Spurred by an Internet campaign, 390,000 people who responded to the 2001 British Census claimed their religious affiliation to be “Jedi Knight,” ranking it fifth after Christian, None, Muslim and Hindu. Although the U.S. Census Bureau does not solicit information about faith, it goes without saying that Star Wars occupies near divine status in the panoply of Americana. Devotees quote lines from the films as if reciting scripture, and the level of consternation that greeted George Lucas’ DVD alterations of the original trilogy was akin to protests over revised versions of the Holy Bible. Still, what has been forgotten in the preoccupation with action figures and box office tallies is the pivotal place Star Wars holds in cinematic history. Before 1977, so-called “space movies” were typically grim and Earth-centric, involving either humankind’s journey into the great unknown–Forbidden Planet, 2001: A Space Odyssey–or, more often, travelers with mysterious motives visiting our world–The Day the Earth Stood Still and the contemporaneous Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The special effects usually consisted of flying saucers or slow-moving monoliths, so the notion of an action film set in the cosmos was foreign and, some thought, unworkable.

Lucas changed everything in what is now ignominiously, if practically, referred to as Episode IV. Its success, around which the entire series is built, stemmed from a blending of both old and new styles of moviemaking. The story and characterization harkens back to the 1930s and 40s, particularly the sci-fi serials of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, yet Lucas draws heavily from sundry religious influences for concepts such as the Force (and its conflicting sides), evil in the form of a fallen deity, and the search for redemption. Lucas’ newly minted Industrial Light & Magic crafted cutting edge, fast-moving visuals, but also skillfully employed seemingly antiquated techniques such as wipe edits and Paramount Pictures’ Vistavision format. Sound was recorded in then brand new Dolby stereo, but John Williams’ score marked a return to old-style symphonic film music.

Moreover, Stars Wars and, more chiefly, its successors, The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi, ushered in the era of the “event movie,” a phenomenon that once flowed from the masses up that studios have since inverted into a tool for front-loaded opening weekends and retail merchandising.

Whether fueled by some unrealized fulfillment or the desire for a lucrative retirement, Lucas’ return to his galaxy far, far away in Episode I: Phantom Menace and Episode II: Attack of the Clones has widely been seen as an extravagant vanity project that may have reintroduced Star Wars to a new generation of filmgoers and overflowed Lucasfilm’s coffers, but at the cost of the saga’s soul.

It is against this backdrop that Lucas presents Stars Wars: Episode III–Revenge of the Sith, the final chapter (?). Many disillusioned fans are prepared to greet it with a collective sigh and “good riddance.” Seemingly, only the diehards remain, the ones who derive joy not from the films themselves, but from the shared experience of dressing up like a Wookie and waiting in line for hours in order to see them.

Revenge of the Sith still has its share of digital diversions, disconnected interplanetary hopscotching, hokey dialogue and stilted acting. But hey, so did Episode IV. What’s dramatically different is that Episode III appreciates and exploits its Greek tragic underpinning with a focus not seen since Return of the Jedi.

It’s not like we don’t know what is going to happen in Episode III–it is how Lucas executes the fall of Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) and birth of Darth Vader that we really want to see. The remarkable result is a sturdy linchpin of what can now legitimately be considered a six-part epic saga second in scope to only The Godfather trilogy. Like Coppola’s magnum opus, which transitioned from the story of Vito Corleone into that of son Michael, Episode III completes Lucas’ goal–transforming Star Wars from the maturation of Luke Skywalker into the rise, fall and rebirth of Anakin. It even manages to redeem Episodes I and II, which, while still barely palatable, are now rightly seen as necessary prologues introducing us to time, place and character.

In fact, save for the separatist droid leader General Grievous, the villain du jour, this is the only movie in the entire series not to debut a main character, which allows for more time dedicated to the measured narrative progression sorely needed in this chapter.

Lucas’ promise of a “darker” film, justifiably suspect as another marketing ploy, is one that is both kept and welcome. Anakin doesn’t start eating the livers of dead Jedi with fava beans and a nice Chianti, nor does Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson, still miscast) drop his lightsaber, pull out a gat, and start bellowing Ezekiel 25:17. However, the amount of death and dismemberment reaches copious levels, including a shocking amount of beheadings that the camera lingers over long enough so the audience is aware of what happened without risking an R-rating.

Once Anakin converts to discipleship under Chancellor Palpatine, aka Darth Sidious (Ian McDiarmid, whose early scenes of serpentine seduction are the first to herald a dramatic triumph) and helps him seize control of the Republic, the treatment given to the Jedi is stark, including a scene involving “younglings” that would be unthinkable in earlier Star Wars movies and unimaginable in anything ever made by Steven Spielberg.

For all its shaded stylings, the bulk of Episode III is still an appetizer for its inevitable climax, which is initiated by a pair of contrasting duels. If the showdown between Yoda and the Emperor is for show, then the battle between Anakin and his erstwhile mentor and surrogate brother, Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor, the real star of Episodes I-III), is for dough. It is here that Revenge of the Sith reaches its operatic verve, the tragic culmination of Anakin’s willing surrender to ego, power and a manipulated concept of love.

Even more surprising is that their clash also adds new emotional layers onto much of Episodes IV-VI, particularly the battles between Luke and Vader and especially the reunion of Obi-Wan and Vader in Episode IV. Indeed, Episode III gives Vader’s later, seemingly oblique references to Obi-Wan’s “failure” new resonance.

The epilogue to Episode III incorporates an oft-used birth/death juxtaposition that assumes greater import because it feeds not merely off the fundamental thread connecting the opening triumvirate–the romance between Anakin and Padme (Natalie Portman, never given a chance to showcase her talent)–but also portends the central conflict of the trilogy to come. It’s a transitional, transfiguring scene that, while hackneyed by half, may well be the defining moment of the entire saga.

In simultaneously linking all six chapters thematically and emotionally while pooling the audience’s knowledge of events to come, Lucas pulls off his most adroit maneuver. Like Darth Vader’s epiphany at the conclusion of Return of the Jedi, Lucas waits until the end to show us that, in Luke Skywalker’s words, “There’s still good in him.”