Mr. Vader, we’re ready for your close-up. And how. The truth is, we’ve been ready for the last six years, having politely suffered through Trade Federations and mitochloridians (whatever those are) and one universally loathed amphibian sidekick who talked like a brain-damaged Jamaican.
Through it all, nothing quite captivated the public like your Easter Island-meets-S &M mug, you cruel, wonderful, trachea-squeezing tyrant. Somewhat debatably, "Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith," the final chapter of George Lucas’ historic science fiction franchise, justifies the wait.
Though stricken with some of the same annoyances as Episodes I and II — muddled plotting, flat acting, digital overkill, we could go on all day — this is easily the most intense, focused and dramatically satisfying of the "Star Wars" prequels. More than ever, the action scenes smoke, and more than ever, our interest runs more than eyeball deep, swept away in an epic, sepulchral flood of seduction and betrayal.
The seductee, of course, is Anakin Skywalker, the conflicted Jedi prodigy played by Hayden Christensen ("Shattered Glass"), now sporting a macho facial scar and dishy blond locks. With the foundering Republic engaged in full-scale war, Anakin finds himself lured into the confidence of Supreme Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid); this after liberating Palpatine from the clutches of separatist leader Count Dooku (Christopher Lee). Dismembered by Dooku in "Attack of the Clones" (2002), Anakin returns the favor here, beginning a movielong trend: "Revenge of the Sith" (the first PG-13 Lucasdirected movie) contains more limb-severings than all of the previous "Star Wars" films combined.
Flattered by the Chancellor’s attention, Anakin is blinded to his essential nature: That of a conniving demagogue who moonlights as Darth Sidious, the mysterious Sith mastermind and sworn enemy of the Jedi. Anakin’s judgment is further clouded by his concern for secret wife Padme (Natalie Portman), the former "democratically elected queen" whom he impregnated. Tormented by hazy, Lynchian dreams in which Padme dies during childbirth, the soon-to-be father is desperate and disconsolate. Palpatine is quick to take advantage, promising Anakin that he can save Padme if he "embraces a broader (read: Darker) vein of the Force."
Exploiting Anakin’s vanity and fears, softening him up with secrets and stories, Palpatine makes for a deliciously vile con man, the sort of strong, unambiguous villain the franchise has lacked since the first trilogy. Likewise, the Faustian deal he dangles before Anakin constitutes Lucas’ best recent work as a screenwriter (though "Shakespeare in Love" wordsmith Tom Stoppard is rumored to have had a hand). When Anakin finally, irrevocably crosses the line, you can feel the queasy churn of corruption in the pit of your stomach, and Christensen — for all his goo-goofaced nonsense in "Clones" — conveys the character’s anguish nicely.
Anakin’s dubious resolve is looked upon with dismay by his fellow Jedis (including Samuel L. Jackson’s newly relevant Mace Windu), who are busy hopscotching around the galaxy, stamping out the last embers of separatist rebellion. Yoda puts down a droid attack on the lushly forested, wookiee home planet of Kashyyyk ("Good relations with the wookiees, I have," the shrunken green Jedi master says with his peculiar, insideout dialect) while Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) sprints off to Utapau, a planet dotted with massive sinkholes, to battle General Grievous, the leader of the droid army.
Grievous, whipped up by Industrial Light & Magic creature specialist Rob Coleman, is a wonderfully grotesque creation. Resembling a lurching, robotic vulture, the general appears to be all machine until you look closely: His eyes are fleshy, and he still has a few essential organs. He is, in a sense, a prototype for Darth Vader — albeit one with a hacking case of bronchitis and a slew of retractable arms, which he fiendishly uses against Obi-Wan in a breathtaking four-on-one light-saber duel.
Say what you want about Lucas’ one-take directing style, his over-reliance on blue screens or his cheesy tendency to reference himself ("I got a bad feeling about this!" someone intones, for the umpteenth time), but his imagination is as fertile as ever. I’m not talking about the giant salamander that Obi-Wan rides like a quarter horse (though that was pretty awesome), but the way in which Lucas — against all better judgment — manages to shoehorn a Sith/Republican analogy into the script. "If you’re not with me, you’re against me," Palpatine spits at one of his naysayers, echoing the words of another powerful man, not so long ago, in this galaxy. When Yoda attempts to filibuster Palpatine’s power grab on the Galactic Senate floor, the results are predictably spotty for the minority.
Politics aside, "Sith" features the most exciting 30 minutes that any rational fan could ask for, when Obi-Wan and Anakin finally face each other on the planet Mustafar, a molten globe of lava and volcanic geysers that apparently depleted its ozone layer eons ago.
As Obi-Wan, McGregor ("Big Fish") keeps looking like a better and better choice to succeed/precede Alec Guinness, and in the Mustafar sequence — after all the lightsabering is done — he imparts the most pained, achingly regretful acting of his career. Darth Vader might dominate the discussion boards, but we all know who the real star of this trilogy is.