Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith is a pop masterpiece. George Lucas has done the near-impossible. He's kept his gloriously hyperbolic space fantasy so idiosyncratic and so personal that even its failings become expressive. From the first word -- "War!" -- Lucas plunges viewers into spectacular upheavals of men, women and aliens, cyborgs and droids, and then into a political maelstrom that's elating in its pertinence and audacity.
Lucas dares to hinge it all on a love story: something still outside his writing-directing grasp. Yet with the help of composer John Williams, who contributes his best romantic-epic score, and Hayden Christensen (Anakin Skywalker) and Natalie Portman (his secret wife, Padme), who compensate for lack of chemistry with conviction, the effort becomes moving. As their love falls apart, it becomes progressively more persuasive.
With his own restless hordes waiting to see how he'll resolve his prequel trilogy, the writer-director finishes off the personal story and the political one with magisterial swiftness and intricacy. He pushes the orchestrated chaos of his underrated Episode II, Attack of the Clones to a new level of authority. When he sends Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and Anakin hurtling in their Jedi Starfighters toward the vicious robots of the Separatists, he gives their heroic weaving among particle beams and shredded metal a you-are-there excitement. Unless tracing the coils of Star Wars mythology is your thing, you don't need to prepare for this film to make sense of it -- but if it is your thing you'll find the film a double pleasure, because Lucas doesn't cheat.
The whole movie is about the difficulty of steering a true course when a galaxy is in turbulence. The Separatists say they're fighting against the corruption of the Republic. The Jedi fight to save the Republic, though they know it is corrupt. Their immediate goal is to rescue Chancellor Palpatine (the splendidly duplicitous Ian McDiarmid), and they don't trust him. As the movie goes on, motives mix and goals get confused even among the Republic's top officers. So you witness with understanding as well as horror the desire for certainty that transforms the Republic into an evil Empire.
With electric clarity, Revenge of the Sith brings to the fore the manic-depressive swings between apprehension and exhilaration that previously surfaced in The Empire Strikes Back and always lay beneath both trilogies' upbeat swashbuckling. This film pushes adolescent entertainment to the brink of maturity. Lucas, a filmmaker to his bones, externalizes everything. The Dark and Light sides of the Force -- the universal power source that only Jedi and their evil opposites the Sith can tap into -- wrestle before your eyes in spectrum-bursting hues and in action that frays the corners of the screen.
As he showed in Shattered Glass, Christensen is one resourceful actor; as Anakin he brews his own aura of arrogance and insecurity with flashing melancholy and lightning physicality. He's an intergalactic James Dean. And Lucas surrounds him with an aptly volatile atmosphere. Obi-Wan and Anakin navigate through legions of "vulture droids" that are part-scavenger, part-predator, disabling Starfighters as they feast on them. The squeaky little droid R2-D2 becomes a wily, valiant fighter, comically sly amid mortal danger -- secure in his cache of lethal gizmos.
"There are heroes on both sides," Lucas takes pains to say in the opening crawl. That includes characters like robot buzzards and R2-D2, who combine mechanical and animal traits.
It's the cyborg creations, part man, part droid, that are irredeemably and indelibly creepy. They convey a timeless message: We trade our humanity for survival at the risk of losing our souls. The new arch-villain, the Separatists' General Grievous, an armored creature with four arms and organic eyes and guts, harrowingly prefigures Anakin's human remnant encased in Darth Vader's black metal. Anakin's climactic metamorphosis into Vader achieves horror-show perfection. It ranks with the emergence of other sorry monsters such as Frankenstein.
How and why that transformation occurs is the core of Revenge of the Sith. Anakin's passion for Padme proves to be his tragic flaw. Skywalker's fear of Padme's death, which he sees in a prophetic vision, reflects his emotional greed and irrational urge for control. It makes him vulnerable to the Dark Side and to the manipulations of Chancellor Palpatine, his friend.
Palpatine takes on ever-more dictatorial powers, promising peace and stability to the Republic (and to Anakin, the power to save Padme). In effect Palpatine says he will destroy the Republic to save it -- and in the shrinking circle of Jedi and uncorrupted Senators like Padme and Jimmy Smits' stalwart Bail Organa, only Anakin accepts his word.
A string of "relationship" movies has turned "letting go" into a pathetic cliche. Lucas renews the phrase's meaning when Yoda, the Jedi Master of Masters, advises Anakin to "let go" and ties his hope of cheating Padme's death to hubris and blind need. As voiced by Frank Oz and given form by Rob Coleman's animation team, Yoda delivers equal amounts of adrenaline and enlightenment. In his bull's-eye focus and fleet agility -- and the way he runs his hand across his skull -- he echoes the great Takashi Shimura in Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai. Lucas wrings comedy as well as thrills from Yoda's combination of serenity and potency. Yoda embodies the Force in balance.
So does Lucas' moviemaking, which has an engulfing confidence, whether he's staging the crash landing of a mammoth half-destroyed space vessel or choreographing a bout worthy of Kurosawa's samurai with Jedi bearing lightsabers.
The movie's sky-high lift comes from its virtuoso kinetics and from the way Obi-Wan's alertness and sensitivity and Anakin's arrogance shape the combat. McGregor's foreshadowing of Alec Guinness' wry, sagacious older Obi-Wan ranks with De Niro's portrayal of Brando's Don Corleone as a young man in The Godfather Part II. McGregor is superb. He gives Obi-Wan's concern for Padme a loving overlay that provides fuel for Anakin/Darth Vader's jealousy.
Vader's cold execution of his foes acquires the weight and tragic pull of Michael Corleone eliminating his rivals in The Godfather. Lucas earns the comparison with his mulish integrity, his delight in the materials of moviemaking, and his willingness to take his moral concepts to the limit. At its best, Revenge of the Sith reaches that plateau where pop is art.
Stars Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith
Starring Hayden Christensen, Ewan McGregor, Ian McDiarmid, Natalie Portman
Directed by George Lucas
Released by 20th Century Fox
Time 139 minutes
Sun Score **** (4 stars)
What other critics are saying about Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith:
Chicago Tribune / Michael Wilmington:
Even though many critics have been rough on the last two "Star Wars" (1999's The Phantom Menace and 2002's Attack of the Clones), this one is a smashing success on its own terms, achieving exactly what Lucas wanted.
New York Daily News / Jami Bernard:
Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith wraps up the six-episode space opera with ribbons, bows and multi-colored lightsabers. ... a gift to die-hard fans. ... Still the dialogue is astonishingly feeble, the acting unforgivably wooden. ... To paraphrase Yoda ... Bored I am.
New York Times / A.O. Scott:
This is by far the best film in the more recent trilogy, and also the best of the four episodes Mr. Lucas has directed. That's right (and my inner 11-year-old shudders as I type this): it's better than Star Wars.
USA Today / Claudia Puig:
The Force is definitely with it this time. Revenge of the Sith ... fulfills the promise of the series and rises far above its two most recent predecessors. It's the darkest of the six-film opus, but it just may be the best of the lot.
Chicago Sun Times / Roger Ebert:
After Episode II got so bogged down in politics that it played like the Republic covered by C-Span, Episode III is a return to the classic space opera style. ... The Force is in a jollier mood this time, and Revenge of the Sith is a great entertainment.