The Force returns with most of its original power regained. Concluding entry in George Lucas' second three-pack of space epics teems with action, drama and spectacle, and even supplies the odd surge of emotion, as young Anakin Skywalker goes over to the Dark Side and the stage is set for the generation of stories launched by the original "Star Wars" 28 years ago. Whatever one thought of the previous two installments, this dynamic picture irons out most of the problems, and emerges as the best in the overall series since "The Empire Strikes Back." Stratospheric B.O. is a given.

The Force returns with most of its original power regained in “Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith.” Concluding entry in George Lucas’ second three-pack of space epics teems with action, drama and spectacle, and even supplies the odd surge of emotion, as young Anakin Skywalker goes over to the Dark Side and the stage is set for the generation of stories launched by the original “Star Wars” 28 years ago. Whatever one thought of the previous two installments, this dynamic picture irons out most of the problems, and emerges as the best in the overall series since “The Empire Strikes Back.” Stratospheric B.O. is a given.

Indeed, “Sith” looks likely to follow the commercial pattern of the initial trilogy, wherein the second edition, “Empire,” dipped considerably from the first, only to see the third, “Return of the Jedi,” bounce back closer to the level of “Star Wars.” In the case of the most recent set, “The Phantom Menace” grossed $921 million worldwide (slightly more coming from foreign territories than from the U.S.), while “Attack of the Clones” slipped to a $647 million worldwide cume. There’s little doubt “Sith” will significantly improve on the latter figure.

Everyone who has followed the “Star Wars” saga over the years will come to this film knowing that it all has to pay off here: the transformation from Anakin into Darth Vader, the face-off between Anakin/Vader and his mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi, the morphing of the Republic into the Empire, the exile of Yoda and Padme’s birth of the twins Luke and Leia, siblings who become the central figures in episodes 4-6.

Given the general awareness of what’s going to happen, it’s up to Lucas to make it exciting. Despite fans’ varying degrees of loss of faith that set in with “Menace” and “Clones,” most will be inspired enough to believe again.

As if deliberately setting out to reassert his mastery over his iconic creation, Lucas opens with an amazing shot of his two Jedi Knights, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and Anakin (Hayden Christensen), threading their little spaceships through an extraordinary maze of explosions and airborne craft.

In fact, the initial 23 minutes virtually constitute one eye-popping action sequence, as the Jedis fight an assortment of battles to rescue the kidnapped Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) from the clutches of the skeletal separatist General Grievous.

When things settle down to reunite Anakin with Padme, who announces she’s pregnant after the idyllic secret wedding that climaxed “Clones,” one is briefly reminded of Lucas’ shortcomings as a writer and director of intimate, one-on-one scenes. But it’s a minor problem here, as the dynamic of onrushing events soon becomes all-enveloping, and several interconnected conflicts are brought to a head.

As was not always the case the last two times out, Lucas’ storytelling sense is admirable as he lays out the growing schism between the Jedi council — which supports the Republic — and the Chancellor, who has been granted exceptional powers in the current crisis.

Caught in the middle is Anakin, trained all his life by Obi-Wan to be an exemplary Jedi, but suddenly plagued by dreams of his wife’s death in childbirth, offended by the Council’s refusal to grant him master status and susceptible to the Chancellor’s promise that only through the attainment of dark powers can he save his wife.

As Anakin stews, Jedis led by Obi-Wan attack General Grievous, which occasions more spectacular lightsaber fights (the movie is full of them). When Jedi Knight Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson, finally given something to do) attacks the Chancellor after learning he’s a Sith Lord, Anakin must decide once and for all where his allegiance lies, his ultimate choice pitting him tragically against those closest to him, Padme and Obi-Wan.

Picture’s final hour is steeped in apocalyptic imagery, tragic pop mythology and effective cross-cutting, as Yoda takes on the Chancellor at the same time Anakin/Vader engages in ferocious combat with Obi-Wan.

Resolution of the latter is significantly gorier than anything previously seen in the “Star Wars” sextet, thereby earning the series’ first PG-13 rating. It also results in the transfixing final metamorphoses of Anakin into the black hooded-and-caped Vader unseen since the initial trilogy, an emergence dramatically contrasted with the birth of the twins.

Entertaining from start to finish and even enthralling at times, “Sith” has some acting worth writing home about, specifically McDiarmid’s dominant turn as the mastermind of the evil empire. McGregor remains a steady presence, and both Portman and Christensen have loosened up since “Clones” to acceptable, if hardly inspired, levels. Expressiveness of the digitally animated Yoda, voiced as always by Frank Oz, is amazing.

The technical achievement here is on such a high level that one is lulled into taking it for granted. Neither of the digitally shot recent episodes has looked consistently great, but this one does.

Perhaps this is the moment to remember it was the original “Star Wars,” modest budget and all, that forever raised the bar and set the standard for the new generation of special and visual effects (a taste of “Star Wars” decor is provided by a reproduction of the gleaming white interior of the escaping Jedis’ spacecraft). Composer John Williams also seems to have put extra effort into his virtually continuous score, which increasingly invests familiar themes with darker and richer tones.

Related reviews:
“Star Wars”
“The Empire Strikes Back”
“Return of the Jedi”
“Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace”
“Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones”

Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith

Production

A 20th Century Fox release of a Lucasfilm production. Produced by Rick McCallum. Executive producer, George Lucas. Directed, written by George Lucas.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color prints, Plus 8 HD digital, Panavision widescreen), David Tattersall; editors, Roger Barton, Ben Burtt; music, John Williams; production designer, Gavin Bocquet; supervising art director, Peter Russell; art directors, Ian Gracie, Phil Harvey; set decorator, Richard Roberts; costume designer, Trisha Biggar; sound (Dolby Digital), Paul "Salty" Brincat; sound designer, Burtt; sound editor/re-recording mixer, Tom Myers; supervising sound editors, Burtt, Matthew Wood; special visual effects and animation, Industrial Light & Magic; visual effects supervisors, John Knoll, Roger Guyett; animation director, Rob Coleman; concept design supervisors, Erik Tiemens, Ryan Church; makeup supervisor, Nikki Gooley; assistant director, Colin Fletcher; swordmaster/stunt coordinator, Nick Gillard; casting, Christine King. Reviewed at the Village Theater, Los Angeles, May 5, 2005. (In Cannes Film Festival--noncompeting.) MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 140 MIN.

With

Obi-Wan Kenobi - Ewan McGregor Padme - Natalie Portman Anakin Skywalker - Hayden Christensen Supreme Chancellor Palpatine - Ian McDiarmid Mace Windu - Samuel L. Jackson Count Dooku - Christopher Lee Senator Bail Organa - Jimmy Smits Yoda - Frank Oz Chewbacca - Peter Mayhew Jar Jar Binks - Ahmed Best Sio Bibble - Oliver Ford Davies Commander Cody - Temuera Morrison C-3PO - Anthony Daniels Ki-Adi-Mundi & Nute Gunray - Silas Carson R2-D2 - Kenny Baker Queen of Naboo - Keisha Castle-Hughes Captain Typho - Jay Laga'aia Tion Medon - Bruce Spence Governor Tarkin - Wayne Pygram Mas Amedda - David Bowers

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