Final Prep for The Force Awakens

Everything you need to know before seeing 'The Force Awakens'

The Stormtroopers of the First Order in formation
Stormtroopers stand in formation before the First Order's commander, General Hux. Lucasfilm Ltd.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is here at last! Woohoo!

If going to the movie theater was an exam, then this your crash course. There are no spoilers here; think of it as preparation for seeing the film.

What's the proper order for watching the first six movies?

This one's a no-brainer to the faithful, but it's easy to see how the uninitiated could be confused. Episodes IV through VI were released first, back in the 70s and 80s.

They're known as the Original Trilogy. Twenty years later, George Lucas decided to rewind and tell the first three episodes, aka the Prequel Trilogy. Episodes I through III were released between 1999 and 2005.

The order in which they were released is ultimately the best viewing order.

If you don't have time to watch them all, skip I, II, and III; I can't emphasize this enough. You can always watch them later, and it's pretty much a given that there will be nothing in The Force Awakens that references the Prequels -- a trio of flicks that fans considered a serious disappointment.

The best viewing order is: 4, 5, 6, 1, 2, 3. If time is short, stick to 4, 5, and 6. You should at least be familiar with those three before you see The Force Awakens, as many of the Original Trilogy's main characters return in the new movie.

When does The Force Awakens take place?

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is set roughly 30 years after Return of the Jedi.

Appropriately, you'll see changes everywhere. While familiar ships like X-Wings and TIE Fighters show up, they've been upgraded to new models. Likewise, Stormtroopers have a sleek new look.

What's happened to the galaxy?

The war between the Empire and the Rebel Alliance ended a year or so after Return of the Jedi with a decisive victory for the Rebels, but Imperial remnants persisted throughout the galaxy for years.

A mysterious new Admiral appears to have risen to power within what remains, but aside from a few other scattered bits from around the galaxy, we actually know very little about current affairs.

The theatrical trailer made it clear that the Jedi and the war have faded into little more than campfire stories over the last thirty years. Many don't seem to believe that those events really happened.

Where's the Empire? And the Rebels?

We don't actually know just who and what the villainous "First Order" is, but it's assumed that they're one of the Imperial remnants or some kind of offshoot. They've consolidated major power in the years leading up to The Force Awakens, culminating in a massive new weapon called the Starkiller, which is said to be able to destroy an entire solar system. It appears to have been built inside a carved-out, wintery planet.

These days the Rebel Alliance is known as "the Resistance." As in, they who are resisting the First Order.

Who is Kylo Ren?

The man in the black mask and his true identity have been the subject of more fan speculation than probably anything else.

Kylo Ren, played by actor Adam Driver, is the main villain of The Force Awakens. Similar to Darth Vader and other Sith Lords, he is a member of an order called the Knights of Ren; so Kylo is presumably his real first name, and "Ren" is a title, like "Darth." But Knights of Ren are not Sith Lords, even though there are similarities.

He wields the cross-bladed red lightsaber that you've seen in the trailers and toy stores, and he is very strong with the Force.

Little else is known about his role in the movie, or his lineage (did "Ren" replace another name, like "Skywalker" or "Solo," perhaps?). His past and his motivations for finishing what Darth Vader started are secrets being held for the film.

He works with the evil First Order, helping with them in their shadowy goals, and their Stormtroopers answer to him. But he has his own agenda.

And despite the ridiculous things you may see or read online, Kylo Ren is most definitely not Luke Skywalker in disguise.

So where's Luke?

By all accounts, Mark Hamill's role in The Force Awakens is a small one. (But take heart, fans: it's already been announced that he'll be back for Episode VIII, where he'll no doubt have a lot more to do.)

I can only make an educated guess as to why Luke Skywalker hasn't been seen in any of the promotional materials or trailers. My sense is that since he's never seen at the Resistance headquarters on D'Qar, or adventuring with Han Solo and Chewbacca, his absence must be a major part of the story. We know that several characters in the film are looking for Luke's original lightsaber (the one he lost on Bespin), and it's conceivable that this could be part of an attempt to find Luke himself.

The conclusion drawn is that not only is Luke missing from the movie's promos, he's missing in the story. Where he is and what he's been doing for the last few decades has to be one of the movie's central plot points.

Who else is back from the original trilogy?

Harrison Ford gets top billing as Han Solo -- a big deal in and of itself, since he once looked back on his time in the series with, shall we say, a decided lack of fondness. Age softened him toward the franchise, and J.J. Abrams was reportedly able to coax him back into the cockpit with a great script.

Carrie Fisher is back as Leia, who's now a General in the Resistance. Peter Mayhew returns to Chewbacca's furry suit, and Anthony Daniels is of course inside the gold plating of C-3PO.

Also, keep an eye out for everybody's favorite "It's a trap!" military leader, Admiral Ackbar.

Who are all the new faces, and why should I care about them?

A more detailed breakdown is here, but desert survivalist Rey (Daisy Ridley), AWOL Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), and hotshot pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) are your primary new heroes.

You'll meet lots of other secondary players along the way, like Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong'o), a 1,000-year-old pirate who knows many secrets about the Force.

Over on the darker side, aside from Kylo Ren, there's Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie), the female, chrome-plated commander of the First Order soldiers. General Hux (Domnhall Gleeson) oversees Starkiller Base with a ruthlessness that masks his youth. And operating behind the scenes is Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), who we know absolutely nothing about aside from his being strong with the Force/Dark Side.

Who is BB-8 and why is everyone so nuts about him?

BB-8 is an adorable new droid created for The Force Awakens. He's an "astromech" droid -- the same type mechanic/co-pilot droid as R2-D2. But he's a more advanced model, essentially a big ball that rolls, while his head moves independently up on top. The wow factor of BB-8 is that he's a physical effect; CGI was not used in the movie to bring him to life. He's a real construct built for the film, and bringing him to life required the creation of new technologies.

His design is ingenious, feeling both familiar and new, but oozing personality out of every surface. He'd already inspired a huge following months before the film was released.

The trailers make it look like we're revisiting Tatooine and Hoth.

Nope. The use of desert and snowy worlds were no doubt intentionally done to up the nostalgia factor that The Force Awakens trades on so strongly, but all of the planets in the movie are new ones that we've never seen before.

You can find more details about them here, but they include Resistance stronghold D'Qar, desert-covered Jakku, Earth-like Takodana, and super secretive Hosnian Prime. The snow-covered world is the aforementioned Starkiller Base.

Stay tuned for my spoiler-free review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens...