With 'Sith,' Lucas's empire strikes back

'Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge of the Sith" begins the way you knew it would. "A long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away..."

Has any other phrase been so indelibly engraved in pop-culture consciousness over the past three decades? It's been 28 years since George Lucas launched "Star Wars" with the movie now known as "Episode IV: A New Hope."

Two sequels and two prequels have appeared between then and now, each deepening the series' hold on imaginations around the world. Opening Thursday is the last prequel, which Lucas claims is the epic's final installment.

"Sith" picks up where "Attack of the Clones" left off, centering on Anakin Skywalker's secret marriage, his friendship with Obi-Wan Kenobi, his duels with exotic enemies, and his temptation to exploit the Dark Side of the Force.

So let's cut to the interstellar chase and assess "Sith" on its own rambunctious terms. On the action-adventure level it's a sure-fire delight for fans, a punchy entertainment for average sci-fi buffs, and a colorful rocket-ride for moviegoers who just want a good time on Saturday night.

Looking deeper, though, it's another thorn in the side for people who see the "Star Wars" franchise as both an impressive feat of fantasy filmmaking and an astonishing feat of advertising, promotion, and marketing. Whether you like Lucas's creation or not, chances are you'll see the final chapter if you don't want to feel completely out of touch with humanity in coming days, weeks, and even years.

In short, it's a must-see movie. And that's a little scary. Since when could Hollywood tell us what we must or mustn't do? Since movies like "Star Wars" launched the modern blockbuster into existence, that's when.

Lucas has always been candid about basing "Star Wars" on the junk-food movies he enjoyed in his youth. That's honest of him. And it's clever of him, since it forestalls any criticism that the series' ideas are often corny, predictable, and as old as the Arizona hills in the backgrounds of bygone westerns. In a cinematic sense, the series does take place "a long, long time ago," fueled by Lucas's ingenious notion of recycling well-worn plots with spaceships and lightsabers instead of horses and six-guns.

Just as ingenious was Lucas's decision to unfold his trilogies in reverse chronology. The first three movies (in order of release) told a neatly constructed story, but embedded in its beginning was a puzzle: What in the galaxy could have turned a loyal Jedi knight into Darth Vader? The second trilogy unravels this riddle, and "Sith" shows exactly how and why the fearsome transformation took place. This is scary stuff, told in a sometimes scary way that has earned "Sith" the series' first PG-13 rating.

Aside from working out his remaining plot ideas, Lucas has used the second trilogy for radical experiments in high-tech filmmaking. Actors were filmed on bare stages in many of the film's scenes, allowing special-effect wizards to fill in the rest with computer-generated imagery.

When the aim is pure visual spectacle, the results are brilliantly exciting. When the aim is heart-touching drama, though, the movie falls apart. Some performers give Lucas's banal dialogue a bit of life, but others sound as if they're reading their lines from cue cards. It's hard to build psychological richness in the studio equivalent of a vacuum.

Most moviegoers won't mind these moments, since "Sith" serves up splendid eye candy to compensate. Still, my comment on an earlier episode still seems relevant to me. Lucas's movies are designed for kids, and for the kid in all of us. But we live in a time when entertainment targets that uncritical inner kid every day. How about a meticulously produced, energetically promoted epic targeting the inner adult in all of us?

That would be a must-see movie for real.

Rated PG-13; contains violence.

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