For those who never tossed out their toy light saber or put a stuffed Yoda in a yard sale, May 19 is a red-letter day.
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.
"'Star Wars' legacy is almost too extensive to grasp," says Richard Dorment, editor at Giant Magazine, which covers popular culture. "It ushered in a new age of special effects and digital sorcery that brought moviegoers to theaters in droves."
During the '70s, films took on a grittier, harder-edged realism that often featured complex antiheroes. With Lucas's vision, Mr. Dorment says, "audiences saw an out-of-this-world creation that was unlike anything anyone had ever seen."
Lucas reintroduced broadly drawn myths into the public consciousness with a focus on good versus evil and unambiguous heroes. It's a mark of the film's prominence that even politicians tried to tap into "the Force."
"When President Reagan branded the Soviet Union an 'evil empire,' I don't believe his word choice was coincidental," says Dorment. "For most Americans, 'empire' had no context outside of 'Star Wars' and it helped cast the cold war in terms that young people could understand."
To some, the films are guilty of recycling a watered-down version of the same subjects one finds in, say, The Iliad. But this "dumbing down" of literature's great themes has been a double edged, well, light saber for the world of sci-fi, says Bob Madison, president of Dinoship, a science-fiction publishing house. "It's been good in that science-fiction films were finally made respectable, to a degree," he says. "But bad, because it turned science-fiction films into popcorn movies for adolescents."
Ever since "Star Wars" pioneered the blockbuster - big box-office movies dominated by special effects - Hollywood has built its business on "event" pictures. That's led the industry down a perilous path to the dark side of modern consumerism, says Mr. Madison. "It's in this respect that 'Star Wars' has probably had the most influence over American moviemaking," he says. "Films are now package deals, involving restaurant tie-ins, toys figurines, and knickknacks. It's almost as if the film is an afterthought."
A now gray-haired Lucas, who began his career making low-budget experimental films, is unapologetic about the massive reach his films have had. "Movies started as special effects," he says, sitting in a soundstage at Skywalker Ranch, in the town of Nicasio in Marin County. "That's what wowed an audience. It was like a big magic act for early audiences."
In the early years, filmmakers focused on giant spectacles, with as many props and costumes as they could afford. But by the 1950s, special effects had become prohibitively expensive. By the '70s, says Lucas, the major studios still had no special effects departments. When Lucas embarked on the first "Star Wars" films, he had a limited arsenal of special effects at his disposal. The budget was a paltry $13 million, hardly an ideal sum to help him bring his complex vision to life.
"I barely scraped by," he says. "Everything was designed to be on a very limited set of one or two spots, either the desert and the Death Star, or [the planet] Hoth and the Death Star, or the redwoods and the Death Star."
Nevertheless, the filmmaker persevered in developing cutting-edge visuals through his own Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) special-effects division for episodes 4-6. After he finished those films, he decided to take a break, raise his three children, and then perhaps return to directing with his own more experimental works. But then ILM helped create "Jurassic Park," and its digital world of living, breathing dinosaurs changed his mind.
"We were able to create a completely digital character that looked completely photorealistic," says Lucas. "I said, 'I bet I could take that and make that act, other than just open its mouth and growl.' " He realized he could finally create the complicated backstory of the first three films of the series, filling out a story that he says was always meant to be bigger than the tale of Luke and Leia. The advance in special effects made it easier for the filmmaker to create alien worlds. But he stresses that technology was never more important than the story of political maneuvering in a vast galaxy.
The movies are informed by the lessons of history, says Lucas. The point of the "Star Wars" mythology is "that you start out in a democracy, [which] turns into a dictatorship, and rebels make it back into a democracy," he says. "That's the über-issue everyone is dealing with."
The director developed the story during the post-Watergate years. Stories about way power corrupts, often due to a lack of public vigilance, repeat themselves throughout history, Lucas adds, citing Caesar and Napoleon. "You have the personal issue of Anakin [Skywalker, aka Darth Vader] and his turn to the dark side and his children bringing him back to being a human being, but the larger issue is the fact that you've given up your democracy. It was never a thing where the bad guys just take over. It was a always a thing where it was given to them," he adds.
The final movie was shot and edited in an entirely digital environment, says Rick McCallum, producer of the final three episodes. He says despite criticism of the films, including the oft-repeated claim that the dialogue and actors are wooden, Lucas can be proud of his achievements. By pushing the boundaries of the special-effects world, Lucas brought back the ability to realize all sorts of new ideas, says Mr. McCallum, not just space movies, but "all kinds of movies that didn't exist before."
It's "Star Wars" weekend here at Legoland, just north of San Diego, and 8-year-old Rhett Lauman is dressed to the hilt of his plastic light saber. "I'm a Jedi," he says, turning proudly to display his young Anakin outfit: a tan monk's tunic with a leather belt.
Rhett, who is eagerly waiting to be photographed with Darth Vader, is one of the thousands of "Star Wars" fans across the world who love to don costumes in homage to their favorite onscreen heroes and villains. It's not just kids, though. Plenty of adults dress up as the characters - not just on Halloween, but throughout the year as a way to express their fandom for the series.
Today, dozens of those "reenactors" from the 501st Legion Costuming Group, a fan-based volunteer corps, are roaming the park, which is showing off its new line of "Star Wars" themed Legos.
Their costumes are all considered "canon," meaning the owners have spent hundreds of their own dollars to dress themselves "correctly." The garb can range from storm trooper outfits to masks of aliens that have appeared in background scenes. The 501st group numbers more than 3,100 members in more than 220 countries, including men and women ages 18 to 60, says Michael Washko, the legion's membership officer.
Mr. Washko's own outfits include an Imperial Storm trooper, a Tusken Raider, and a Royal Guard. He points out that because the costumes are accurate replicas, Lucasfilm frequently taps the group to represent the films at places as varied as hospital charity events and theme parks.
Mike Senna, a member of the 501st, is a self-described "techie." He has constructed a fully operational R2D2 droid, which he controls remotely, that is posing for photos alongside Darth Vader.
Mr. Senna says his favorite "Star Wars" moment in the park had happened a moment earlier, when another young park guest arrived dressed as the adult Anakin. "Someone mentioned to him the fact that the grown-up Anakin is actually Darth Vader," says Senna. He had already considered that fact, he said, and was ready for the transformation. He figured he would dress as Anakin up until May 19. "Then," says Senna with a laugh, "once the last movie actually opens, he would dress as Darth Vader from that point on."
Big knots of families and movie characters will gather over the park all weekend. It's not just kids posing for the pictures. "Star Wars" reaches across the generations, says Mark Lauman, Rhett's dad. "I like that whole good and evil thing," he says, although he's already decided his son will have to wait to see the PG-13 rated "Sith."
Rhett says he can wait. "I just like the Force, because it's really about power that's more than just weapons," he says.
Mike Senna stands under a tree watching as Rhett and his father get closer in line. "Everyone likes this story," he says. " 'Star Wars' is everybody's space myth."