to swing four lightsabers at once. In your face, Darth Maul!
There are always nits to pick, but no more here than in the original trilogy: How is it, for instance, that anytime travelers are sent to a new planet, they are able to pinpoint the exact location of the individual they're looking for, despite having been given no coordinates or leads? And aren't there any planets with more than one homogeneous environment? Apparently not, but some of the answers long awaited are provided here, including the virgin birth and that whole disappearing-after-death thing. The Battle Droids still act like petulant children, but that's probably why they aren't around anymore in the Han Solo era (though the Stormtroopers somehow lose a lot of skill in the meantime).
Bottom line: Revenge of the Sith is the biggest action movie of the year. It's also pretty hardcore -- Darth Vader unmasked is freaky-looking, and women and children die, so leave the youngest kids at home. If they let you.