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Star Burst 

The fall and rise of the final chapter

The common line goes that, when it comes to Star Wars, there are two types of moviegoers: fans who are enamored with every facet of the saga that George Lucas first started back in the 1970s, and non-believers who wouldn't know the difference between a Jedi and a Jawa even if you spotted them the lightsaber.

In reality, there are three groupings, as the Star Wars contingency can be neatly broken apart into two subsets. On one hand, there are those frenzied fans who, in true Pavlovian style, salivate at the mere mention of anything related to Lucas' sci-fi blockbusters. Their blind devotion is so great that had the makers of the Ben Affleck-Jennifer Lopez bomb Gigli been smart enough to release the film under the moniker Star Wars: Episode XXX: The Phantom Gigli, they would still be counting their substantial profits. On the other hand, there are those die-hard fans, many of whom came of age when the original trilogy was released (raising my hand here), who feel more betrayed than anything by Lucas' attempts to resuscitate his celluloid goldmine with what has ultimately proven to be a shaky second trilogy.

It's not that these new Star Wars films are bad — far from it. The Phantom Menace was a mixed bag, with its positive aspects overshadowed in the press by that infernal twosome of Jar-Jar Binks and Jake Lloyd. And I actually awarded a positive review to the equally maligned Attack of the Clones, which, in its best moments, recaptured the spirit and flavor of the original three-pack. But overall, Phantom and Clones never felt part of a whole with the initial trilogy, any more than the belated Godfather III felt organically connected to the first two Mob installments or the dismal Exorcist sequels to their powerful predecessor.

Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith tries its best to supply those connective tissues, and while it eventually succeeds on a narrative level, it fails to make the leap in most other regards. Still, once the movie settles into an appropriate groove for the second half, it takes off like a cheetah, leaving most objections in the dust.

Lucas has declared that this is the darkest film in the series (certainly, The Empire Strikes Back is the only chapter that compares), and the MPAA obviously agreed by pasting the movie with a PG-13 rating instead of the usual PG. It's here that we witness the final transformation of Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) from a young idealist who's been tagged as the "Chosen One" by the Jedi Council into an agent of evil for the power-hungry lords of the Sith. Despite efforts by his wife Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman) and his mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) to keep him from turning to the dark side of the Force, Anakin instead chooses to follow the advice of the nefarious Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid, frequently channeling William Hickey), a megalomaniac determined to decimate his political opponents and establish his own insidious, fascistic government. (If that sounds suspiciously like America 2005 as opposed to a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, be aware that Lucas includes plenty of topical parallels.)

To be blunt, the opening acts of Revenge of the Sith are dreadful. Obviously wanting to set the tone with a slam-bam action intro, Lucas begins by showing us a high-speed vehicular chase that, to quote Shakespeare (whose sparkling words are, needless to say, worlds removed from Lucas' often plodding prose), is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. This frenzied beginning is meant to show off the film's high-cost special effects, to fully employ the theaters' cutting-edge sound systems, and to introduce new gadgets and creatures that are already finding their way into toy stores across the land. It is not meant to serve as useful exposition, further the plot in any significant manner, or allow us access to interesting character interaction. It's simply more evidence that a saga that once allowed intimacy to walk hand in hand with extravaganza has since been co-opted by the Industrial Strength Light & Magic Show.

A few more missteps lay on the path ahead. Christopher Lee, betrayed by Peter Jackson when the director decided to chop his scenes from the final Lord of the Rings flick, now finds himself at the mercy of Lucas, who, after establishing Lee's Count Dooku as a formidable villain in Attack of the Clones, has him mowed down about as quickly as that swordsman who took a fatal bullet from Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Lucas then introduces another villain — General Grievous, leader of the droid army — but this clunky character, similarly gone long before the seventh inning stretch, seems more afterthought than inspiration.

And so it goes, until something wondrous occurs: The mythology takes over. As Lucas rounds the final curves, he begins to focus on the elements of the story that directly tie into events first recorded in the original Star Wars flick of 1977. We see how the Jedi knights are exterminated with extreme prejudice, with only Ben Kenobi and the Jedi Muppet Yoda left to hoist the flag for the old guard; we witness the births of twins Luke and Leia, and note how they're shuttled off to different corners of the galaxy; and we're privy to the climactic battle between Obi-Wan and Anakin, the fateful duel that will lead directly to the birth of Darth Vader. For the first time since, well, 1977, Lucas as director seems completely in control of his craft, and these sequences resonate beyond the screen, fueled as much by our own nostalgic twinges as by the filmmakers' ability to send the series off in style.

If only Revenge of the Sith had gotten out of the starting gate a little quicker, it would be an unqualified success — and perhaps the best Star Wars flick since Empire 25 years ago. As it stands, those early scenes hamper the overall project and serve as a dire reminder that the Force isn't always strong in this entry. If anything, it needs to quit while it's still ahead.

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