CANNES, May 15: The last episode of the seminal sci-fi saga “Star Wars” screened at the Cannes film festival on Sunday, completing a six-part series that remains a major part of popular culture — and delivering a galactic jab to US President George W. Bush. “Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith” was seen ahead of a celebrity-laden evening screening to be attended by its creator and director, George Lucas, and its cast, including Natalie Portman and Hayden Christensen.

Reaction at advance screenings was effusive, with festival-goers, critics and journalists at Cannes applauding at the moment the infamous Darth Vader came into being.

But there were also murmurs at the parallels being drawn between Bush’s administration and the birth of the space opera’s evil Empire.

Baddies’ dialogue about bloodshed and despicable acts being needed to bring “peace and stability” to the movie’s universe, mainly through a fabricated war, set the scene.

And then came the zinger, with the protagonist, Anakin Skywalker, saying just before becoming Darth Vader: “You are either with me — or you are my enemy.”

To the Cannes audience, often sympathetic to anti-Bush messages in cinema as last year’s triumph here of Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” attested, that immediately recalled Bush’s 2001 ultimatum, “You’re either with us or against us in the fight against terror.”

Lucas, speaking to reporters, emphasised that the original “Star Wars” was written at the end of the Vietnam war, when Richard Nixon was US president, but that the issue being explored was still very much alive today.

“The issue was, how does a democracy turn itself into a dictatorship?” he said.

“When I wrote it, Iraq (the US-led war) didn’t exist... (but) the parallels of what we did in Vietnam and Iraq are unbelievable.”

He acknowledged an uncomfortable feeling that the United States was in danger of losing its democratic ideals, like in the movie.

“I didn’t think it was going to get this close. I hope this doesn’t come true in our country.”

Although he didn’t mention Bush by name, Lucas took what sounded like another dig while explaining the transformation of the once-good Anakin Skywalker to the very bad Darth Vader.

“Most bad people think they’re good people,” he said.

The political message, though, was for the most part subsumed by the action and heroics the series — set “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” — is known for.

And for fans hungry for a last look at “Star Wars” elevated above the disappointing two other films that preceded “Sith”, it was satisfying closure.

“Whatever one thought of the previous two instalments, this dynamic picture irons out most of the problems, and emerges as the best in the overall series since ‘The Empire Strikes Back’,” the Hollywood trade magazine Variety said.

The buzz meant the movie was the hottest ticket at Cannes this year. It also signalled the end of a cinematic era for a generation of filmgoers.

“Revenge of the Sith” is the last of three prequels to the landmark trilogy that burst onto the screens in 1977, 1980 and 1983.

It is in fact the middle episode of the epic story arc, explaining the events that led young Luke Skywalker to battle Darth Vader in order to save Princess Leia, before going on to vanquish the Empire.

Its success could be measured in the claps and smiles in the theatre, which were light years away from the tepid response engendered by the first two prequels, released in 1999 and 2002, widely panned for their boring exposition and wooden dialogue.

Christensen, who plays Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader, and Portman, who plays his wife, gave mercifully improved performances, although they like the rest of the cast remained secondary to spectacular battles.

Audiences worldwide will be seeing the movie when it opens Wednesday and Thursday — a chance to touch base one more time with a fantasy that has accompanied a generation. —AFP

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