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The end of the saga, finally


After dazzling a generation of audiences, creating perhaps the most famous motion picture franchise in the history of the medium, influencing a great many other filmmakers, adding numerous catch phrases and iconic figures to the culture, and of course after immeasurable quantities of hype and hope, George Lucas has finally concluded the Star Wars saga.

Episode III --- Revenge of the Sith, as experienced Star Warriors know, actually precedes the trilogy that began the whole enterprise, explaining the events and people who occupy the foreground of the first film, which was actually the fourth chapter in the whole story, and its two sequels, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. (Got that?)

Except for the most passionate fans and the get-a-life crowd that camps outside theaters for months to see the flick, Revenge of the Sith, sadly, attains only perhaps a fractionally larger artistic success than the first two episodes, but remains pretty much the same old story, full of the same characters in one guise or another, and preaching the same tired ideas.

The picture opens with the familiar stirring music, while the long prose crawl disappearing into the stars informs us of the Balkanized political situation of the galactic government, torn apart by armed combat among Separatists, Siths, Jedi Knights, and who knows, perhaps even Christian Conservatives, with the necessary mention of the ideological struggle between the Empire and the Rebels. Those complications, of course, really serve as the excuse for the two essential subjects of the entire saga --- numerous action scenes displaying a dazzling array of special effects and numerous static conversations in which characters exchange plangent platitudes.

Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen), a young and greatly gifted Jedi Knight, undergoes what seems an endless internal struggle between our old friends, the Force and the Dark Side, advised on one hand by the Jedi Masters, Yoda and Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson), and on the other by Supreme Galactic Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), ostensibly a good guy but actually a complete Sith. The troubled young Jedi succumbs to the lure of the Dark Side, partially in the belief that it will help him save his wife Padmé from death in childbirth, and enrolls in the ranks of the rebels who want to overthrow the existing government and impose dictatorial tyranny on the galaxy.

In keeping with the palpably increasing pretension of the Star Wars saga, Anakin's temptation to seize power echoes such works as Julius Caesar and Macbeth, while his subsequent actions recall both the Bible and Paradise Lost. He carries out a slaughter of the innocents, for example, and fights an epic light saber battle with his mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi across what looks very like the flaming floors of Hell. His Satanic choice transforms him from the handsome, noble knight to the maimed and disfigured Darth Vader, encased in black armor, breathing like an artificial respirator and talking like James Earl Jones.

In explaining the origins of the characters who appeared in the first trilogy, so that the end of this picture neatly dovetails with the beginning of the original Star Wars, the movie also demonstrates George Lucas's continuing preoccupation with the sophomoric theology and murky mythologizing of the previous episodes.

Neither the fiddling around with ancient stories nor the prattling about Big Ideas, however, prevents him from exploiting the full panoply of special effects that enliven the saga and provide its chief appeal. Revenge of the Sith shows all the required set pieces --- fencing with light sabers, star fighter combat in space, some nasty beasts, a really terrific collection of mechanical monsters and vehicles, and a vicious general leading the bad Droids, a wonderfully consumptive collection of spare parts who coughs like Greta Garbo in Camille.

After all the clanking machinery collapses and the last star fighter whooshes off into the dark emptiness of space and Yoda intones his last Germanic syntactic inversion, however, Revenge of the Sith ends up essentially repeating the plots and characters of the five movies that came before.

Whether through his dedication to technical wizardry, his overlong study of Joseph Campbell, or simple fatigue, George Lucas obviously cannot draw decent performances from his actors, even the good ones, and cannot write characters who resemble human beings or dialogue that sounds remotely like normal speech. Revenge of the Sith ultimately collapses under the weight of its own mechanism and banality, a lame conclusion to a saga that began with great originality and grand exuberance.

Star Wars: Episode III --- Revenge of the Sith (PG-13), opens Thursday, May 19, at Brockport Strand, Canandaigua Theatres, Culver Ridge Cinemas, Cinemark Tinseltown, Geneseo Theatres, Greece Ridge 12, Pittsford Cinema.