With “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” about to become the biggest film in the world, now is a perfect time for casual moviegoers to brush up on their basic Star Wars knowledge.
There’s a lot to wrap one’s head around — not all of it of equal importance. You don’t have to be able to debate the merits of the “Machete Order” vs. “Episode Order” or have read all of Marvel’s recent canonical Star Wars comics, but not knowing certain key details could definitely take away from the new movie, which picks up 30 years after the events of 1983’s “Return of the Jedi."
So with that in mind, here’s a primer for the Star Wars novices out there — the “padawan,” one might say — including a few potential conversation starters to help bridge the gap with hardcore Star Wars fans while waiting in line or sitting in the theater.
As nearly everyone of a certain age can probably recite from memory, the Star Wars saga takes place “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” In other words, despite its frequent classification as “science fiction,” it’s pure fantasy.
The original trilogy (Episodes IV-VI) involves an interplanetary battle between the evil Empire (modeled after Nazi Germany) and the noble Rebel Alliance, but at its core, the Star Wars Saga is a multigenerational melodrama about the Skywalker family.
The key element that defines the Star Wars universe is the Force. The Force comes in two flavors: Light Side (good) and Dark Side (bad).
As Obi-Wan Kenobi defines it in “Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope,” “The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.”
And the tool of the Jedi, of course, is the lightsaber, “an elegant weapon for a more civilized age.”
The main characters
• Luke Skywalker: The hero of George Lucas’ original trilogy, beginning with “Episode IV — A New Hope,” Luke starts as a whiny farm boy on the desert planet Tatooine but transforms into a rock star Jedi Knight dressed entirely in black.
In “Episode V — The Empire Strikes Back,” after Luke has his lightsaber-wielding hand chopped off by Darth Vader, it is revealed (in one of the most misquoted lines in movie history) that Darth Vader is in fact Luke’s father. In “Episode VI — Return of the Jedi,” Luke — now sporting a cool mechanical hand — defeats Vader in a duel, but only by momentarily sipping from the rage-filled juice box that is the Dark Side of the Force.
Most famous line: “I am a Jedi, like my father before me” (from “Return of the Jedi”).
Conversation starter: Luke Skywalker himself, Mark Hamill, lost a whopping 50 pounds in order to reprise his role for “The Force Awakens” (via ABC News).
• Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker: The Star Wars saga’s tragic hero-turned-villain. Audiences first encountered Vader as Emperor Palpatine’s right-hand man. The prequels, however, delved into his past as a young boy rescued from indentured servitude by a pair of Jedi: Qui-Gon Jinn and a young Obi-Wan Kenobi.
There’s also some weird stuff involving a prophecy about a “Chosen One” and Anakin possibly being the product of immaculate conception, but for most audiences, it’s enough to know that Anakin’s turning to the Dark Side was motivated, however misguidedly, by love for Natalie Portman's Padme.
In the final minutes of “Return of the Jedi,” Anakin/Darth Vader manages to redeem himself, saving Luke from the evil Emperor Palpatine before, presumably, being incinerated when the second Death Star gets blown to pieces.
Most famous line: “The Force is strong with this one” (from “A New Hope”).
Conversation starter: Altogether, as many as five actors brought Anakin/Darth Vader to life on the big screen: Jake Lloyd (young Anakin, Episode I), Hayden Christensen (young adult Anakin, Episodes II-III), David Prowse (Darth Vader, Episodes IV-VI), James Earl Jones (Darth Vader’s voice, Episodes IV-VI) and Sebastian Shaw (adult Anakin, Episode VI).
• Obi-Wan Kenobi : Luke’s mentor in “A New Hope,” a substantially younger Obi-Wan also trained Anakin — and eventually chopped off his legs and left him to burn inside a volcano — before the whole Darth Vader thing.
While trying to rescue Princess Leia, Obi-Wan is killed by Vader, but he reappears throughout the original trilogy, sometimes as just a voice, other times as a “Force ghost,” giving Luke helpful advice.
Most famous line: Either “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for” or “Use the force, Luke” (both from “A New Hope”).
Conversation starter: George Lucas’ original pick for the role of Obi-Wan was “Seven Samurai” and “Yojimbo” actor Toshiro Mifune (via The Guardian).
• Princess Leia Organa: A leader in the Rebel Alliance and, as Luke discovers in a major third-act twist in “Return of the Jedi,” Luke’s twin sister.
Most famous line: Either “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope” or “Aren’t you a little short for a Stormtrooper?” (both from “A New Hope”).
Conversation starter: The origin of Leia’s iconic cinnamon-bun hairdo from “A New Hope” is a bit of a mystery. Lucas’ own explanation — that it’s a “kind of Southwestern Pancho Villa woman revolutionary look” — has been pretty much debunked. According to Attendly, other possible sources of inspiration range from a traditional hairstyle worn by unmarried Hopi girls to the 1955 war movie “The Dambusters” to Flash Gordon comics.
• Han Solo: Everyone’s favorite scoundrel and the pilot of the Millennium Falcon. By “The Empire Strikes Back,” Han has become a valuable leader in the Rebel Alliance alongside Leia, with whom he eventually falls in love.
Most famous line: “I know” (in response to Princess Leia saying “I love you” in “The Empire Strikes Back”).
Conversation starter: In the original script for “Return of the Jedi,” Han was supposed to die halfway through the movie during a raid on an Imperial base. Lucas opted not to kill him out of fear that it might damage toy sales. For years (including as recently as 2010), Harrison Ford maintained that that was a mistake (via ABC News).
• Chewbacca: Also known as Chewie, he is Han Solo’s co-pilot on the Millennium Falcon.
Most famous line: “GGGWARRRHHWWWW” (from “The Empire Strikes Back”).
Conversation starter: The original inspiration for Chewie was Lucas’ dog, an Alaskan malamute named Indiana — yup, the same dog that gave Indiana Jones his name.
• C-3PO: A protocol droid originally created by a young Anakin Skywalker.
Most famous line: “I suggest a new strategy, R2: Let the Wookiee win” (from “A New Hope”).
Conversation starter: Original Star Wars concept artist Ralph McQuarrie based his designs for C-3PO off of the Maschinenmensch from Fritz Lang’s silent classic “Metropolis.”
• R2-D2: An astromech droid and C-3PO’s partner in crime. In “A New Hope,” Leia uses R2 to smuggle stolen plans for the Death Star to members of the rebellion, setting in motion the events of the original trilogy.
Most famous line: Too many to choose from.
Conversation starter: According to Slashfilm, R2-D2 almost appeared alongside Batman, Gandalf, Shaq, etc. as one of the Master Builders in “The Lego Movie.”
• Lando Calrissian: A former smuggler/gambler and one of Han Solo’s old pals, in “The Empire Strikes Back,” he betrays Han and Leia to the Empire, which leads to Luke’s dramatic confrontation with Vader. Lando subsequently joins the Alliance and becomes a valuable part of the assault on the second Death Star, captaining the Millennium Falcon.
Most famous line: “Why, you slimy, double-crossing, no-good swindler. You got a lot of guts comin' here after what you pulled” (to Han Solo in “The Empire Strikes Back”).
Conversation starter: Before Han, Lando was the Millennium Falcon’s owner. He lost it to Han in a card game.
• Emperor Palpatine: Also known as Darth Sidious, “The Phantom Menace” or just plain old “The Emperor,” Palpatine is the Big Bad of the Star Wars saga. After luring Anakin to the Dark Side, he very nearly manages to completely wipe out the Jedi Order in “Episode III — Revenge of the Sith.”
In “Return of the Jedi,” he attempts to turn Luke to the Dark Side just like Anakin before him, and when that doesn’t work, he tries to electrocute him with “Force lightning.” Vader intervenes, throwing Palpatine down the Death Star’s reactor shaft, presumably killing him for good.
Most famous line: “There is a great disturbance in the Force” (from “The Empire Strikes Back”).
Conversation starter: British actor Ian McDiarmid, who, while still in his 30s, first played the Emperor in “Return of the Jedi,” reprised the role 16 years later for Lucas’ prequel trilogy, this time playing a Palpatine 20 years younger (via IMDB).
• Yoda: A powerful Jedi master with backwards syntax. During the prequel trilogy, Yoda was the head of the Jedi Council. After “Revenge of the Sith,” he goes into hiding on the swampy planet Dagobah.
In “The Empire Strikes Back,” Luke seeks Yoda out and trains with him until he senses that his friends are in danger, at which point he leaves before his training is finished.
Yoda dies of old age in “Return of the Jedi.”
Most famous line: “Do, or do not. There is no try” (from “The Empire Strikes Back”).
Conversation starter: According to Screenrant, Lucas at first hated Frank Oz’s voice performance as Yoda and tried to replace him. After the movie was finished, though, he changed his mind and actively campaigned to snag Oz a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination, even pouring thousands of dollars of his own money into it.
• Boba Fett: One of the Star Wars universe’s most popular characters, Boba Fett is a bounty hunter hired by Darth Vader in “The Empire Strikes Back.” In the prequels, audiences were introduced to a much younger Boba Fett (in “Episode II — Attack of the Clones”), where it was revealed that he was a clone of bounty hunter Jango Fett.
Boba Fett meets his untimely end in “Return of the Jedi” after falling into the mouth of a sarlacc (a giant, sand-dwelling monster).
Most famous line: “He’s no good to me dead” (from “The Empire Strikes Back”).
Conversation starter: Boba Fett was originally designed by Joe Johnston, director of movies such as “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” and “Captain America: The First Avenger.” His first appearance, however, was actually in the infamously bad “Star Wars Holiday Special” — riding a dinosaur.
• Grand Moff Tarkin: A leader in the Imperial army and the commander of the first Death Star. (Grand Moff is a title in the Star Wars Universe.)
Tarkin dies when Luke destroys the first Death Star at the end of “A New Hope.”
Most famous line: “The Jedi are extinct. Their fire has gone out of the universe. You, my friend, are all that’s left of their religion” (to Darth Vader in “A New Hope”).
Conversation starter: Grand Moff Tarkin was played by British actor Peter Cushing. In “The Force Awakens,” the design for Andy Serkis’ Supreme Leader Snoke was allegedly inspired by the old Hammer Horror movies, many of which starred Cushing opposite another Star Wars veteran, the late Christopher Lee (who played Count Dooku in “Attack of the Clones” and “Revenge of the Sith”).
Other terms worth knowing
• The Death Star: A moon-sized, spherical space station capable of destroying planets with a concentrated laser blast. In "A New Hope," Grand Moff Tarkin demonstrated its power on Princess Leia's home planet of Alderaan.
• Sith: The Dark Side equivalent of the Jedi Order.
• Padawan: A Jedi-in-training that studies under a mentor (a la Anakin and Obi-Wan).
• Midi-chlorians: One of the most controversial parts of the entire prequel trilogy, midi-chlorians are only mentioned in "Episode I — The Phantom Menace," where Obi-Wan's mentor Qui-Gon Jinn describes them as microscopic organisms that live inside cells and allow the Force to be quantified.
Jeff Peterson is a native of Utah Valley and studied humanities and history at Brigham Young University.