It's OK to admit it. You're going to see Star Wars: Episode III—Revenge of the Sith. The critics are united—it doesn't suck as bad as the other two prequels—and it is, after all, a cultural event. But now you're in trouble. Because unlike the geeks who are going to be at the first midnight show (who, me?), you are a perfectly normal person. At this point in George Lucas' attenuated narrative arc, you have precisely no idea what the hell is going on.
We're here to help. If you don't know Sith from Shinola, the following glossary of people, places, and things from the Star Wars universe will shed a little light. It'll have some spoilers in it, so if you want to be surprised by what happens in the movie … well, you still might be, because I haven't seen it yet. But I read the Internet, and the Internet is to Star Wars nerds what the forest moon of Endor is to cute little merchandising opportunities (if you didn't get that reference, you really need this glossary). This list is by no means complete, but it does have the important bits.
The first Star Wars came out in 1977. It was later subtitled Episode IV—A New Hope. The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi comprised episodes V and VI. The new films are prequels, and the latest one, Episode III, is actually the final installment. At least, that's what George Lucas, the creator, claims; back in the day he said he had another trilogy in mind, taking place after the IV-V-VI trilogy. And then there are those rumored Star Wars TV shows. …
Natalie Portman. Queen of the planet Naboo and, for a time, its representative in the galactic Senate. * Mother to Luke and Leia. In love with and secretly married to Anakin Skywalker (aka Darth Vader). Are you getting all this, or am I going too fast?
Hayden Christensen. A high-powered Jedi messiah, discovered on the planet Tatooine by Obi-Wan Kenobi, Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson), and Padmé. He's the father of Luke and Leia, and he becomes Darth Vader.
C-3P0 is the gold, mincing robot. R2-D2 is the one that looks like a trash can with legs. Anakin Skywalker built Threepio when he was a kid; Artoo was a semi-anonymous astromech droid on Queen Amidala's spaceship. Artoo is helpful and Threepio is an attempt at comic relief.
Advanced Lesson: The popularity of C-3PO and R2-D2 means that Lucas shoehorns them into most every scene, and this has created huge continuity problems. Why does Darth Vader seem not to recognize Threepio when they see each other again in Episode V, on the cloud city of Bespin? Why does Obi-Wan seem not to recognize either droid when he encounters them on Tatooine in Episode IV? And why does Artoo manifest new and wondrous powers throughout the prequel trilogy (he can fly!), when in Episode V, he can barely wrestle a candy bar out of Yoda's hands? Umm … you don't want to know the answers to those questions. This glossary is satisfying your curiosity. Move along.
In the Star Wars universe, accents = evil unless you are Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Oh, come on. You know who Obi-Wan Kenobi is. What, are you kidding me?
Jedi use this magical energy for various superpowers—telepathy, telekinesis, precognition, and so on. Somewhere between episodes III and IV, using the Force turns into something to be embarrassed about in the increasingly technological Empire. Only losers say "may the Force be with you," and one of Darth Vader's officers describes his faith as a "sad devotion to an ancient religion." Vader chokes him.
The Galactic Republic
The politics of the series are vaguely Roman. The Republic, complete with senators, is in danger of being made over into a dictatorship by a powerful man, Palpatine, who wants to make himself emperor. The actual, physical Senate is a giant room filled with open-air flying saucers, where aliens from all over the galaxy yell at each other. Every world in the Republic sends a representative or five. Queen Amidala was a senator from the planet Naboo, as was the computer-generated shucker-and-jiver Jar Jar Binks. How do you get to be a senator? Nobody knows. Probably something to do with electronic voting.
Jar Jar Binks
Ahmed Best (voice). A member of an amphibious race that also lives on Naboo. Jar Jar gets caught up in the conflict in Episode I. His lame comedy bits and weirdly offensive personality make him the focus of fan disillusionment. All I can say is: He has an accent.
These mystical samurai cops of the Republic keep the peace and do Senate wet work, like when Obi-Wan Kenobi and Qui-Gon Jinn go to Naboo in Episode I to fight the Trade Federation, or negotiate with it, or whatever it is they're doing. Jedi wield the Force, and they're administered by Masters who sit in chairs (appropriately shaped for alien body types) in the penthouse of the Jedi headquarters on the city-planet Coruscant. Yoda is a Jedi Master, as is Mace Windu, played by Samuel L. Jackson, who swears his character will die like a man in Episode III. Jedi are supposed to be as free of desire and emotion as a Vulcan Buddhist. That's why Anakin's love of Padmé is not only painful to watch on screen, but also catastrophic.
The revenge-takers in the eponymous Episode III are the evil counterparts of the Jedi, counting among their members Darth Vader, Darth Sidious, and Darth Maul (he of the double-bladed lightsaber in Episode I). They can often throw lightning from their fingertips, which makes any one of them a Darth and stormy knight. Sith always come in pairs, and they draw their power from the dark side of the Force, a wellspring of anger and hatred—aimed especially at the Jedi.
Ian McDiarmid. Palpatine is secretly Darth Sidious, who becomes the emperor. Hel-lo? Accent! As Sidious, he seems to be the prime mover behind the creation of a clone army. Apparently the idea is to spark galactic chaos so that he can become chancellor of the Senate, and eventually take over the whole show. Palpatine also spends inordinate amounts of time turning Anakin Skywalker from a petulant kid into Darth Vader.
Frank Oz (voice). An extraordinarily powerful Jedi Master, originally played by a muppet in Episode V, Yoda packs a lot of Force into a teeny green body. In the prequels, he worries about the fall of the Republic before anyone else. After the Jedi pogrom, he hides out on the planet Dagobah, where he eventually trains Luke Skywalker to be a Jedi. He has difficulty with grammar, but no accent.
Trade Federation and Separatists
These are the bad guys from episodes I and II. The offensive Asian stereotype green dudes attacking Naboo? Trade Federation. The weird insect guys who set up the gladiator scene and the assembly line at the end of Episode II? Separatists. Count Dooku, Christopher Lee's evil Jedi whose lightsaber curves to the left? Separatist. They're the ones with the droid army.
It might seem, on first consideration, that a weapon of limited range (about 3 feet) that burns through anything it touches (including the wielder) and cauterizes every wound it makes (which definitely limits stopping power) would not be ideal. But Jedi love lightsabers nonetheless.
Advanced lesson: Possibly you get a new lightsaber when you switch sides. Jedi have blue blades; Sith blades are red. Luke's first lightsaber, which Obi Wan told him belonged to his father—Anakin/Vader—was sort of white. It remains to be seen whether Anakin really wanted Luke to have it or if that was another Obi-Wan fib. Oh, and Mace Windu's blade is purple. Sam Jackson makes purple look cool.
What is Jimmy Smits doing in a Star Wars movie? He's the senator from Alderaan, fighting to defend the Republic. Princess Leia's last name is Organa, too—when Queen Padmé gives birth to her twins, Luke and Leia, the girl goes off with Bail to live on Alderaan. That planet, by Leia's account in Episode IV a "peaceful world" with no weapons, meets a bad end as the first after-market test group of the Death Star.
Many, many guys in useless white armor with famously bad aim. In Episode IV they're just average foot soldiers, and not above small talk. One even hits his head on a doorway. But in Episode II, we learn that they're all clones, built to defend the Republic against an equally large and equally computer-generated army of droids. Of course, both the droid army and the clones are actually pawns in Palpatine's grand scheme for domination of the galaxy.
"If there's a bright center to the universe, you're on the planet that it's farthest from." That's how Luke describes his desert farm-world to C-3P0 on first meeting. But let's look at the evidence: Anakin Skywalker was born there. He builds C-3P0 there and is a champion pod racer by age 10, or however old that kid was supposed to be in Episode I. Anakin returns to Tatooine to look for his mother and commits a genocidal war crime against the presumably native sandpeople in Episode II. And after Luke and Leia are born, Obi-Wan takes Luke back to Tatooine to hide out.
Advanced lesson: So, OK. Darth Vader spearheads the slaying of all the Jedi. Two get away. Yoda goes to the swamp world of Dagobah, and Obi-Wan goes to Tatooine. So, was Vader just not looking very hard? Was there never some ambitious young officer who suggested to him that maybe, just maybe, the "Ben Kenobi" on Tatooine might at least know the Obi-Wan Kenobi they were looking for? Or does that kind of initiative just get a guy Force-choked?
Chicks dig Chewbacca, the 7-foot-tall furry co-pilot of the Millennium Falcon, and Han Solo's best buddy. He's sooooo cute. Turns out he's from the planet Kashyyyk (the extra y is for yowling), which shows up in Episode III as the fierce Wookiee warriors battle … whoever the bad guys are. Droids, probably. Hard to tell.
Fine. He's Ewan McGregor. But luckily he turns into Alec Guinness.
* Correction, May 19, 2005:The initial version of this story said that Padmé was an elected representative. Actually, the queen who succeeded her—queen being an elected (and apparently term-limited) position on Naboo—appointed Padmé a Senator. Even in the Republic, it's all about who you know. Click here to return to the corrected sentence.