How do you prepare for ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’? Buying a ticket could be enough

By Rich Heldenfels, Akron Beacon Journal

Close to 40 years after “Star Wars” changed the pop-culture landscape, fans are bracing for the newest installment, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” in theaters this week.

The official opening is Friday but there are showings on Thursday. Some are sold out already. Commercials and stores are pitching all sorts of “Force Awakens” merch — or just want to be connected to the movie in some way. “Few things feel like the first time you saw Star Wars,” says one ad, before suggesting that a new car can cause the same feeling.

But if you have not already experienced “Star Wars” exhaustion, you may be facing another question: How much do I really need to know to see this movie?

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Do I need to know if Han shot first?

Or what the deal was with Jar Jar Binks?

Or how to spell Wookiee? (Yes, it’s two e’s.)

Do you need to come over to my house and watch my old VHS tapes of Star Wars movies, which I can’t give up because original maestro George Lucas kept messing with the movies?

OK, maybe there was some nerd TMI there. Still, for some people, such as super-devoted fans and copy editors, details matter a great deal. There’s a long and tangled history attached to “Star Wars,” in which “The Force Awakens” is the seventh live-action film. (Completists might consider it the eighth movie in total, since there’s also the animated “Star Wars: The Clone Wars.”)

The Los Angeles Times devoted an estimated 8,000 words to a style guide detailing the proper names of films, characters and gear — as well as how to keep track of the various releases, re-releases and home-viewing versions of the movies.

Based solely on the trailers for “The Force Awakens,” fans have launched debates about what will happen — and what should or should not.

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But, again, how should you dip into the “Star Wars” legacy to prepare for the new film?

Here are four suggestions, arranged in increasing order of commitment.

1. Do nothing (except get a ticket): Figure that whatever needs explaining will be. After all, “The Force Awakens” is directed and co-written by J.J. Abrams, who has previous experience with franchise titles (“Star Trek” and “Mission: Impossible”).

With the 2009 “Star Trek,” he successfully revived a series that had seemed dead seven years earlier. And he did it by making a movie that could be enjoyed by an audience with little or no prior knowledge — while pleasing the hardcore fans with references to “Trek” history.

Especially with so much time having passed (the first film was in 1977, the most recent one in 2005), “Star Wars” has to follow a path similar to “Trek’s.” That also means doing more than providing state-of-the-art effects. You also need story and character. Other­wise, you end up with “The Phantom Menace.”

One good sign: Abrams has said in interviews that the new film will not have two of the more controversial elements of the earlier films: Jar Jar Binks and Ewoks.

But let’s say you don’t want to be completely out of the legacy loop, especially if you’re sitting next to fans having a stage-whispered discussion throughout the film. Well, then …

2. See “Return of the Jedi” (1983): The main chronology of “Star Wars” has up to now included six movies. But they were made out of order, with “Episode IV — A New Hope” kicking off the screen adventures, then followed by “Episode V — The Empire Strikes Back” and “Episode VI — Return of the Jedi” to seemingly wrap up the saga.

Then, 16 years later, Lucas went back before “Episode IV” to make “Episode I — The Phantom Menace” and two sequels leading up to the events in “A New Hope.” So, if you want to see the most recent events in Star Wars’ screen history before “The Force Awakens” (which itself is set decades after “Jedi”), just watch “Jedi.” That should tell you the key characters and ideas at work.

But those folks next to you are still whispering. So …

3. Watch the original trilogy (“A New Hope,” “The Empire Strikes Back,” “Return of the Jedi”): Really, this is all you absolutely need. These are by far the best of the six films to date, with “Empire” often ranked the best of all, even with a cliffhanger ending. The movies are not without flaw (including a still-weird arc in the Luke/Leia relationship). But if you want to understand everything that people love about “Star Wars,” these three will do it.

Which brings us to the worst-case preparation …

4. Watch the six episodes: All right, this isn’t the worst of the worst. You could try to watch the “Clone Wars” movie and the TV versions, read all the companion novels, memorize Mark Clark’s “Star Wars FAQ” and maybe even find the “Star Wars” Christmas special.

You could check out all the side-by-side presentations on ways Lucas changed the films. You could study every single extra bit of footage; the Blu-ray of the six films has three discs of accumulated bonuses. But getting through those six movies will be challenging enough, since Episodes I-III (“The Phantom Menace,” “Attack of the Clones” and “Revenge of the Sith”) can be unbearable.

But at some point, you’re going to have to get out of the past and into “The Force Awakens.” Then you can decide how much you want to go into “Star Wars” past.

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