Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (12A)

The end of an era - finally!

Oh, the relief to reach the conclusion of Star Wars Episode III, not because George Lucas has brought home the franchise safe and sound but because I know I will never have to sit through another minute of this turgid, subliterate spaceballs again. Nor will I have to endure the pedantic reverence of those fans who applaud as the opening "Once Upon a Time..." credits begin to roll, who laugh at the humourless in-jokes, who whisper nerdishly among themselves about God knows what.

Oh, the relief to reach the conclusion of Star Wars Episode III, not because George Lucas has brought home the franchise safe and sound but because I know I will never have to sit through another minute of this turgid, subliterate spaceballs again. Nor will I have to endure the pedantic reverence of those fans who applaud as the opening "Once Upon a Time..." credits begin to roll, who laugh at the humourless in-jokes, who whisper nerdishly among themselves about God knows what.

That those fans will probably embrace this third instalment is surely down to accumulated loyalty and a realisation that nothing Lucas and co set before them could be worse than The Phantom Menace, the film that relaunched the series back in 1999. If they could ride out that tinpot rodeo of tedium they could handle anything. Its follow-up, Attack of The Clones (2002), hadn't much of style or grace to recommend it, but Lucas at least seemed to acknowledge the need for improvements: for a start, he demoted to the background Jar Jar Binks, perhaps the most cringingly twee and misbegotten creature ever to wander through a space epic. He also ditched the soporific pacing and, in Christopher Lee's silkily malevolent Count Dooku, introduced a character of some authority (even if he was a belated imitation of Lee's warlord Saruman from The Lord of The Rings).

Too bad, then, that one of his earliest moves in Revenge of The Sith is to bump off Dooku, leaving the story almost bereft of menace. Dooku is actually dispatched by Anakin Skywalker, father to the more famous Luke and the pivotal figure of this concluding episode. Prophesied to be the Chosen One who would set "the Force" to rights, Anakin is gradually being lured to the Dark Side by Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid). There are few young actors who could invest this kind of Mephistophelean pact-in-a-packet (boil in three minutes) with any conviction, and Hayden Christensen sadly isn't one of them.

The film-makers want a hero in whom self-doubt wars with a princely will to power, but they also want a face that will appeal to their core audience of teenagers. Christensen fits the second part just fine, but as with that other poster boy Orlando Bloom in Kingdom of Heaven, we look in vain for a trace of stature or gravitas. This kid has a sullen pout, and nowt much else. His scenes with his secret bride Padme (Natalie Portman) are especially awkward, and it is surely no coincidence that the huge picture windows of their apartment, filled with late sunlight and floating traffic, are more of a distraction than the lead-boots dialogue Lucas has written.

Padme, pregnant with twins, is a woman with more than enough on her plate: the last thing she needs is her husband turning into a galactic tyrant. "I don't recognise you any more," she tells Anakin, who has been caught red-handed slaughtering innocent Jedi, including children. Or, as one of his accusers puts it, "not even the younglings survived".

Younglings? At this point I was reminded of Harrison Ford's famous line to Lucas on reading the first Star Wars script: "George, you can type this shit, but you sure as hell can't say it." Anakin's metamorphosis is complete when he assumes the fetishistic Nazi regalia of that old heavy-breather Darth Vader. Here we have the momentous link between the two generations of Star Wars movies, yet it's been dramatised with so little human interest that you wonder who could possibly care.

Portman is a fine actress who has struggled gamely beneath some of the ugliest costumes and hairstyles since Liz Taylor played Cleopatra back in the Sixties. Ewan McGregor, as the swashbuckling Obi-Wan Kenobi, talks in twittish RP as if he were going tally-bally-ho through a remake of In Which We Serve; when he's not crossing lightsabers with some droid warriors he's riding a digitally created beast whose speed and weightlessness look utterly fake. So much for the vaunted brilliance of Lucas's special effects. Jimmy Smits and Samuel L Jackson hover in the background, trying to kid themselves they're not just part of the scenery. As for the old favourite, Yoda, he drew loud cheers at the screening I attended, though why this bat-faced troll and his silly syntactical inversions ("I hope right you are") should be endearing is beyond me.

It has been put about that Revenge of the Sith offers an oblique commentary on present-day America, another empire that has allowed its democratic ideals to wither in favour of expanding its Dark Side across the globe. I would like to bet that Lucas, master of his own billion-dollar imperium, intended nothing of the sort when he put this juggernaut together. Even if he did, a geopolitical analogy could only work if the film had the necessary ballast to sustain it, and the dismal folly before us plainly has no such grounding.

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I was reminded what this film is really about when a small plastic cylinder tumbled out of my breakfast cereal this morning: a free Lightsaber™ Maze, one of six to collect ("They glow in the dark!"). Revenge of the Sith is simply the outrider of a vast merchandising strategy, a tool with which to sell toys. Ironic, is it not, that a movie so lacking in dramatic finesse should be so steeped in commercial calculation. The bean-counters at Skywalker Ranch will have a field day. The Force, I'm afraid, is definitely with them.

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