Many articles about "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" seem to be written for fans of the series, or at least for people who have some kind of working knowledge of a galaxy far, far away.
This is not one of those articles.
Considering that the film is expected to smash box office records, it's safe to assume some theatergoers will have little to no knowledge of the six-film saga. Here is a bare-bones guide for people who are interested enough to see the seventh film in the series, but maybe not enough to watch the previous six.
What is "Star Wars" about?
The original trilogy, released between 1977 and 1983, is "Star Wars" (later rebranded "A New Hope"), "The Empire Strikes Back" and "Return of the Jedi." These films cover the adventures of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and Han Solo (Harrison Ford) fighting with a rebellion against the villainous Galactic Empire. Skywalker is trying to become a Jedi, a mostly extinct group best described to outsiders as space wizards with laser swords, and is learning under the tutelage of Jedi masters Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) and Yoda (Frank Oz). On the other side is Luke’s father, Darth Vader (voiced by James Earl Jones), and his master, Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), who belong to the Sith, the Jedi’s mortal enemies.
After the success of the first three films, creator George Lucas released the prequel trilogy ("The Phantom Menace," "Attack of the Clones" and "Revenge of the Sith") between 1999 and 2005. These films, set more than two decades before the originals, cover the backstory of Darth Vader, showing his time as angsty but powerful Jedi Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) before his fall to evil, as well as Palpatine’s rise to power and the slaughter of the Jedi.
What is the Force? Why does it need awakening?
The Force, described by Jedi master Kenobi, "is an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us, penetrates us and binds the galaxy together." Jedi and Sith, when trained, can interact and manipulate the Force, giving them superhuman abilities. This can be as simple as moving objects from a distance or running really, really fast, to much more advanced powers, like having visions of the future or shooting lightning out of one’s fingers.
The films depict the fight between the Jedi and the Sith as an important factor in the fate of the galaxy. In the prequels, Palpatine, a Sith lord pulling strings in the Galactic Senate, uses a war he secretly helped create so his fellow politicians will give him more "emergency powers." The army of the Galactic Republic, which is comprised of clones, is used to slaughter all the Jedi, with Darth Vader's help. With most of the Jedi dead and no one left to oppose him, Palpatine uses Vader's help to end the war and declares himself the first emperor of the Galactic Empire, replacing the now-defunct Galactic Republic.
When the original films came out, villains Palpatine and Vader were mostly secure in their power over the galaxy, while good guys Kenobi and Yoda were forced into hiding as the only surviving Jedi. The Jedi, by now, are considered a relic of the past and are met with derision. Kenobi, Yoda, Palpatine and Vader all die by the end of the original trilogy, leaving the Sith presumably extinct and only one living Jedi, Luke Skywalker. (Leia was never trained.) The Force Awakens seems to allude to a new struggle between the dark side and the light.
Why do people obsess over Darth Vader? What does the voice in the trailer mean when he says he will "finish what you started"?
The story of the first six "Star Wars" films is largely the rise, fall and eventual redemption of Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader. His story is also important to how the dark side works and why it can be so seductive.
Anakin was a slave boy turned Jedi Knight who saw his first taste of vengence when killing those responsible for the death of his mother. Later, after marrying Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman), Anakin is exploited by Palpatine, using Anakin's fear that his wife will die as well. Anakin is convinced that the dark side, which enhances one's powers through strong emotions like anger and fear, will make him strong enough to save her.
Anakin's march toward the dark side comes to a head when he is confronted by Kenobi (played in the prequel trilogy by Ewan McGregor) and Anakin's pregnant wife. Anakin, now known as Darth Vader, was severely injured in the subsequent fight with Kenobi and is fitted with his iconic black suit, which keeps him alive. Amidala dies during childbirth shortly thereafter, but Luke and Leia survive.
In the original trilogy, Luke Skywalker, now a young adult, believes Vader can be saved and brought back to the light. During the final confrontation, Palpatine and Vader try to get Luke to give in to the dark side by embracing his anger and fear, much like his father did. Luke briefly succumbs to Vader's relentless taunting and launches a furious (and successful) attack, but relents and throws down his lightsaber, saying he will never turn. Palpatine attacks Luke, but Vader turns on his master and kills Palpatine. Vader, who was seriously injured when he attacked Palpatine, makes peace with Luke before dying in his arms.
Though dead, Vader likely still stands as the icon of the dark side and the poster boy for Imperial might. Characters who idolize Vader likely want to see his goals come to fruition: destruction of the Jedi and domination by the Empire (or what is left of it).
Why are people asking "Where is Luke?" Why is he missing from trailers?
Fans want to know what happened to Luke after he used the dark side to defeat his father. While he lost his composure and flew into a rage, he calmed down, threw aside his weapon in defiance and refused to kill Vader. Although Vader saved his son's life by killing Palpatine and Luke seemed somewhat at peace by the end of "Return of the Jedi," it is unclear what his brief flirtation with the dark side would mean long term. As Yoda once ominously said, "Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny."
After 30 years, is Luke still a noble Jedi, or has he turned to the dark side? Because of the mystery surrounding his return, Luke’s first appearance in "The Force Awakens" will likely be a major plot point. Expect gasps if he turns out to be the big bad guy of the new movie.
If so much of "Star Wars" is about the Skywalker family, does that mean there will be more of them?
Much like Luke's fate, whether or not he or his twin sister, Leia, ever had children is potentially a major plot point as well. Anyone who is the grandchild of Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader could have the potential to be a powerful hero or a terrifying villain.
Many have taken notice that Rey (Daisy Ridley) lacks a last name. Both Anakin and Luke Skywalker grew up as nobodies on a dingy desert planet, which seems to be the case with Rey. Her parentage could be a major plot point, especially if she is related to either Luke or Leia.
What about Princess Leia and Han Solo?
Ford and Fisher reprising their roles has been a part of the marketing push for "The Force Awakens." Solo is a self-centered smuggler who eventually became one of the film's heroes. Solo also has a romantic relationship with Princess Leia, leading to some speculation that Rey is their daughter.
Leia, once one of the most important leaders of the rebellion, is now a general. She didn't find out about her parentage — or her abilities with the Force — until later in "Return of the Jedi," so it is unclear what training or experience she has in the Jedi arts.
So where does this leave the story?
At the end of "Return of the Jedi," the rebels have destroyed the Empire's superweapon, the Death Star, triggering massive celebrations across several planets. Leia and Han share a romantic moment while Luke burns what is left of Vader's body.
The rebels and the Jedi seemed to have triumphed over the Empire and the dark side. But 30 years have passed since then.
—"Star Wars" is big on superweapons. "A New Hope" has the Death Star, a moon-sized battle station that could destroy a planet. That was destroyed by Luke Skywalker, so Emperor Palpatine built another one. The second Death Star was destroyed by the rebellion in "Return of the Jedi." Not to be outdone, the new villains have the Starkiller Base, which can destroy an entire star system.
— Some deceased Jedi can communicate with the living as "force ghosts." Kenobi does this regularly after his death in "A New Hope." Anakin Skywalker and Yoda also appear before Luke at the end of "Return of the Jedi." Because of this, dead Jedi from previous movies can theoretically appear in "The Force Awakens" or subsequent movies.
— Bad guys use red lightsabers, while good guys typically use blue or green. It's an easy way to tell who is who. "Star Wars" usually isn't very subtle when it comes to good versus evil.
— Many fans, especially older ones who grew up with the original films, consider the prequel trilogy to be a letdown. If "The Force Awakens" fails to deliver, expect many of your fellow moviegoers to be upset. And if you are going with a die-hard fan, there will probably be quite a bit of complaining on the car ride home.
But hey, at least you were able to keep up.