Thursday's release of "Episode III: Revenge of the Sith" marks the onscreen arrival of pop culture's most familiar villain, Darth Vader, at the same time as it formally drops the curtain on the "Star Wars" feature-film franchise that began in 1977. The final installment of the six-part saga, which began with episodes IV to VI and then continued with two prequels, links two generations of Skywalkers, Jedis, and a host of other familiar figures such as the Wookies.
The sheer size and longevity of director George Lucas's vision alone rank "Star Wars" as unique in movie history. To date, the franchise has grossed nearly $3.5 billion worldwide at the box office. But the impact of Lucas's story about a distant galaxy of princesses, knights, and evil lords cannot be measured solely in monetary terms. Even the (numerous) critics of the series acknowledge that "Star Wars" has redefined entertainment with an impact as keenly felt today as when it debuted back in the era when John Travolta was king of the disco floor.