On Screen

'Star Wars': Darth Lite

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 20, 2005

THE DEFINING moment in George Lucas's entire "Star Wars" canon occurs in 1980's "The Empire Strikes Back," when Darth Vader slices off Luke Skywalker's right hand and tells him he's Luke's father. All that Luke has trained for -- to be the chosen Jedi knight who defeats the Dark Lord of the Sith -- comes crashing down around his ears.

The universe's greatest enemy is my own flesh and blood .

As that revelation rings through your mind, you mentally backtrack through everything you've seen up to that point. Could it be true? The sinking feeling is confirmed: True indeed.

That's what all these "Star Wars" prequels -- 1999's "The Phantom Menace," 2002's "Attack of the Clones" and now "Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith" -- have been about: how everything got to this powerful, almost atavistic face-off.

Now that "Revenge" officially brings these galactic chronicles to a close -- 28 years after the first "Star Wars" film -- the Darth-Luke climax remains the best scene of them all. And even though "Revenge" is a better experience than "Phantom Menace" or "Attack of the Clones," it doesn't add anything that satisfying or compelling to the big picture. If anything, it takes things away. How could Hayden Christensen, a pouty-lipped twenty-something you'd expect to see handing you a tall decaf latte over the counter, be Darth Vader? And even if he was a good casting choice, how could any scene eclipse what we have already seen? "Revenge" was supposed to be the one that really socked it to us, about Anakin's almost biblical fall from grace. But the movie never rises to its powerful occasion.

In "Revenge," Jedi knights Anakin Skywalker (Christensen) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) have been fighting side by side in the Clone Wars. But their teamwork isn't perfect. Anakin tends to make rash decisions that give Obi-Wan pause.

Obi-Wan's concern proves prescient. Anakin isn't going with the selfless-warrior program. He gets in a gaunt-cheeked tizzy because the inner circle of Jedi knights, including Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) and Yoda, aren't bringing him up through the ranks fast enough.

So he agrees to join forces with the hissable Supreme Chancellor Palpatine (who's really Darth Sidious in not-so-subtle disguise), with the opportunism of a Harvard brat shopping for the best law firm. He listens with ambitious ears when Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) -- already feuding with the Jedi council over his increasingly tyrannical nature -- invites him to be his personal assistant.

It becomes clear that Anakin must choose between the selfless Jedi code, by which he has been raised, and Palpatine's invitation to dark power. Anakin hides this inner conflict, which affects his relationship with Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman), whom he has married in secret and who is pregnant. He is breaking away from her, and the good side. You know this because he avoids eye contact and conversation with his wife, wears a hood and glares a lot.

In terms of eye-candy action fare, "Revenge" has its battling high points. There's an exciting Obi-Wan clash with the skull-faced General Grievous, a separatist military leader, for instance. And the light saber mano a mano between Obi-Wan and Anakin, as they try not to be swallowed by a volcanic river underneath them, makes a thrilling fight.

But the movie's characters -- as they are written, as they are cast and as they are performed -- detract from the movie's high purpose. As Anakin/Darth, Christensen is simply not compelling. Dark prince of the universe? Those Jedi knights ought to take him over their collective knees and spank him with light saber paddles until he gets over himself.

As Amidala, Portman can't be faulted for a good college try. But she's too often reduced to a sobbing spectacle, as she whimpers and wah-wahs over her husband's moral disintegration. The story only gives her lip-service empowerment, as she struggles to get him back. (Perhaps this is to make sure Christensen doesn't get overshadowed.) McGregor makes a likable Obi-Wan, but with that silly posh accent he's forced to affect, he's a Wan imitator of his predecessor (or narratively speaking, his later self), Sir Alec Guinness. Gravitas was always going to be a tough thing to pull off for these three principals, who are essentially kiddie pawns in Lucas's giant, computer-generated chess game. But if there was a chance to break out, none has grabbed that light saber.

Of course, your humble reviewer does not assume to tell the jillions of devoted "Star Wars" fans they can't enjoy this movie on their own terms. But if they're waiting for the second coming, in his opinion, it happened in 1980. By creating one of the greatest villains of the screen, George Lucas simply couldn't deconstruct Darth Vader's awesome mystique.

STARS WARS EPISODE III: REVENGE OF THE SITH (PG-13, 140 minutes) -- Contains sci-fi violence and some intense images. Area theaters.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company