With a Bang

    It might have been the worst mistake of George Lucas’ career to try to expand the legacy of “Star Wars.”

    Courtesy of 20th Century Fox
    Lord Vader:

    No matter what fans thought of his first two attempts to continue the famous space saga — and whatever they will think of his latest, the massively anticipated, battle-heavy “Episode III – Revenge of the Sith” — most agree that none of the new movies has been as good as the originals.

    With the final chapter in place, that should still be the consensus. Not that “Episode III” isn’t good — in fact, it far exceeds any of the other new films, in both its dark tone and almost nonstop battle action — but it isn’t nearly as good in as many ways as the originals were. (If this seems like unnecessary whining, take note: A few critics have already proclaimed “Revenge” the finest of the “Star Wars” movies.)

    Sadly, it seems the lukewarm response to “Episodes I” and “II” didn’t prompt Lucas to re-examine his weaker methods. “Revenge” suffers from exactly the same problems that made the others so un-epic. Remember the snappy Han Solo/Princess Leia banter that passed for par in “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi”? You won’t find anything close in “Revenge,” and, lacking nearly all the subtler touches, Lucas’ characters inspire far less awe (read: interest) than they once did. The Chosen One, Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen), irritated the hell out of both his master Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and viewers as a snotty adolescent in “Episode II”; thankfully, this film finds him mellowed out a little, with a few annoying edges still. Proving his virtuosic fighting ability (superior, in some ways, to Kenobi’s) in a fantastic opening scene where the pair sneak aboard a Trade Federation ship in an effort to rescue the now-dictatorial Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), we begin to see that Obi-Wan’s control over the awesomely powerful and overconfident Skywalker has been challenged to a point of severe weakness. McGregor and Christensen interact much more realistically and smoothly than they did last time around, although it is only between these two that Lucas can elicit the character dimension that made his old characters so memorable.

    Christensen and his secret wife, the former Queen Amidala and Senator Padmé from Naboo (Natalie Portman), have even less chemistry than they did last time. While we watch their relationship spiral into ruin, neither Lucas’ directing abilities nor the stone-faced Christensen can punctuate the important emotional high and low points of the story with the necessary candor. The weight of having so much story to tell seems to push both Lucas and his cast to run through the motions of important events — which is terrible, considering that this is supposed to be the movie that shows the crucial developments of which we’ve dreamed since the beginning.

    But viewers who wanted less cuddly talk and more badassness have the film they’ve been waiting for. The opening space battle is, for once, as good as any in the originals (aided greatly by the aforementioned chemistry between Kenobi and Skywalker), and gets right to the film’s best part: its seemingly endless stream of jaw-dropping effects scenes. If this film shows Lucas’ ambivalence toward realistic acting and character development, it also shows that his imagination is still what it once was, brought more fantastically to the screen than ever before. With more cool planet environments than possibly any other “Star Wars” movie — including lush, verdant jungles (filmed in the jungles of Thailand and China) and an incredible volcano scene (filmed at the actual eruption of Mt. Etna in Italy), “Revenge” sets a new visual standard for all sci-fi movies. (Which it damn well better, considering this is the last “Star Wars” movie ever to be made.)

    The action scenes — which thankfully take up most of the film — impress on a similar level. Christensen, McGregor and others practiced for hours every day in order to develop the incredible lightsaber skills used almost constantly throughout “Revenge”; their battles, accordingly, often reach superhuman levels of speed and precision. A panel of incredible villains — a skilled Count Dooku (Christopher Lee), the frighteningly real cyborg General Grievous and, of course, the Emperor himself — pushes “Revenge” up to the originals in the Evil department.

    Still, the lengthy devolution of Anakin into Darth Vader is in many ways disappointing, due in no small part to the fact that Hayden Christensen can make exactly one facial expression (temper tantrum). Seeing as this was probably the most important (and anticipated) aspect of not only this episode but the entire new trilogy, Lucas deserves to have some major points docked. Whether or not it was even possible, in the minds of “Star Wars” fans, to match the success of the earlier films is impossible to know. But as for proving that making the new trilogy wasn’t a mistake, “Revenge” succeeds — barely.

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