If you're a Star Wars newbie like me, May the Fourth is a new holiday. Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens is the only Star Wars movie I’ve ever seen. Really.
You may be wondering why I'd see the newest film without having seen the original trilogy or the prequels — especially knowing that, according to Vox culture editor Todd VanDerWerff, the film "feels committee-approved to delight fans." One reason, honestly, is that seeing people’s reactions when I say I’ve never seen Star Wars is worth the cost of a movie ticket.
Another reason is that when you work in the news, as I do, you read a lot of news. And even before its release last December and its record-breaking performance at the box office, The Force Awakens was everywhere. So rather than feel bothered by the seemingly never-ending headlines, I decided to take myself to the movies to see what the buzz was about.
The Star Wars franchise isn’t something I've actively avoided; it just wasn’t ever part of my childhood. My knowledge of the franchise before entering the theater was relegated to characters and phrases I had heard about but didn’t understand. I knew "Luke, I am your father" was an important reveal, but I didn’t know why. I associated glossy braided hair buns with Princess Leia, but I couldn’t tell you the first thing about her. And I was definitely confused by the oft-repeated sentiment, "May the Force be with you."
Sure, I had watched a bad lip reading of the original film and bobbed my head to a clip of the Star Wars cast, Jimmy Fallon, and the Roots singing the movie's famous theme a cappella. But that’s about it. So what follows is my attempt to make sense of the new film, along with an assessment from a collective of my more well-versed colleagues regarding how well I did.
Note: The following "what actually happened" details are based only on what we know from the original movies and The Force Awakens … not from books or websites or what have you.
How did Han Solo and Chewbacca become a team?
The guess: These two are obviously buddies. I'm guessing they met battling the dark Force in one of the earlier movies. But what were they doing when they found Finn and Rey? Do they just spend all their free time together? My guess is that Han Solo, never really over the loss of his beloved Princess Leia, retreated into hiding and took a support system with him.
What actually happened: Han and Chewbacca are smugglers who trust one another and comprise the crew of the Millennium Falcon (the dusty old junkyard ship that Rey escaped in early in The Force Awakens; it was in its heyday in the original films). As far as what we've seen onscreen, they've been a team for years; we don’t know from the movies how they first met.
What's the relationship between Han Solo, Princess Leia, and Kylo Ren?
The guess: Han Solo and Princess Leia had the kind of whirlwind romance you can only write in galaxies far, far away. Although they rarely see one another now, their love and respect for each other remains. This is clear in the scene right before Han Solo leaves, and Leia says she always worries it's the last time she’ll see him.
Kylo, the son of Han and Princess Leia, wasn’t always bad. A previous dark Force (perhaps Darth Vader?) pulled him over to the dark side, which absolutely crushed his parents. Han sent Luke Skywalker to bring Kylo back to the light, but Luke couldn't do it. Han and Leia know deep down that Kylo is "gone" for good, but Leia isn’t willing to give up hope, and Han isn’t willing to let Leia down.
What really happened: As we learn in The Force Awakens, Kylo's birth name was Ben. Ben was trained as a Jedi (a guardian who uses the Force to promote peace and justice in the galaxy) by Luke Skywalker, but betrayed both Luke and his parents, Han and Leia, when he went to the dark side and became Kylo Ren. We currently don't know who turned Ben to the dark side. As far as Han and Leia's romance goes … that's about right.
What are the basics of the Force?
The guess: The Force can reach people who are both good and evil. When you posses the Force, it allows you to control people’s minds. If you have the Force, you have all the power. But it’s a blessing and a curse. When you have the Force, people look up to you and watch your every move. And if you can’t control the Force (like when Kylo Ren has trouble getting into Rey’s brain), it can be quite frustrating. People are born with the Force but might not know it right away. The Force has a mind of its own and chooses to speak to the person at the right time.
What really happened: The Force is one of the most contentious aspects of the Star Wars universe; some people can use it to do things like move objects, or to sense and influence others. Many fans cling to lines like Yoda's assertion that Jedis only use the Force for defense, never to attack. Others compare and contrast the particulars of how Obi-Wan Kenobi used the Force versus how Darth Vader used the Force. There isn't a clearly defined set of rules for how it "works."
Who are the First Order, and what do they want?
The guess: The First Order is the government of the Dark Side, led by Kylo Ren and ruled by Supreme Leader Snoke, who understands the powers of the Force better than any of his fellow commanders. Their mission is to take over the galaxy, and they will destroy anything in their path to do it. The First Order have been planning their takeover for years, starting with capturing innocent villagers from birth to be raised as Stormtroopers. Their plan was not moving as quickly as they had hoped, though, so they convinced Kylo Ren to come aboard as their leader.
What actually happened: We don’t really know where they came from, except that they probably grew out of some of the leftovers of the Empire (which collapsed after the events of Return of the Jedi). Like the Empire, the First Order wants to bring order to the galaxy (as opposed to the disorder they associate with the New Republic and its Senate), and they use Stormtroopers. They are indeed led by Supreme Leader Snoke, and they're after Luke Skywalker, whom we saw only briefly in The Force Awakens.
What's the deal with R2-D2, BB-8, and C-3PO?
The guess: R2-D2 has been in low power mode (a.k.a. depressed) since Luke Skywalker’s disappearance. I'm assuming that in the previous Star Wars movies, R2-D2 was what BB-8 was in The Force Awakens — a right-hand robot. All robots get along and understand English. Only humans and creatures from poor planets in the solar system understand certain robots. That’s why Finn, who grew up under the First Order, has no idea what BB-8 is saying.
C-3PO, who rudely interrupts a nostalgic meeting between Han and Princess Leia, is like an annoying friend you keep around because he occasionally has useful ideas. C-3PO must be much braver than he appears. His new red arm hints that he got into trouble at some point, probably defending his beloved humans.
What really happened: First of all, you'll want to call them droids, not robots, in keeping with Star Wars parlance. R2-D2 is an astromech droid that helps with piloting starfighters, opening doors, and shutting down trash compactors. He speaks in beeps and boops that most droids and some humans/aliens (like Rey and Luke) can understand. He’s in low power mode for much of The Force Awakens, until something wakes him up and he reveals the rest of the map to Luke.
C-3P0 is a protocol droid — as well as R2-D2's counterpart and a go-to source of comic relief in the original trilogy. He and R2 were involved in the rebellion against the Empire. We don’t (yet) know why 3P0 has a red arm.
You're correct that BB-8 is like R2-D2; he helps pilot Poe Dameron’s X-wing, and speaks in beeps. He seems to trust Rey as soon as he meets her on the planet Jakku.
Where's Darth Vader in all this?
The guess: I only have questions here. Why didn't we see Vader in action in The Force Awakens? And who was that skull Kylo Ren spoke to? Did Luke defeat Vader only to go into hiding once there was no more darkness to fight? If Vader is Luke’s father and Kylo Ren’s grandfather, then are Han Solo and Luke Skywalker … brothers?
What really happened: Darth Vader is dead. Kylo Ren was speaking to the remains of the helmet once worn by Vader, who died in Return of the Jedi during an emotional scene with Luke (and his body was burned on a funeral pyre, hence the melted helmet). Luke eventually went into hiding, possibly because he's the last Jedi in the galaxy, and the First Order — which arose from the remains of the Galactic Empire, which was toppled in Return of the Jedi — wants him dead.
However, it's also possible that Luke exiled himself before the First Order rose, either because his pupil, Han and Leia's son Ben, went to the Dark Side to become Kylo Ren, or because he needed to do some soul searching. Or maybe he left due to a combo of all of the above.
Prior to joining the dark side, Ren was trained by Luke as a Jedi but ultimately joined the dark side, just as Vader (née Anakin Skywalker, Luke's dad) once did. And Han Solo and Luke Skywalker aren't brothers, but you're correct in guessing that Luke has a sibling: Leia is his twin sister. The question of family lineage within the Star Wars universe is actually one of the bigger mysteries to come out of The Force Awakens and will play a central role in the new trilogy; for more on that topic, go here.