As one of the seemingly few Net reviewers with no real love of "Star Wars" old or new (I was born in '78, so it was a few years before my time), the good word is "Revenge of the Sith" is actually a refreshingly good film overall and easily the best of the prequels. Like the other two it remains a rather hokey and stilted affair that lacks the warm fun and smoothness of the original trilogy, but I am glad to say it is a big step up from the simply woeful "The Phantom Menace" and the run of the mill "Attack of the Clones".
Whilst the acting, story and humour remains clunky and flat, 'Sith' is an enjoyable spectacle with glossy visuals and a refreshingly dark and sinister tone. The alien environments look glorious, the loose threads are for the most part effectively tied up, and whilst quite a few moments are laughably bad, others approach greatness. There's one scene where Anakin and Padme are on separate balconies looking out at the city and with the weight of the world on their shoulders. The looks, the sunset and John Williams superb score swell to deliver a moment that feels like great filmmaking on hand.
Why does this one work so much better than the other two? Simple really - not much in the way of padding. Oh sure there are moments thrown in which look cool yet aren't needed (the Wookie war, the opening space battle, pretty much anything to do with Grievous), but for the most part the action actually ties in with the plot. Whereas the last two felt like they were all too strung out, 'Sith' remains a tight affair as it rushes to move events along towards the way the original 1977 "Star Wars" began. In fact Lucas does a commendable job of essentially covering all the bases leaving very few elements dangling.
The other thing is he seems to have learned his lessons from the last two a little, as have much of the crew. The result is the effects are the best yet, the action feels more relevant, and the performances - whilst still subpar at times - actually seem a tad more genuine. As an audience knowing the way everything is going to end actually adds to the movie's feeling of inevitable tragedy. The darker sensibility and actions, many of which take place off screen unfortunately, is a big bonus too as it finally feels like we're watching a "Star Wars" movie that takes some chances again.
Still, it wouldn't be a "Star Wars" prequel without a raft of problems and many of them haven't gone away. The romance is still awkwardly bad, not helped by either actor. Portman and McGregor are capable of so much more, yet they've both been heavily hampered in these movies. McGregor seems to snap out of it at times in this but Portman, stuck in a 'stay at home wife' role this time around seems bored. Christensen's acting has gone from wooden soap opera level to very average mainstream - thankfully toning down the attempts at ranting and trying for something a little more understated this time.
The motives for Anakin's inevitable fall from grace do seem ultimately a bit rushed and unbelievable (would you commit genocide in the name of love?), though some of the film's better moments comes from the prequel trilogy's real quiet achiever - Ian McDiarmid - as Palpatine, who finally exposes himself. Whilst McDiarmid does go way too over the top with some line deliveries, others strike with real resonance and it's great to finally get to see him get some action in both the physical and narrative sense of the word. Jackson on the other hand has little to do bar a cool fight scene, Smits is a non-entity though Bruce Spence impresses with a one scene cameo in cool make-up.
One funny thing is the two big physical transformation scenes I was looking forward to turn out to be letdowns. The change of Palpatine to the Emperor is poorly pulled off and never properly explained - it should've been something more Jekyll & Hyde-ish than what it ended up as. Similarly the long awaited birth of Darth Vader scene comes off great - until he opens his mouth. It's great to have James Earl Jones back doing the voice, but the dialogue is bad and a famous scream of "NOOOO!!!!" will go down as one of the series cheesiest moments.
Kudos to Lucas for sticking the aliens in the background and letting the human drama dominate this time around. Jar Jar has a three-second silent cameo, C-3PO has three lines (and none of them are bad jokes), Chewbacca appears but the Wookies are so hardly in it he may as well not have - only Yoda and Grievous have any real screen time. The former again steals the show and his fight with the Emperor in the senate chamber actually proves more engaging than the somewhat ridiculous Obi-Wan/Anakin lava duel. The later has a few good fights but is ultimately a puffed up non-entity like Darth Maul was.
The alien environments are also much better and more imaginative - a lava planet, a civilisation built inside a giant sinkhole, a giant forest/swamp, and of course Coruscant. True, much of it still reeks of blue screen CG creations with people inserted in them but for the most part they work. There's many elements of this harkening back to the original trilogy - some working better than others. The ships, clothing and music all feel much more like the original trilogy than the other two and little moments like a silent cameo by Tarkin or the Alderaan cruiser ship interior give one a jump of joy. Other bits though such as the final shot of the film recreating Luke's sunset watch or Palpatine repeating a line from 'Empire' feel cheap and actually take away from those poignant moments in the old films.
Whilst the effects are spectacular, the action doesn't help to enhance it at times. The wide shots of the opening fight and the Kashyyk advance look splendid but much of the time Lucas frustratingly cuts to awkward and very tight close-ups. The result is, in these high speed battle scenes and in the duels as well, one almost gets nausea from the flashing lights and moving camera - there's simply too much going on and we're focussed in on one little segment which undermines the scale of these scenes.
One thing that hasn't changed though is the humour - it's as forced and flat as ever. There's one, maybe two odd laughs but other jokes (like Obi-Wan's about previous times his life have been saved) are so painful it's cringe-inducing. Thankfully the film stays relatively dark so that humour isn't needed. Indeed the scenes of the Jedi slaughter and the fall of the Republic are well done and harken back to other great cinema along with politics that have become relevant again in today's world.
As I've said before, the problem with this franchise more than any other series is that everyone comes into this with different preconceptions. More than any other SF tale, the 'Wars' movies inspire a level of unconditional love or bitterness amongst reviewers. The former (the lovers) deliberately ignore the giant flaws they would take other films to task on, the latter (the haters) overexaggerate the problems which they would otherwise ignore in other movies this Summer.
These are popcorn movies and so the bigger a fan you are, the 'stronger' your level of enjoyment or loathing will be. As a sci-fi fan who really likes "A New Hope", loves "Empire", enjoys "Jedi", hated "Phantom" and tolerated "Clones" I found I enjoyed "Sith". It certainly doesn't validate the first two prequels, but it's the only one of the trilogy that actually works as both a good Summer movie and a solid sci-fi movie in its own right. It's a shame that just as the "Star Wars" universe is finally getting interesting again, it has to go away.