A LONG TIME AGO, in a galaxy—well, in this galaxy, actually, somewhere near the end of the '70s—20th Century Fox released a goofy, earnest adventure movie about a boy in a bathrobe who goes from kicking rocks around the interstellar boondocks to becoming the most important person in the galaxy. This movie changed the way movies were made, changed the way stories were told and sold, and, ultimately, changed the way we interact with our entertainment.
In the nearly 40 years since, you could fill a library with all the books and documentaries charting the creation and consumption of all things Star Wars. And with The Force Awakens, the seventh iteration of this cultural monolith, a whole lot of people who haven't spent much time hanging out in that galaxy are feeling a little left out of the conversation. Considering The Force Awakens has already raked in a literal billion dollars thanks to advance ticket sales and merchandising, that's gonna be a pretty big conversation. The kind of conversation we don't really have anymore, save for events like the Super Bowl, or to a lesser extent, a presidential election.
So now people are asking, "What do I need to know? What books do I need to read? What TV shows do I need to binge? What movies do I have to rewatch—and I heard there was a special order I have to watch them in, too? Can some nerd help me out with, like, a three-step plan on how to jump on this stupid bandwagon?"
ON THE STUPID BANDWAGON.
You don't need to watch a single Star Wars film—much less all of them—before going to The Force Awakens. Yes, this new one is a direct sequel to 1983's Return of the Jedi, but it's also co-written and directed by J.J. Abrams, who was handed a property as desiccated, dusty, and insular as Star Trek and brought it back to candy-colored life in 2009. Abrams' Star Trek succeeded for two reasons: (1) It made the series accessible to newcomers for the first time since the '60s, and (2) it felt like a Star Wars movie, a feeling best described in a recent interview with The Force Awakens co-writer Lawrence Kasdan: "It's fun, it's delightful, it moves like a son of a bitch, and you don't question too much."
Much is made of "The Power of Myth™" in regard to Star Wars' staying power. But the ubiquity of that mythmaking—which is present in nearly every piece of genre fiction—means you'll have no problem figuring out who any of these new characters are. You're already familiar with their archetypes from the last time you saw, say, Harry Potter, or Game of Thrones, or Lord of the Rings—all of which became massive commercial and critical successes despite the vast majority of their audiences having never read a single word of the books they were based on.
So don't bother with a six-film marathon to "catch up." That old stuff can wait for later. The Force Awakens is a (mostly) new story, featuring appearances from people you may or may not recognize ("Ah, that's what a Chewbacca is") supporting brand-new characters on a brand-new adventure, allowing audiences to join in on the fun without having to memorize a deck of Star Wars Trivial Pursuit cards. Liking Star Wars isn't that difficult. But if you do decide to refresh beforehand...
Contrary to what Star Wars fandom might suggest, the requirement to ride this ride isn't very high at all. Have you watched something with the words "Star" and "Wars" on it? Did you like it? Guess what: You're a fan. That's it. You don't have to own a closet full of Lando T-shirts, or a shelf full of clone trooper dolls, or have memorized the differences between multiple versions of multiple films. In fact, you'll probably have way more fun if you don't count yourself among those types at all.
Because here's the dirty open secret: Star Wars—one of the single most popular entertainments of the modern age—isn't particularly "nerdy," even though self-identified geeks have made it a key part of their creepy cultural-indoctrination rituals. It's pretty hard to claim the Star Wars franchise has earned $30 billion dollars because of "nerds." It got as big as it did because—even in its most questionable iterations—Star Wars looks cool, sounds cool, and features cool people doing cool shit. (Also, kids really like it.) The appeal of Star Wars isn't far removed from the appeal of The Hunger Games, James Bond, the Fast and the Furious movies, or any entry in any of the superhero empires currently being assembled with the Marvel blueprint.
So no, you don't have to shell out wads of cash and countless hours buying, collecting, eating, and slinging a bunch of bullshit in order to "get" the latest chapter in this money-printing machine. In fact, the only thing you need to know about The Force Awakens, and Star Wars in general, is this:
AND DON'T LET ANYONE TELL YOU DIFFERENT.
Star Wars has always been about getting as many people as possible to have fun not just watching it, but experiencing it. The Force Awakens could have the best chance yet at accomplishing that: The old movies, engaging as they are, were made by a bunch of white dudes, starred a bunch of white dudes, and have been obnoxiously "claimed" by a bunch of white dudes. But now, under the guidance of Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy, her multicultural brainstorming group, and the direction of Abrams, The Force Awakens promises to be the first Star Wars movie to actually reflect the skin colors and genders of its audience—knocking down what few remaining hurdles were in the way of every kid in the theater having an unobstructed pathway to the imaginarium exploding off the screen.
Much like Yoda's cave on Dagobah ("the fuck is a Dagobah?" you might ask. You'll get there, don't worry), these films mirror what you bring in with you. You like goofy sci-fi action? Done. You like deeper mythological underpinnings? Just dig a little. Star Wars isn't the impenetrable mess it can appear to be, thanks to the overstated importance pushed on it by the media (hi!), and the overheated arguments from its hardcore fans—many of whom, myself included, would make a Venn diagram of "entertainment press" and "easily perturbed men who have a hard time dealing" look like a full fuckin' moon.
You can—and should—divorce these films from all their baggage. These movies have always worked best when they're allowed to just be movies, not referendums on the validity of entire generations' predilection toward escapism. So go into The Force Awakens the same way people went into Star Wars in 1977—with nothing more than an open mind and a taste for adventure. Because if everyone's done their jobs, The Force Awakens will be a cool, funny, thrilling story about a bunch of kids trying to figure out how to fit in their own skin. And what's more universal than that?