'Sith' is actually a pretty kickass movie

Everybody knows how it is going to end. But what "Star Wars" fans are dying to know is precisely how it all unfolds. Or, more specifically, what terrible deeds will Anakin Skywalker carry out on his way to becoming Darth Vader?

Star Wars fans left unimpressed by the lackluster Episodes I and II can only hope George Lucas has been saving all the good stuff for the last film. The only kind of drama Lucas managed to create in the first two prequels was from filling in the blanks in the backstory. The real question this time is whether or not Lucas has created a compelling story that can stand on its own.

By comparison, "Revenge of the Sith" is much more satisfying than either Episodes I or II. On its own, however, the film doesn't stand up well against upper tier Hollywood movies. Episode III suffers from the same shortcomings - bad dialogue, wooden acting, slow pacing, and incomprehensible plotting - that its two recent predecessors did, just not as much.

As the Clone Wars draw to a close, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) is sent by the Jedi Council to defeat Separatist droid army leader General Grievous. Meanwhile, Chancellor Palpatine's unlimited "emergency" powers in the Senate are still in effect after three years, and he entrusts his dark secrets to Anakin (Hayden Christensen), with promises of unlimited power.

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Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith ***

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The sixth and final installment in the Star Wars series is the darkest yet, and the only with a PG-13 rating. Though everyone knows Anakin Skywalker's development into Darth Vader is the focus of the movie, the story of how he gets there is about as dramatic as the series gets.

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Part of the problem with these prequels is that the Republic and the Jedi face a "phantom menace." The Jedi sense a powerful disturbance in the Force, but nobody can figure out who its been coming from. Impossibly, it's all been right under their supposedly highly developed noses. Meanwhile, Palpatine divides and conquers the Republic through many tedious maneuverings in the Senate. All of this tiresome plotting comes to a head in Episode III.

Lucas brings all of his democracy-turns-totalitarian government parallels full circle, as the Senate, believing their leader's request for complete control to be just, extends his autocratic rule, turning the Chancellor into the Emperor and leading Amidala (Natalie Portman) to mourn, "So this is how liberty dies - with thunderous applause."

Rumor has it that "Shakespeare in Love" writer Tom Stoppard did an uncredited polish on Lucas' dialogue. Whether its true or not, the difference in the lines and the delivery from the actors is a noticeable improvement, though still quite stiff at times. Ian McDiarmid stands out by portraying Palpatine's slithery advances as both slimy and seductive while he lures Anakin - who is continually frustrated by the Jedi Council's lack of faith in him - to the Dark Side of the Force. Anakin's fall has him executing awful, unforgivable deeds, earning the series' its first - and quite justified - PG-13 rating.

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McGregor, the only saving grace of "Attack of the Clones," really comes into his own here. Kenobi is the true conscience of the film, and his inability to keep Anakin Dark Side feels truly tragic. While the Jedi Council's inability to see through the Chancellor's true intentions is hardly believable, McGregor's convincing performance shepherds us through an improbable narrative. He is the most divided of all the humorless Jedi, and his desperate scream during the final lightsaber battle is chilling.

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It is a peculiar thing to have so much of the drama in a feature film derive from an audience's knowledge of previous films in the series. As Lucas settles this final installment into the "Star Wars" legend, he ties up some pre-existing lines and plot points in an extended conclusion that had more fake endings than "The Return of the King." Despite the valiant effort to connect the dots to the 1977 original, diehard "Star Wars" fans will still be left puzzled by some choices that render scenes from the first trilogy quite anachronistic.

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In "Revenge of the Sith," more than before, Lucas is able to capitalize on all the previous exposition and actually move beyond it to create a more emotional experience than either "The Phantom Menace" or "Attack of the Clones." He can be more easily forgiven, then, for not completely ironing out all the rough spots. Lucas has conjured up a prequel that ends the Vader saga on a mostly satisfactory high note.

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