“Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith” not only exceeds its two prequels by leaps and bounds, it recalls some of the excitement of the original “Star Wars” trilogy, even improving upon “Return of the Jedi.”

The galaxy is a more vengeful place now, which accounts for the first PG-13 rating of the series. The rating is earned by a scene in which children are slaughtered, though this happens off-camera. The movie is much darker than any that has come before it, but that’s not news. Anakin’s transformation to Darth Vader is the movie’s whole point. And as the opening crawl warns us, “Evil is everywhere.”

It is particularly apparent in the Republic’s Supreme Chancellor Palpatine (played by Ian McDiarmid), who at one point has a heart-to-heart discussion with Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) about the nature of good and evil. Anakin is a Jedi knight – and not just any Jedi, but as we are told repeatedly, the Jedi, the Chosen One – and thus a force for good in the Republic’s war with the evil Sith. The Chancellor tells Skywalker that the Sith and the Jedi are equally evil, sort of like Democrats and Republicans.

“Good,” he says suggestively, “is a point of view.”

This is one of the few things he says in the movie without lightning bolts erupting from his fingertips, but it’s an electric moment just the same. It marks the start of Anakin’s journey from heroic Jedi to dark lord of the “Star Wars” saga, which gets a mostly rousing send-off in “Revenge of the Sith.”

The film created by George Lucas opens with a long, seamless shot of Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and Anakin flying into the teeth of the enemy to retrieve the chancellor, who has been kidnapped by the Sith warlord, General Grievous.

The action and the visual effects are splendid. The opening battles are filled with lightsaber rattling. When Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) and Anakin meet, both men show their hot tempers: one flies off the handle, and the other loses his head.

The fruits of Anakin’s secret marriage to Senator Padme (Natalie Portman) are finally revealed when she tells her best beloved, “Anie, I’m pregnant.” Padme even flourishes some giant hair tumors, teased up in the shape of croissants, that finally explain a few things about where Princess Leia came by her look.

Padme is so scared that her pregnancy will blow the lid off their marriage that her giant head buns are practically vibrating when she asks Anakin what to do. But John Williams revs up the celestial orchestra, the brass and strings swelling with paternal pride; it turns out Anie’s a mensch!

Lucas’ dialogue in the romantic clinches hasn’t improved over the years. “You are so beautiful!” Anakin tells Padme.

“It’s only because you’re so in love,” she gushes right back at him.

But as soon as Padme is preggers, Anakin begins having terrible dreams about childbirth, dreams that actually look like most people’s delivery room videos. Yoda even warns Skywalker not to let his dreams get the better of him. “The fear of loss is a path to the dark side,” he says, frantically attempting to rephrase that in the form of a question. “Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose.”

Fat chance. Anakin seeks power to protect Padme, first forcing his way onto the Jedi Council, then becoming so furious when the other Jedi deny him the title of “Master” that at one point it actually forces the seemingly inert Christensen to twitch a facial muscle.

Lucas has an uncanny ability to turn even fine actors such as Portman and Samuel L. Jackson (Mace Windu) to stone, and Christensen’s performance is so lifeless that Anakin appears to have no pulse long before he has no wrists.

Padme asks Anakin at one point, “What if the democracy we thought we were serving no longer exists?” She begins nagging Anie to tell the Channie to stop the war. When Anakin tells her of his plan to rule the galaxy, she mutters, “You’ve changed.”

No kidding. We find out how much on the fiery planet Mustafar. The battle that takes place there may be the most remarkable scene Lucas has ever created.

In the end, it’s left to Yoda to remind us that, even as the “Star Wars” series ends, it will never really be over. “Until the time is right, disappear we will,” he says.

Until that time, enjoy this one we must.

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