to run on or after sunday may 15It's over.After 28 years of Star Wars - after all the "May the Force be with yous," the earnest college papers citing the linkage between Joseph Campbell and Yoda, the jokes about Princess Leia's twin-cinnamon-bun 'do - George Lucas' space saga, six titles and thousands of sliced-and-diced storm troopers later, has come to a close.

Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith, (two stars out of four) the third of the prequels Lucas began writing in the mid-1990s as back-story for the original trilogy, is upon us. And with it, the hype, the merch, and the search for meaning.

For Lucas loyalists, the Final Act offers fantastic flyovers of exotic planets, awesome flying ships, and the kind of state-of-the-art effects you'd expect from the guy who made jumping into hyperspace a must-do moviegoing experience. For the casual viewer who feels like maybe all the Sith hoopla is worth checking out, well, it's like tuning in to the season finale of 24 without having watched a minute of its lead-up episodes.

As for the big revelation of Episode III - that Darth Vader is Anakin Skywalker and hence the father of Jedi-to-be Luke Skywalker - that's old news. All that's left for the diehard fans, and for the vaguely interested, to know: What seismic event, what grand dilemma, caused Anakin to cross over to the Dark Side?

This we learn in Episode III, along with the fact that Lucas still can't write. His dialogue crashes and burns like an X-wing zapped out of the sky by a star destroyer. Shameless cliches ("Our worst fears have been realized") clank around with achingly awful love scenes ("Hold me like you did by the lake on Naboo"), while time-wasting minutiae ("Tell Captain Kagi to prepare my shuttle for immediate takeoff") share script-pages with second-clause-first Yoda-speak ("To fight this Lord Sidious, strong enough you are not," cautions the little green guy).

And speaking of Yoda: Strangle the wrinkled, kiwifruited sage audiences will want to, by the end of Revenge, I predict. (And, anyway, if Yoda is such a cosmic smartypants, why can't he speak in proper sentences like everyone else?)

Episode III begins with a lengthy battle in the skies above the city-planet Coruscant, during which jaunty Jedi knights engage in hyperspeed dogfights with vulture droids - part of General Grievous' vast army of mechanized goons. Two of the jauntiest Jedis - Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor, sounding like he's just come from an Alec Guinness immersion course) and Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) - are out to rescue Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), a move they might live to regret. After all, isn't there an uncanny resemblance between the bland bureaucrat of the Republic and that cowled Sith lord, the insidious one?

But a Jedi must do what a Jedi must do, which is mostly the trading of quips while lightsabering one's way through hordes of droids. Can fight scenes get any duller than this, when everybody knows that the enemy, no matter how large, will tumble and fall in a pile of robotic ineptitude?

Much intergalactic intrigue ensues. Natalie Portman, as ex-queen, ex-senator Padmé, wears regal couture and even some kind of equestrian jodhpurs at one point as she gets to tell her secret Jedi beau, Anakin, that she's pregnant. (She calls him "Annie" - isn't that cute?) Then she gets to act huffy in the face of Palpatine's despotic coup as he dismantles democracy in the name of security. ("So this is how liberty dies - with thunderous applause," Padmé says, full of bitter rue.) Later, she must face her cold and strange Jedi husband and say: "I don't know you anymore, Anakin. You're breaking my heart."

We won't even go into the third-act Polis Massa Med Center scene, other than to quote this gem of a diagnosis from one of the attending droid docs: "Medically, she is completely healthy. . . . [But] she has lost the will to live."

She's not alone, bud!

Christensen, for his part, undergoes the change from noble warrior to corrupted soul with clenched jaw and stony stare meant to speak volumes, and doesn't say anything at all. The guy has less heft than DiCaprio, although it's unlikely any actor, no matter how talented, could transcend the ponderous hooey of Lucas' pen and PC.

The trouble with Revenge and the other prequels (and, to some extent, 1983's Return of the Jedi) is that Lucas, having shaken up the pop-cult universe with his deft mix of vintage cliffhanger, dazzling special effects, and cowboys-in-space scenarios, started taking himself way too seriously. When PBS brainiac Bill Moyers compares Campbell's The Hero With a Thousand Faces to Lucas' Homage With a Thousand Sources, when every youngling goes to bed in Star Wars pj's and the coffers of Twentieth Century Fox and LucasFilm swell with box office, home video and ancillary revenues, a modicum of self-consciousness is bound to set in.

And then you get scenes like "Execute Order Sixty-Six," in which Lucas takes a page from his old cohort Francis Coppola, serving up a montage of brutal, businesslike assassinations, backed by doleful, operatic music, as one Jedi after another is rounded up and exterminated. It's The Godfather's baptism scene, minus Michael Corleone's cold-blooded Shakespearean gloom.

To be fair, there are shards of fun left in the series. The metamorphosis of Anakin to Darth, in the aftermath of a fiery face-off on the lava planet of Mustafar, has echoes of Frankenstein (the operating table, the clamps, the lumbering bod) that are truly exhilarating. And that first close-up of the iconic helmet-mask of Darth Vader, Anakin's makeover complete, is profoundly cool.

And then it's over. Really. Truly.

May divorce - from lightsabers, from Luke, from Lucas - be with you.

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/stevenrea.

Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith ** (Out of four stars)

Produced by Rick McCallum, written and directed by George Lucas, cinematography by David Tattersall, music by John Williams, distributed by Twentieth Century Fox Films.

Running time: 2 hours, 20 mins.

Anakin Skywalker. . . Hayden Christensen

Obi-Wan Kenobi. . . Ewan McGregor

Padmé. . . Natalie Portman

Palpatine. . . Ian McDiarmid

Mace Windu. . . Samuel L. Jackson

Parent's guide: PG-13 (violence, darkness)

Playing at: area theaters on Thursday