In the old-fashioned tradition of saving the best for last, George Lucas' last STAR WARS film is by far the best film of the second trilogy and, heretical though it sounds, may come closest of all the films to achieving the balance between gee-whiz sci-fi spectacle and mythic resonance to which Lucas aspired. Steeped in a bitter sense of promise betrayed and driven by an urgency THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999) and ATTACK OF THE CLONES (2002) sorely lacked, it opens with the democratic galactic alliance in crisis, Supreme Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) consolidating his political capital and Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) increasingly disenchanted with his Jedi masters. Palpatine's request that Anakin serve as his personal representative among the Jedi sets in motion the dark events that will bring forth sinister Lord Darth Vader and the fascistic empire whose oppressive cloud hangs over STAR WARS EPISODE IV: A NEW HOPE (1977). For viewers seeing the films in the order in which they were made (rather than in order of internal chronology), this chapter contains the fewest surprises. Knowing it's the bridge between CLONES and NEW HOPE means knowing, at least in the broad sense, everything that must happen. The Jedi, except for Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and Yoda (the voice of Frank Oz), will die. Soon-to-be-Emperor Palpatine will reveal his true, evil colors, and Anakin will betray his principals and undergo the disfiguring physical transformation into Vader. Padme will die bearing her twins, Luke and Leia, whom Yoda will send off to be raised in separate corners of the troubled universe. There's no excuse for Lucas' utter indifference to nuances of performance and dialogue: The film is marred by unpersuasive performances and wooden dialogue (even with the uncredited intervention of verbally nimble playwright Tom Stoppard). Playing the tragedy of Anakin's seduction by the dark side of the Force is beyond Christensen, who comes off as the same whiny teenager who sulked his way through CLONES in a perpetual snit because his Jedi mentors never let him do anything. And Portman, who's demonstrated formidable range elsewhere, falls short of the regal self-possession and passionate loyalty to an ideal required of child-queen-turned-impassioned-senator Padme Amidala. The actors who acquit themselves best are those capable of calibrating a performance without guidance, and it falls to McGregor and McDiarmid to do most of the emotional heavy lifting. Fortunately, they also share most of Christensen's most demanding scenes, and if their efforts don't haul him up to their level, they at least avert disaster. The battle sequences and lightsaber battles are gripping, and for every scene that doesn't deliver the goods, there's another that hums with surprising intensity: Anakin and Obi-Wan's wrenching face-off on the hellish lava planet Mustafar; the loyal wookiees (yes, including Chewbacca) rescuing Yoda from imperial assassins and sending him into exile on swampy Dagobah; even Vader's Frankenstein-like birth from the ruins of young Anakin packs a genuine punch. The STAR WARS films are glossy pulp fictions, but good pulp is as powerful a force as any in this world or any other, even those far, far away.
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