A sure sign your film franchise has taken a wrong turn: When the tone of fan anticipation shifts from "How great is this one going to be?" to "Will this one at least be good?" The quick answer for Star Wars: Episode IIIRevenge Of The Sith is that, yes, by the terms established in the new series, this one's the good one. But is it good enough?
The quick answer is, again, yes. Revenge Of The Sith corrects many of the series' past mistakes. The characters take foreground over Byzantine intergalactic politics. The special effects serve the story, and not the other way around. Jar Jar Binks remains a virtual no-show. But the series' past, not the Sith Lords, becomes the true phantom menace. Much of Revenge assumes the audience cares about the relationships set up so poorly in the first two prequels, and at this point, that's not easy. The film's a glorious-then-gruesome spectacle, and there's more going on beneath the special effects than before. But blown moments and missed opportunities make it hard to settle into it, and the chemistry-free relationships make it harder still to care.
But first, the spectacle. The film opens with a space battle that finally makes good on the promise of George Lucas' CGI-immersed vision. The effects have a heft that's never been there before, and Lucas and his crew choreograph the action like action, not a new-technology showpiece. That gravity carries over into the dramatic elements as well. As Anakin Skywalker, the young Jedi who may or may not be a messianic figure, Hayden Christensen brings a new intensity to the part. A character's death at his hands is presented with the heaviness of a captured sin.
From there, it's a long wade into deep, dark waters, and Lucas wisely takes the film further than most would have guessed he'd dare. Sith's violence earned the film a much-publicized PG-13 rating, but even without the shock dismemberments and charred flesh, the intensity alone would probably have yielded the same results. The world falls apart bit by bit, as Christensen forms a dangerous bond with the dictatorial Ian McDiarmid, Portman's pregnancy threatens to reveal her secret marriage, and McGregor tracks down a wheezing droid general.
It all plays grippingly, but there's something missing at the center. McGregor, Portman, and Christensen have all been brilliant elsewhereChristensen comes closest herebut the bonds between their characters are all in the dialogue, never between the lines. (And the less said about the lines themselves, the better.) Sith contains many fine moments, and a newly pronounced political conscience as well. But neither has a strong tether, and as the film pulses to its pre-ordained conclusion, it starts to feel a bit too, well, pre-ordained. Power corrupts absolutely, and out comes the big, black samurai suit. Lucas goes to great lengths to end Sith where the first Star Wars began in 1977, stopping short only of showing a young George Lucas thinking up the idea. And though Sith finally finds some life in the old saga, was it worth it in the end? Did we have to go through all that to get back where we began?