Movies: Dark Side Rising

The first three Star Wars were epic. The next two, not really. Now George Lucas has pulled out all the stops and finished the cycle with Revenge of the Sith

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To Yoda, Anakin reveals his unease, though not its cause. "The fear of loss is a path to the dark side," the tiny savant observes. "Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose." Translation: Loved ones die; get over it. That is counsel Anakin can't accept. He needs a different guru, so he turns, fatefully, to Palpatine, who has poison to pour into the young man's ear. To Anakin, it feels like honey, sounds like sagacity--because it is just what he wants to hear. The truth is that he can recite the Jedi catechism but can't feel it. He knows "the Sith rely on their passion for their strength. They think inward, only about themselves." Yet that is why Anakin is a natural Sith--and why he would make an ideal apprentice to Palpatine and the Chancellor's alter ego, Darth Sidious.

In the subtly insinuating performance by McDiarmid (here playing, 22 years after Jedi, a character some 20 years younger), Palpatine is a creature of dulcet tones and the darkest treachery. The sadness of his smile suggests wisdom gained at a heavy price. His soothing voice sells a seductive line of reasoning: that the Jedi are spurred by power lust and limited by their code. Thus he sets about achieving what the actor describes as "the coldhearted seduction and corruption of young Anakin." Palpatine is never more persuasive than when his life is at the mercy of the powerful young Jedi. By appealing to Anakin's need and greed, he turns the lad into Darth Vader and secures his own "unlimited power!" [Potential spoilers end here.]

In the movie world, unlimited power is what Lucas has. But when he decided a decade ago to expand upon both the story and the visual effects necessary to give it life, Lucas set himself two daunting challenges: to please an audience made picky by all the fantasies that followed his and to match or exceed the recent innovations in an industry he effectively created with the Star Wars films and the effects company, Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), he built to realize his fantastic galactic visions.

It was ILM's work with Steven Spielberg on Jurassic Park (1993), that convinced Lucas that more complex worlds could be put on film. "Jurassic Park showed that you could create things using a computer that were so realistic, you could insert them into a movie seamlessly," Lucas says. "It offered infinite manipulation of the image, as opposed to before, when you photographed something and were kind of stuck with that image. And it's infinitely cheaper."

In Phantom and Clones, as in the digital DVD updates of the first trilogy, Lucas paraded glamorous landscapes and a bestiary of chimerical critters--all to demonstrate his techies' abilities to make the surreal real and sometimes at the expense of the drama. Sith, with 90 minutes of animation (in contrast with 60 in Phantom and 70 in Clones), is less ostentatiously revolutionary than its predecessors. Rather, it's a consolidation of earlier breakthroughs. The climactic face-off between Sidious and Yoda is a potent, visually plausible merging of a human actor and a digital one. When an audience takes for granted the integration of live action and animation, the revolution Lucas pioneered can be said to have triumphed. If he has his way, soon all movie theaters will be junking film projectors and going digital.

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