It started with 10 simple words-"Vader was seduced by the Dark Side of the Force." In George Lucas' original Star Wars, Alec Guinness' aging Obi-Wan Kenobi gives Luke Skywalker only the faintest hint of a drama predating the one we were watching onscreen. And as Star Wars was followed by The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, with Darth Vader's presence expanding from two-dimensional bad guy to the fallen Jedi who had fathered Luke and Leia, we hungered to know more, to see how it all began.
But then in 1999 and 2002 came the disappointment. Not only were Episode I-The Phantom Menace and Episode II-Attack of the Clones vastly inferior cinematically, but they also dawdled with precursors to the main event: Anakin's metamorphosis into Vader.
Sure, we loved Darth Maul in Phantom Menace and an ass-kicking Yoda in Attack of the Clones. You also couldn't have asked for a better young Obi-Wan Kenobi than Ewan McGregor; he actually owns the role now as much as Guinness did. But we hated the minstrel-esque Jar Jar Binks and the boring trade-federation storyline. The digital effects were too much like a video game. And the dialogue! What had seemed knowingly corny in the original trilogy (a nod to the comic books and serials Lucas had grown up with in the 1950s) now was just plain bad.
Many Star Wars fans are wary this time around, not wanting to be disappointed again. But while Anakin's fate in Revenge of the Sith is tragic, fans have cause for celebration. Finally-finally-George Lucas has delivered a Star Wars movie that lives up to the original trilogy. Episode III is the main event we've been waiting for all these years.
In the opening seconds in Revenge of the Sith, we find Anakin and Obi-Wan immersed in a spaceship battle between the Republic and the Separatist Alliance far above the city-planet Coruscant; the scope of the battle and how it fills the frame would make D.W. Griffith blush. The two Jedis board an enemy battleship to rescue kidnapped Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), echoing Luke and Han's rescue of Leia. That brings the first of many, many satisfying light-saber duels in Episode III, with Anakin and Obi-Wan in a rematch with Count Dooku (Christopher Lee), their nemesis from the Clones finale. And before they can escape, there must come a showdown with the new villain, half-man half-droid separatist commander General Grievous.
Every action movie has its requisite opening skirmish, yet as brisk and bombastic as Episode III's is, the movie actually gets better and better the longer it goes. And all the while a time bomb is ticking: Viewers usually don't like their endings spoiled in advance, but knowing that Anakin's evil metamorphosis is coming adds a chilling anticipation to the movie even as the script moves briskly enough to keep you riveted.
Then, as the Clone Wars edge toward their end, the movie moves for a time from battles to a story about seduction-not between Anakin and Padme (Natalie Portman), whose screen time is limited to a few interludes amounting to "I love you, I'm pregnant, what shall we do?-but between Anakin and Palpatine. Zeroed in on Anakin as his new apprentice, Palpatine reveals himself as a Sith to the young Jedi and exploits his fears about death and loss to turn Anakin to the Dark Side of the Force.
Remember what a theatrically evil, hilarious trash-talking villain the Emperor was in Return of the Jedi? He's even more cantankerous in Sith. Who else would have the gumption to call Yoda his "little green friend"? Like Anakin, Palpatine is undergoing a transformation, too, dropping the façade of benevolent, reluctant leader that the chancellor was in favor of the grotesque tyrant Darth Sidious. It must feel good, too, because the Emperor is the only character in Star Wars who really laughs a lot. And it's almost always more fun watching a movie when the bad guys enjoy their work.
At the same time, Anakin's succumbing to the Emperor also restores the Star Wars saga's roots in mythology. Plagued by nightmares that his pregnant wife will die in childbirth and he'll lose her just like his mother, Anakin is actually setting himself up to make his greatest fears come true. Luke's journey recalled Odysseus; his father's resembles Oedipus' (minus the incest).
At its best, Star Wars movies have balanced the earnest plight of a galaxy torn apart with the wow-factor of rapturously thrilling battles. Aside from a few great moments in the first two prequels, Menace and Clones were burdened by too much mind-numbing trade-federation mumbo jumbo and hackneyed romance. Sith, however, features delirious fight after fight after fight.
There's a moment about two-thirds through the film where Jedi master Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) shows up to arrest Chancellor Palpatine. (Yes, poor Jackson finally gets to bust some ass.) "Are you threatening me, Master Jedi?" Palpatine asks. Here's where you hear the gravelly bravado of the real Darth Sidious, Palpatine's true persona, coming out. And in a flash comes a rousing revelation: The old prune is quite a virtuoso with the light saber. Before you know it, he's flying through the air, saber drawn, toward Windu: crouching Palpatine, hidden Sidious. And this is just one of countless light-saber clashes throughout Episode III, culminating with Anakin and Obi-Wan's battle on the volcanic planet Mustafar. At one point Obi-Wan also takes on four light sabers at once, while an unbridled, newly christened (but pre-mask) Vader lays some serious damage.
Oh, and did I mention the Wookies? In truth, Chewbacca and the hairy denizens of his home planet make little more than a cameo here; they got more screen time in that Star Wars Christmas special on TV a generation ago. But still, it's nice to have old Chewie back.
Which brings us to another smart move on Lucas' part: the writer-director includes many tie-ins with the original trilogy, including some very emotional ones towards the end, that will put a lump in the throat of many a longtime Star Wars fans yet avoid getting showy or maudlin. Keep an eye out for the interior of Senator Bail Organa's (Jimmy Smits) ship, and expect a return engagement at a certain twin-sunned planet.
Somehow, in the time between making The Phantom Menace and Revenge of the Sith, George Lucas got some things figured out. Granted, he had a more compelling portion of the trilogy to work with in Episode III than in either of its predecessors. But while the director says he didn't listen to the negative reviews and the fan complaints prompted by the first two prequels, this may be a Jedi mind trick on Lucas' part. For example, the corny romantic dialogue is all but gone-I mean, Padme and Anakin do have some issues to talk about, but it occupies a minority of screen time and is, while maybe not Shakespeare, also not an overwrought soap opera either. You can also rest assured that Jar Jar Binks speaks not one line of dialogue. And the digital effects have definitely improved since this trilogy began.
Some might say the praise piling on Revenge of the Sith comes only out of diminished expectations, or that the movie graded on a slippery-sloped curve. But Episode III isn't simply good in comparison to Menace or Clones. Not only is Revenge of the Sith astonishing in its wall-to-wall action. Not only is the tale of war, romance and the battle for one's soul a transcendent one, but the last Star Wars movie is of its time: a cautionary political tale about a republic too caught up in battle to realize the whole thing is just a well-orchestrated sham. "So this is how liberty dies," Padme says as the senate makes Chancellor Palpatine the Emperor, "to thunderous applause."
In a couple of months, the hoopla of multiplex crowds and product tie-ins at Burger King will have faded away. But the place Revenge of the Sith occupies in the six-film cycle of Star Wars movies should always be a proud one. The story is a tragedy, but the post-film reality is of redemption and joy. George Lucas' saga is going out not with a whimper of surrender, but with the triumphant blast of an exploding Death Star.