The Force is strong with "Episode III - Revenge of the Sith," the sixth and final piece in George Lucas' galactic saga, which represents a welcome return to the ideas and the spirit that made his original "Star Wars" a pop-culture juggernaut 28 years ago.
The circle is now complete, as Lucas' characters are fond of saying, and much of the film's joy comes from watching these familiar names and events fall into place.
It is enormously satisfying to see young Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) teeter along the edge that separates good and evil, and to see what finally pushes the would-be Chosen One over to the dark side of the Force.
It's a wonderful, small discovery when Anakin receives the name Darth Vader once he finally swears his allegiance to Chancellor Palpatine, who reveals himself here as Darth Sidious, a Sith master and the eventual evil Emperor. (And all the other words that ooze from Ian McDiarmid's mouth leave you feeling so slimy, you'll want to take a shower afterward.)
But the moment we've all been waiting for is one that simply must be experienced in a packed theater: when the mask goes on and the helmet comes down and Anakin takes his first raspy breath as Darth Vader in all his dark, gleaming glory. (You won't hear anyone else breathing, it's such an absorbing sight.)
The iconography is powerful to behold, especially when compared to the horrendously disappointing Episodes I and II. In retrospect, the first two "Star Wars" prequels seem even more useless, with their stilted dialogue and their numbing, CGI-infused clone battles.
Lucas wisely has placed the emphasis this time on elaborate lightsaber duels - between Anakin and mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) against the Sith lord Count Dooku (Christopher Lee), and ultimately between Anakin and Obi-Wan themselves. Some of the biggest thrills come from tiny Yoda, the Jedi master who's at the height of his powers here. He does as much damage with a well-chosen, structurally inverted phrase or the subtlest wrinkle of his round, green face as he does with a swing of his lightsaber. (And Yoda has mad skills.)
Lucas' writing still clangs, though, especially during the exchanges between Anakin and his secret bride, Senator Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman), who announces in Episode III that she's pregnant (with twins we've come to know as Luke and Leia in Episode IV, the original "Star Wars").
"You are so beautiful," Anakin dreamily tells Padme as she brushes her dark, flowing locks on a balcony in the moonlight.
"Only because I'm so in love," Padme coos back to him.
Thankfully, Lucas also didn't saddle her with the heavy headgear and distracting dresses she wore in Episodes I and II, or else she would barely be able to get up and move about the galaxy.
That love for Padme, though, is partly the inspiration for Anakin's conversion. Not to give too much away, but he becomes convinced that Padme is in danger, and the only way to save her is through the powers that come with dark-side membership.
He's actually just being manipulated by Palpatine/Darth Sidious, who wants to turn the Galactic Republic into his own Empire and sees him as a malleable apprentice, especially at a time when Anakin isn't getting the respect and authority he craves from the Jedi Council.
"Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose," Yoda warns Anakin, but it's too late - and we know it's too late, and that built-in expectation is much of what makes "Revenge of the Sith" so riveting.
It's also a visually wondrous film, though. Lucas uses the digital technology to far greater advantage than he did in the first two prequels, which too often had the glossy, detached look of a video game. Crisp daylight streams through the floor-to-ceiling windows of Padme's apartment, and the cityscapes consist of silvery skyscrapers and golden sunsets. Even Chewbacca and his Wookiee buddies look lifelike as they scamper in battle across the beaches and jungles of the planet Kashyyyk.
Clearly, this is Lucas' war protest movie _ Obi-Wan shoots a character down with a gun once his lightsaber is knocked away from him, and afterward sniffs, ''So uncivilized.'' But it's also, at its core, a soap opera. It always has been. Think of Darth Vader telling Luke Skywalker, ''I am your father,'' during the heat of battle in ''The Empire Strikes Back.'' Episode III features fast-paced parallel editing between two staples of daytime TV: a childbirth and a complicated operation.
But despite its drama and darkness, Lucas gives us some light moments, too. He slips in a glimpse of the much-maligned Jar Jar Binks at the very end, and although the big, goofy Gungan doesn't say anything, his presence alone feels like Lucas' last little dig at the naysayers - and a reminder with this final farewell that, nearly 30 years later, he's still doing it his way.
"Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith," a Twentieth Century Fox release, is rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and some intense images. Running time: 142 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.