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Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens: The 9 most important things we know

The latest entry in the Star Wars canon hits theaters December 18, 2015. Here's everything we know about the film so far.

Disney is making a new Star Wars movie — without George Lucas

The road that leads to Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens is a curious one, marked both by Hollywood business as usual and an acquisition that seemingly no one who covers the film industry saw coming.

The obvious answer for the impending existence of this film is also largely the correct one: money. Simply put, Star Wars is one of the few cultural phenomena that almost everybody in the movie-going world is at least somewhat familiar with. The six current films in the franchise have grossed more than $4.5 billion worldwide. And when you consider that three of those movies were released in 1977, 1980, and 1983, when international box office earnings were far less important to a studio's bottom line, the accomplishment becomes all the more impressive.

But there's another answer here, too. For all intents and purposes, it seemed as if the Star Wars saga was over after the 2005 release of the final installment of the prequel trilogy, Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith. Though George Lucas, the man behind the first six chapters of the Star Wars franchise, had always talked about making nine films in total, the completion of that plan, as of 2005, seemed unlikely.

But in 2012, Lucas sold his company, Lucasfilm — along with the rights to all the Star Wars characters — to Disney, which was increasingly centering its business strategy on recognizable, marketable brands, like Pixar, Marvel, and its gigantic number of animated princesses. The purchase, though completely unexpected, made sense for both companies. Lucas had wanted for ages to escape the burden of Star Wars, and his decision to sell gave Disney a chance to own one of the most recognizable brands out there.

Disney immediately put a new trilogy of films into production, and even if the new films (episodes VII through IX) won't be what Lucas once envisioned (as he wanted to make a trilogy of films centered on teenage characters), they will bring the saga to nine films in total.

And beyond that, Disney is also making films based on tertiary Star Wars characters and other corners of the franchise's universe, trying to expand what had been an ongoing film series into something closer to its Marvel Cinematic Universe — a big collection of standalone films that are, nonetheless, part of the same general story and setting.

The cast of Star Wars: The Force Awakens unites familiar faces with brand new ones

Almost all of the buzz around the cast of The Force Awakens has centered on the return of Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford to the roles of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia Organa, and Han Solo, the characters they played in the original trilogy of Star Wars films released in the '70s and '80s. This is the first time any of the three will have played one of these characters since 1983, and excitement is palpable.

They will be joined by several of the original films' other players, like Peter Mayhew as the gigantic, furry Wookie Chewbacca and Anthony Daniels as the rigidly mannered robot C-3PO. But both of those characters (along with the tiny droid R2D2) appeared at least briefly in the prequel trilogy, so their involvement is of less immediate significance than the presence of Hamill, Fisher, and Ford.

Star Wars Force Awakens Lucasfilm

The new series of films will also feature a number of other actors, led by:

Daisy Ridley: An almost unknown British actress, Ridley is the female lead in The Force Awakens and reflects director J. J. Abrams's preference for using little-known actresses as the leads of his projects. (See also: Evangeline Lilly on Lost.) Ridley plays a character named Rey.

John Boyega: Though he's slightly more recognizable than Ridley, Boyega is also a relative newcomer. He's played important parts in the alien invasion flick Attack the Block and the 24 miniseries, but he's largely unknown. He'll be playing a stormtrooper named Finn.

Oscar Isaac: One of the best actors working right now, Isaac completes The Force Awakens' central trio of new characters. He's most famous for his work in independent film, where he played the lead roles in Inside Llewyn Davis and A Most Violent Year, and his supporting turn in the indie sci-fi movie Ex Machina earned raves in the spring of 2015. He'll play a pilot named Poe Dameron.

The Force Awakens will also feature a who's who of up-and-coming actors, including Adam Driver (Girls), Gwendoline Christie (Game of Thrones), Lupita Nyong'o (12 Years a Slave), and Domhnall Gleeson (About Time), as well as the old master Max von Sydow, who's perhaps best known to American audiences as the elderly priest Father Merrin in The Exorcist. (Von Sydow has been playing old men for seemingly his entire life.)

We know surprisingly little about the new Star Wars movie's plot

The craziest thing about the new Star Wars movie is that we barely know anything about its story. There are rumors aplenty, but nothing has been confirmed just yet. We know the story takes place decades after the first trilogy of films, and we know the movies will not borrow from the so-called "expanded universe," the novels and stories that sprang up around the franchise in the early '90s, beginning with the Timothy Zahn novel Heir to the Empire. These novels are no longer considered Star Wars canon.

One other thing we know is that the premise will be rather compact, according to screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan (who scripted The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi before going on to make such films as The Big Chill and The Accidental Tourist). Kasdan told Vanity Fair:

One of the things that we always refocus on from the get-go was that it not be one of these very long, bloated blockbusters. A lot of very entertaining movies lately are too long. In the last 20 minutes, you think, why isn’t this over? We didn’t want to make a movie like that. I mean, we were really aiming to have it be—when it’s over you’ll say, 'I wish there’s more.' Or, 'Wait, is it over?' Because how rarely you get that feeling nowadays, and I think we’re headed there. But it means that there will be constant critical looking at it from now to the end, saying, 'Do we need this? Do we need that? Is it better if this comes out, even though we love it?' Killing your darlings.

It seems likely that if more information is doled out about the story, it will happen at 2015's San Diego Comic-Con, which happens in July. Kasdan will be attending; perhaps he'll spill some of the beans.

Here are the basics of the Star Wars story so far

If you're not familiar with the Star Wars story to date, don't worry: Not everyone can know everything about every bit of pop culture.

In its most basic sense, the Star Wars story thus far is centered on a battle between good and evil. In the original trilogy (Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi), Rebel forces battle against the evil Empire to free the galaxy from the dictatorial tyranny of Emperor Palpatine. The action begins when a farmboy named Luke Skywalker discovers a message from a princess who asks for someone to come help her. He falls in with an old Jedi knight named Obi-Wan Kenobi, a couple of robots, and a roguish pilot named Han Solo (along with Han's co-pilot, Chewbacca). The story's irresistible momentum carries this crew through the rescue of Princess Leia and on to a quest to blow up the Empire's new space station, the Death Star.

The second and third films of the original trilogy deepen the conflicts of the first, especially once Luke learns he is the son of the villainous Darth Vader (the guy dressed all in black with the crazy helmet), known at one time as Anakin Skywalker. In the end, Darth Vader finds what little good is left in his heart to save his son from the Emperor, and he dies a hero's death, even as the Empire crumbles around him. By the end of Return of the Jedi, the galaxy is free once again, Han and Leia are in love, Luke is now a Jedi knight himself, and a chorus of Ewoks sing a ridiculously irritating song of joy.

The much more divisive, much more complicated prequel trilogy primarily delves into the backstory of Anakin, following him through his childhood as he grows into a hotheaded young man. It also digs into how a democratic society descended into the dictatorship that's present in the original films (mostly through complicated manipulation and the easing of democratic freedoms in wartime). The prequel movies aren't as good as the originals, and it seems unlikely they'll have much bearing on the final trilogy, but they're still worth watching, if only to see why Lucas was so ready to be done with the Star Wars universe and to sample their more overtly political agenda.

There's a very good reason for those who hate the Star Wars prequels to get excited about the new film

Though there are more and more defenders of the three Star Wars prequels, for the most part those movies are regarded as a wrongheaded failure. (By far the most ambitious defense of the three films is Mike Klimo's lengthy "ring theory," which is worth reading in full.) There's a valid basis for this popular opinion — by and large, the movies fall prey to the most common issue with prequels. When the audience knows how a story is going to end, it's hard to get invested in said story without sharp character work, intricate plotting, or deep themes. The prequels feint at all three of these things, but largely fail to pull them off.

Thus, the most exciting thing about new Star Wars films is that since they're set after the original trilogy, fans have no idea where the story is headed or what to expect. Instead of waiting three films to see Anakin Skywalker embrace his dark side, the sky is really the limit for where the story can go next.

But a word of caution: For those who think the conventional wisdom is completely set on the prequels, it's important to remember that for a long time, the original trilogy was regarded as a deeply flawed series of works that destroyed the film industry. A new generation of film writers who'd grown up with the original films eventually elevated them to the hallowed status they enjoy today. If this new trilogy proves disappointing, or if a new generation of critics that loves the prequels rises, the prequels could become more beloved than they are now.

The behind-the-scenes team on Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a mix of old and new

The important thing to note is that The Force Awakens is the first Star Wars film to be made with minimal involvement from George Lucas. Though Lucas will still receive credit for creating the film's characters (and likely some sort of producer credit), he won't be instrumental to its writing, direction, or production. And depending on how you feel about the prequel trilogy (which was all Lucas's doing), that's either a good or bad thing.

The film's director (and co-screenwriter) is J. J. Abrams, a director whose stamp is now all over both the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises. Though Abrams got his start as a screenwriter (penning everything from Regarding Henry to Armageddon), he became a household name for his television work; his small-screen credits include creating or co-creating Felicity, Alias, and Lost. His rise to prominence in the world of film began with 2006's Mission: Impossible III, and then continued with his direction of Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness, as well as the smaller (if a movie that prominently features aliens can be called "smaller") Super 8.

Abrams's chief style is to toss in as many throwbacks to the movies he grew up with as possible. Super 8 is a giant homage to the early '80s films of Steven Spielberg, and both of Abrams's Star Trek films might as well have been Star Wars films for how they eschewed the former's sense of exploration in favor of glossy pop action. (Abrams also loves lens flares.)

With Star Wars, Abrams's homage to the original trilogy is manifesting in a decision to downplay computer special effects and employ more puppetry and other practical effects, as were used in the first three films. (Check out, for instance, this practically achieved droid.) It could be just the thing the franchise needs, as the prequel trilogy sometimes felt overwhelmed by computer trickery — or it could end up feeling gimmicky.

Abrams is joined by two of Lucas's key collaborators on other Star Wars films, namely Lawrence Kasdan (a writer on The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi) and John Williams, who has written the vibrant score for every Star Wars film so far. Abrams's other collaborators include many of the people he's worked with on the recent Star Trek films, including cinematographer Dan Mindel and editors Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey.

We've seen a small smattering of footage from Star Wars: The Force Awakens so far

We have seen two trailers so far.

The first teaser trailer debuted in November 2014. Watch it below:

The second teaser trailer debuted in April 2015. It features Han Solo and Chewbacca, and, as such, it became the internet's favorite thing ever. Watch it below:

There have been lots and lots and lots of things written about how closely George Lucas's original trilogy hews to the hero's journey or "monomyth," as outlined by Joseph Campbell. You know the one — a boy (almost always a boy) of humble origins realizes his great destiny and embarks upon a giant quest to realize it. Along the way, there are battles and daring escapes and confrontations that reveal the boy's darkest side.

This is a story we humans have been telling ourselves literally since we were able to construct stories. It underpins so many of the fairy tales, myths, and legends that endure, and even today, a well-executed version (or subversion) of it can be incredibly popular. Consider, for instance, the Hunger Games franchise, which both celebrates the hero's journey via its heroine, Katniss, and subverts it when she realizes how little she wants to be a part of that story.

There are other reasons for Star Wars' endless popularity — the original film was, in many ways, the first modern blockbuster, and it contains a gigantic world worth exploring, filled with immediately intriguing characters — but this is at the center of every aspect of the film's appeal. What Star Wars realized before almost any other movie series (before most movies even thought to be series) was that a richly detailed world was best if it was hinted at around the margins, and that using a very simple story to explore that world could create something people would watch over and over and over again.

Disney wants to release new Star Wars films every year for the foreseeable future

Star Wars: Episode VIIThe Force Awakens arrives in theaters Friday, December 18, 2015, to capitalize on the lucrative holiday viewing season. Movies released in this time frame often have very long legs at the box office, because they're in theaters at a time when lots of people are off of work, turning normal weekdays into the equivalent of weekend days in terms of moneymaking potential.

There are currently three other Star Wars films with official release dates, and it would seem that Disney is hoping to release a new Star Wars film every year for the foreseeable future. Star Wars: Rogue One, the first in a new "anthology" series of standalone films, will be released on December 16, 2016. Directed by Gareth Edwards (of the 2014 Godzilla remake), Rogue One stars Felicity Jones and is about the theft of the design schematics for the Death Star.

Then, on May 26, 2017 — 40 years and one day after the release of the original Star WarsStar Wars: Episode VIII (which doesn't yet have a subtitle) will make its debut. Episode VIII is written and directed by Rian Johnson, who is perhaps best known for writing and directing 2012's Looper.

Another year later, the franchise's second standalone anthology project (which doesn't yet have a title) is slated for release on May 25, 2018, and will center on a young Han Solo. Directed by Christopher Miller and Phil Lord (The LEGO Movie) and co-written by The Force Awakens' Lawrence Kasdan (who also worked on The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi), the film will focus on Han Solo's origin story, following the character as he becomes "the smuggler, thief and scoundrel whom Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi first encountered in the cantina at Mos Eisley."

And finally, Episode IX, the concluding Star Wars chapter, is headed to theaters in 2019 — though only time will tell what the film will be about and who will be involved with it.

Disney has also expanded the reach of Star Wars in other mediums. Marvel (the company's comics arm) is publishing regular comic books about characters from the cinematic universe, and its cable channel Disney XD airs the well-regarded Star Wars Rebels animated series.

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