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A no-bullshit primer to the new (and old) Star Wars

The seventh Star Wars film is so, so close: The official American release date for The Force Awakens is December 18, 2015. And with that in mind, I have a guide for the casual – maybe lapsed? – fan. This is fairly basic (with a few deviations) and contains no information you won’t learn from trailers, commercials or interviews. Unless you have some super-strict definition of what a spoiler is, I am not going to spoil you. At least not for The Force Awakens.

So what do you absolutely need to know? I am a very non-casual fan, but the answer is simple: The movies. Everything else is optional – the cartoons, the books, all the other debris of the giant franchise that invented modern movie merchandising.

Ah, but which movies?

Two trilogies in want of a sequel

There are six Star Wars movies, divided into two trilogies. The first film was released as Star Wars in 1977. It was written and directed by George Lucas, who at the time was best known for American Graffiti. Graffiti did very well, but Star Wars blew into the hemisphere. It not only created modern movie merchandising, it helped (along with Jaws) create the concept of the modern blockbuster. It was a phenomenon, and every subsequent movie has also done very, very well at the box office. (Yes, all of them.)

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Because it’s 2015 and you’re on the internet, I am going to assume you’ve seen the original trilogy – that’s what the first trilogy is commonly called. Star Wars was dubbed A New Hope (Episode IV) when it became obvious a sequel would be called for. That sequel was The Empire Strikes Back (Episode V), directed by Irvin Kershner and usually regarded as the best of the franchise. The third film is Return of the Jedi (Episode VI), directed by Richard Marquand. They star Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker, Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia Organa and Harrison Ford as Han Solo. Darth Vader is in all three; Obi-Wan Kenobi is played by Sir Alec Guinness. Yoda is a puppet.

These are the three you should absolutely rewatch, if you haven’t already, since The Force Awakens takes place about 30 years after Return of the Jedi. Ford, Fisher and Hamill are all reprising their roles. (More on that below.)

The Special Edition quandary
Latest Star Wars OT box setThe versions of the original trilogy you can go into Target or iTunes and buy at this moment will be slightly updated versions of the Special Editions that came out in 1997. (Yes, the one where Han shots first. Or at the same time, now. Here’s a laundry list of the changes through the years, with screencaps: Part 1, part 2.) They’re simply the only quality, fully restored versions of the films that are currently available. And while there are constant rumors about pre-SE versions being restored and released, we have no word on the matter from Lucasfilm or Disney. If you want to see the ‘originals’ legally, you’ll have to get yourself the laserdisc or THX VHS editions from the ’90s, or find copies of the 2006 DVDs. None of these will be great quality – even the DVDs are direct ports from the laserdiscs – but that’s all part of the charm.

The prequel trilogy started in 1999. In order, they are The Phantom Menace (Episode I), Attack of the Clones (Episode II) and Revenge of the Sith (Episode III). All three were directed by George Lucas. They start 32 years before A New Hope and end 19 years before it. (Here’s a basic timeline for the two trilogies, including the time between each film.)

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They star Jake Lloyd (kid) and Hayden Christensen (teen/adult) as Anakin Skywalker, Natalie Portman as Padme Amidala and Ewan MacGregor as Obi-Wan. There’s no Darth Vader until the last one. Yoda is digital, mostly. (If you get an older version of The Phantom Menace, Yoda is a really bad puppet. Replacing him is the only major change made to the prequels since they were in theaters. You know the original puppet was bad because no one complained about the swap.)

The bantha in the room
A lot of people hate the prequels, and the loudest among them tend to hate a lot. I am simply emotionally uninvolved with them, and thus am not one of those Star Wars fans who will tell you you’re wrong about your own opinions. (Well, unless you want to throw down over no-longer-canon novels. We all have our Waterloo.) But for the purposes of The Force Awakens, I certainly think you can get away with not watching them. It’s entirely up to you, of course.

bluraydvd-ptSome people do like the prequels, and that’s okay. As someone who grew up in the 80s, I look at it through what I call the Conan the Destroyer lens: Is Conan the Destroyer a good film? No, not really. But it entertained the hell out of me as a kid, and for that reason I still enjoy it. The prequels are some people’s Conan the Destroyer.

That’s not to say it’s always a kid thing. My friend Bryan Young was about the same age I was back when they came out, and he never stops defending them. (Even Jar Jar. It takes all kinds.) I roll my eyes sometimes, but we’re still friends. It’s possible! (Bryan is one of the hosts of a podcast called Full of Sith. I recommend it, and I promise it’s not wall-to-wall Jar Jar. Usually.)

This dead horse has been thoroughly beaten, though: I’m not sure there’s really anything left to be said about the prequels. And if there is, I’m certainly not interested in saying it, much less debating: Love them or hate them, they exist and will not be going away or remade. And although there’s a lot of focus on the originals recently, Lucasfilm is definitely not ignoring them. If you are new to all this, or want to give them another chance, I recommend reading Jesse Hassenger’s the Star Wars prequels don’t deserve your hatred. If you’re not, just let it go already. (For you, another link: It’s time to stop pretending that the prequels are important.) The past is the past. Particularly now.

I have kids, what order should I show them Star Wars?

First of all, I am not a parent. Second of all, my answer to this kind of question is almost always going to be ‘the order [the things] came out in.’

But. Over on Hitfix, Drew McWeeny does a lovely series called Film Nerd 2.0, about how he shows his two sons movies and how they react to them. In 2011, he did all six Star Wars movie with them (3 and 6 at the time) in this order: A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith and then Return of the Jedi. It seemed to work out well. And since it preserves Empire’s big twist, seems like it might be the best of both worlds.

Good luck with whatever you try.

I just want to know about the new movie!

The Force Awakens (Episode VII) is set 30-some years after the Rebellion defeated the Empire at Endor in Return of the Jedi. It’s directed by J.J. Abrams, who co-wrote the script with Lawrence Kasdan (who also co-wrote Empire and Jedi.) Our heroes are three new characters: Rey (Daisy Ridley,) a scavenger on a desert planet known as Jakku, Finn (John Boyega) a stormtrooper who’s questioning his purpose, and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) an X-wing pilot sent on a mission by General (!) Leia. They run into Han and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and the Millennium Falcon.

We don’t know much about the state of the galaxy as a whole, but we do know Leia and Poe are with a group known as the Resistance. Finn starts out as a soldier of the First Order, which either a remnant or an attempt to revive the Empire. (From supplementary material we have reason to believe there’s a New Republic out there somewhere, but we don’t know if it has a role in the film.) We also know we’ll be visiting a castle that seems to be a new hive of scum and villainy, run by Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o).

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The main villains include Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the guy who wields the funny-looking new lightsaber. He’s working with the First Order’s General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie,) the chrome stormtrooper. Ren has a red lightsaber, but he’s not a Sith like Darth Vader – he gets his surname from a group called the Knights of Ren. Hux and Ren both report to a mysterious figure known as Supreme Commander Snoke (Andy Serkis.)

Where’s Luke?
tfa-artoo-lighterLuke Skywalker is not ‘missing’ from the movie’s merchandising because they forgot him. This is deliberate. And contrary to the theories floating around, Luke is not Kylo Ren. They are not trying to trick you. This is not a Benedict-Cumberbatch-is-actually-playing-Khan situation.

The galaxy looks different, but things have evolved. The stormtrooper armor looks heavier, more durable. The X-wings are sleekier, and the engines on the wings open differently. BB-8 could be Artoo’s kid, if one assumes that a droid can reproduce with a soccer ball. (It’s a space opera. If things don’t get a little weird, you’re doing it wrong.)

Run the tapes

There have been several trailers. The first debuted just over a year ago and gave us our first look at Finn, BB-8, Rey, Poe and Kylo. The voiceover is Snoke, who we still haven’t seem.

The second teaser came out at the last official Star Wars convention, Celebration Anaheim, in April. The voiceover is Luke dialogue from from Return of the Jedi, and we finally see Luke and Leia… Sort of. The real highlight: “Chewie… We’re home.”

The third trailer came out in October, and it gives us more grounding on Rey, Finn and Kylo. The voiceover is Maz Kanata.

That was supposed to be the last, but then we got a Japanese one:

There’s also a couple of great behind-the-scenes videos. The first debuted at San Diego Comic Con in July:

And the second over the weekend:

Further reading

Since we’re in the home stretch, a lot of great articles are coming out. Here are the highlights.

Entertainment Weekly is (so far) the media MVP. For their most recent Star Wars cover story, web features on everything from Leia’s new title to what the bad guys are up to and telling us the most about Maz since we first learned her name way back in May. They interviewed Ford and Ridley and Boyega. (Plus a killer photo gallery.) And back in August, they revealed the question at the heart of the film, what’s in the names and all about Kylo Ren.

→ EW had some competition from Wired. They have a good J.J. Abrams interview and an epic collection of armor and prop photos and a story about how Star Wars is never going to end.

Where’s George?
glGeorge Lucas was developing Episode VII before he sold Lucasfilm to Disney in 2012. He set up Kathleen Kennedy as his successor at the helm of the company, hired the film’s first screenwriter, Michael Arndt, and got returning stars Ford, Fisher and Hamill on board. He even originally planned to direct it. But after the sale he stepped away, and has little to do with the new film – in fact, he likens it to a divorce in the Washington Post. He’s since seen The Force Awakens, and according to according the Kennedy “he really liked it.”

→ The Los Angeles Times on the women of Star Wars, both in front of and behind the camera. They also did a fantastic interview with screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan.

rsRolling Stone’s fabulous behind-the-scenes cover story.

→ This is going back a bit, but the Vanity Fair feature and portfolio shouldn’t be missed. (Annie Leibovitz movie set photos are ridiculously pretentious and I love them for it.)

→ Carrie Fisher has been hilarious on the press tour. Vulture has the highlights.

If you want something heavier on Star Wars history and fandom, I recommend picking up Chris Taylor’s How Star Wars Conquered the Universe. It came out in paperback not too long ago with some additional material (I reviewed the hardcover) and it’s an excellent primer on all this.

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