5/19/05 Edition

Special STAR WARS Edition

Plus: A Look at Sony Classical's CD/DVD Soundtrack Package

And so it ends.

The galaxy far, far away that George Lucas introduced us to in 1977 -- back before we knew his new movie was actually “Episode IV” and subtitled “A New Hope” -- is given a glorious send off in the climactic STAR WARS EPISODE III: REVENGE OF THE SITH (****), a rollicking movie matinee that ends the saga in the same deliriously entertaining manner in which it began.

More confident in every way than its two predecessors (especially the clunky “Attack of the Clones”), Episode III charts the final downward spiral of Anakin Skywalker, the last days of the Old Republic, the demise of the Jedi Knights, the birth of Darth Vader and, separately, his offspring that would one day lead to his ultimate redemption.

It’s a story any Star Wars fan knows the outline of, but filling in the details provides all the fun of Lucas’ final installment in his sci-fi fantasy series, which benefits from generally crisp pacing, rapid-fire editing and some of the most exciting individual set-pieces of the entire series.

While not without some faults of its own, “Revenge of the Sith” is on balance a substantially more satisfying picture than either of the prequels. Carrying the acting load much of the way here is Ewan McGregor, who gives a far more energetic and charismatic performance as Obi-Wan Kenobi, watching helplessly as his young apprentice Anakin (Hayden Christensen) gets wrapped up in the nefarious dealings of Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid). Utilizing Anakin’s arrogance and premonitions about the death of his wife Padme (Natalie Portman), Palpatine exploits Skywalker’s frustration with his Jedi teachers (including Yoda and Samuel L. Jackson’s Mace Windu) and turns his anger to the dark side.

It’s a journey filled with great moments: a dizzying opening aerial combat sequence, a dynamic chase between Obi-Wan and the vile General Grievous, light-saber battles galore and a sensational climax that finally delivers the payload of goods fans expected of George Lucas when he announced that the prequels would be made nearly a decade ago.

The leaden dialogue so prevalent in “The Phantom Menace” and especially “Attack of the Clones” does pop up here -- especially in the opening half-hour -- but fortunately, it proves to be far less of a distraction because Lucas’ air-tight script actually seems to know where it’s going and how it’s going to get there. The references to the original trilogy (which I guess we’ll now call the “sequels”) aren’t heavy-handed, either, but rather subtly handled and nicely incorporated into the narrative and visual fabric of the film.

Though a perfect popcorn movie, “Revenge of the Sith” somehow manages to be suspenseful but seldom emotionally involving -- at least where its lead character is concerned. I suppose it’s a byproduct of the entire prequel trilogy that even though we see Anakin and Padme enduring a tragic succession of events in Episode III, somehow I never became overly wrapped up in Anakin actually becoming Darth Vader. Christensen here is certainly more effective than he was in Episode II, yet I still never felt the spectrum of emotion in the character that the material demands -- perhaps the result of a not entirely satisfying performance and a script that didn’t support the actor as much as it should have.

Nevertheless, the only other fault I found in “Sith” is also going to be one of its more enduring elements for some audiences. Once Palpatine’s villainous actions are uncovered, Ian McDiarmid’s appropriately bonkers performance absolutely goes for broke. Snarling, seething, and topped off with Bela Lugosi-like glowing eyes, McDiarmid’s Emperor manages to be more over-the-top and dynamically entertaining -- though also substantially less menacing -- than the role as he performed it in “Return of the Jedi.” Perhaps Lucas, sensing that the material here was darker and more depressing than anything else in the “Star Wars” galaxy, opted to play the role with less of an edge, since the only viewers who will be afraid of McDiarmid’s Palpatine/Lord Sidious/Emperor are likely to be youngsters under the age of seven or eight.

What’s most satisfying about “Revenge of the Sith” is -- surprisingly enough -- its sense of fun. As strange as it may seem given the well-hyped “dark” and “mature” story line, Episode III is more playful and engaging than its comparatively stiff predecessors. The actors seem more comfortable, Lucas’ direction and editorial cross-cutting never misses a beat, and the storytelling is simply more cohesive.

The cherry on top comes at the end. After a gangbusters climax as well-executed as anything in Lucas’ career, “Sith” ties up the loose ends of the “Star Wars” saga and does so in a supremely effective manner. No scene becomes too melodramatic or heavy-handed, overly maudlin or saccharine. Ample emotion is generated in John Williams’ score, the subtlety of how the material is presented, and the emotional attachment viewers have with the original movies. Lucas the filmmaker finally hits his stride as the series wraps up, leading us into the story that picks up in the movies that he’s already made.

And, at long last, he’s finally produced a new work of his own worthy of them. (PG-13, 146 mins.)

Sony Classical’s Soundtrack Release

Though I still feel that John Williams’ score for THE PHANTOM MENACE is the best of his prequel soundtracks (if only because of the terrific new thematic material he scored for Episode I), make no mistake: REVENGE OF THE SITH is a superb, operatic new work that easily surpasses the comparatively disappointing score Williams produced for Episode II, “Attack of the Clones” (a score that, however much it puts most modern film music to shame, still ranks as a letdown when viewed against the rest of the Williams canon).

Marked by one driving, sensational new theme -- “Battle of the Heroes” -- that underscores the film’s furious climactic duel between Obi-Wan and Anakin, Williams here says goodbye to not just the prequels but the “Star Wars” universe altogether. That means a moving reprise of several themes from the composer’s very first “Star Wars” score, including the motifs for Luke and Leia, tenderly -- and beautifully -- utilized at the end of the film. He also weaves in reprisals of his finest prequel themes, including “Duel of the Fates” (which will undoubtedly go down as the most memorable composition from the prequels) and his “Across the Stars” love theme (still too close to “Hook” for my tastes). I was somewhat surprised that Williams’ poignant “Anakin’s Theme” from the “The Phantom Menace” didn’t receive much play here, particularly since Williams brilliantly toyed with the “Imperial March” in his original arrangement of the composition. On the other hand, “The Imperial March” doesn’t receive a full statement in the series until “The Empire Strikes Back,” and Williams follows through here on that chronology, refraining from a full statement of the motif, even in tracks like “Enter Lord Vader” (the theme does appear briefly, but only for The Emperor late in the movie).

When viewed solely as a soundtrack album, “Revenge of the Sith” provides a rich listening experience, a score backed by excellent use of the London Voices Choir in addition to the standard, superlative performance of the London Symphony. One constantly gets the impression that we’re in a dense, more dramatic story than the preceding films: cues like “Palapatine’s Teachings” and “Padme’s Ruminations” offer a strikingly ominous tone that’s as dense as anything you’ll find in the “Star Wars” galaxy. On the other hand, Williams takes George Lucas’ lead and uses the final moments to directly tie in with “A New Hope,” pointing to the light side of The Force that the twins represent, and the eventual redemption they will also, one day, bring to their fallen father.

There have been complaints among some listeners that there’s too much “A New Hope” in the final minutes of “Sith,” that Williams could have used the opportunity here to create more thematic material directly for this film and not merely reprieved previous compositions. For me, though, the “Episode III” soundtrack works because of how effectively Williams utilizes several of his classic themes. Instead of harkening back to the fallen Anakin Skywalker, which obviously fueled the prequel trilogy, Williams took the opportunity in the final minutes of “Revenge of the Sith” to light the way to the true, ultimate message of the “Star Wars” films, and the general optimism of the original trilogy. As Lucas points out in his liner notes, “the darkest time is always before the dawn,” and Williams follows that with a gentle, and thoroughly moving, use of Luke’s motif and “Princess Leia’s Theme” before segueing into the end credits. There, the composer bids adieu to six films that will forever live on in movie history. His use of “The Throne Room” is Williams’ farewell to one of the cinema’s greatest series, and after scoring so many minutes of difficult music over a near-30 year span, the composer has more than earned the right to finish off the saga however he sees fit.

Needless to say, despite missing a few cues (I don’t believe the striking music heard directly after the opening crawl is anywhere on the album), Williams’ score is certainly more than enough to merit recommending Sony Classical’s soundtrack release, but the label has sweetened the pot by also including a sensational DVD, STAR WARS: A MUSICAL JOURNEY.

This bonus extra (included at no extra charge as well) provides a 70-minute musical essay through Williams’ six series scores, set to often strikingly-edited clips from all of the “Star Wars” films in 16:9 widescreen. Not only that, but the DVD offers an amazing 5.1 Dolby Digital musical re-mix of all the cues -- courtesy of Shawn Murphy -- that surpasses even the “Special Edition” RCA/Sony Classical CD editions of the original trilogy in their depth and overall musical detail. It’s enough to make your mouth water at thoughts of a similar remix for all the original scores (and who wants to bet that’ll happen with the 3-D reissues of the films in 2007?).

Ian MacDiarmid hosts the program, but one can do away with his introductory segments if you so choose. The clips, meanwhile, directly pertain to the cues being heard, wisely inter-cutting footage from the original trilogy as well as the prequels, along with some pre-production conceptual art by Ralph MacQuarrie among others.

It’s a dynamite extra that Sony could have used as leverage to create a more expensive “Limited Edition” CD, but give them credit: it’s part of the basic soundtrack package, priced no more or less than your average CD. Bravo to the label for both its inclusion in the standard release, and for doing a superlative job with a one-of-a-kind DVD extra. Obviously a must for all “Star Wars” fans as we bid our own fond farewells to George Lucas’ galaxy....at least for now.

NEXT TIME: Back with more reviews, comments and more! Don't forget to drop in and debate EPISODE III (or the new Varese CD Club releases) on the Message Boards, direct any emails to the link above and we'll catch you then. Cheers!