Three years have passed since the launch of the Clone Wars. As "Sith" opens, the battle has arrived on the doorstep of Coruscant, where the Imperial Senate convenes, and Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) has been abducted by the sickly yet still dangerous General Grievous, an alien-droid hybrid whose defective hardware presages the technology that will eventually consume Darth Vader. Amid an upper-atmosphere dogfight that recalls scenes from "Episode IV," Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and his padawan Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen), now a Jedi Knight, stage a daring rescue. But Grievous slips away, allowing Palpatine to further consolidate his power as war wages on.
Meanwhile, Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman), apparently retired from the Senate and given little to do here other than gaze longingly from the window of her opulent apartment, reveals to Anakin, now her husband in a marriage that's a pretty open secret, that she's pregnant. Haunted by nightmares of Padme's death in childbirth, Anakin is further tormented as he is courted by both Palpatine and the Jedi Council to spy on the other as the factions grow increasingly distrustful of one another's motives. The Chancellor has the upper hand, preying on the brooding Jedi Knight's worst fears with promises of a power that would surpass what he could learn from a Jedi and could save Padme's life.
The challenge in "Attack of the Clones" was to make Anakin appealing enough that Padme would fall in love with him while laying the groundwork for his turn to the Dark Side. Whether Lucas succeeded then is debatable. But here all of the elements are in place, with the character's narratively convincing transformation into Darth Vader. There's something lacking in the execution, however, and it's hard to pinpoint, although it could have something to do with Lucas' inability to coax more than wooden performances out of even the most talented actors. (Although progress has been made in this episode, with work that's less oak than, say, pine.)
Mostly Lucas just needs an editor -- the kind he might find at Del Rey, not behind an Avid machine. (It's not like Lucas' ears are closed to criticism: The much-maligned Jar Jar Binks makes a stubborn appearance here but utters nary a word.) Surely Padme could say something more moving -- and less cliched -- than "You're breaking my heart" at the moment of her lover's betrayal. And a drawn-out coda may be deeply satisfying for fans as the pieces for "A New Hope" are laid in place at a deliberate pace, but there's telling and then there's showing -- and one certainly doesn't need to do both.
But one can't argue that it all looks spectacular, particularly an inventive steed for Obi-Wan Kenobi that's oddly adorable, and Lucas has choreographed some lightsaber matchups that fans have been waiting for. (Although one can't help but be curious what the results might have been had he laid off the digital composits just long enough to dabble in some wire-work.) Moreover, there's ample humor, much of it centered around the franchise's most diminutive characters, that succeeds by virtue of audience familiarity. And, although one knows the entire time exactly where all of this is headed, it's thrilling to see the specifics of how it falls into place. Starring Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Hayden Christensen, Ian McDiarmid and Samuel L. Jackson. Directed and written by George Lucas. Produced by Rick McCallum. A Fox release. Science Fiction. Rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and some intense images. Running time: 140 min