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The “Star Wars” universe can seem vast and intimidating to newcomers. If you’ve never seen a “Star Wars” film and you want to be prepared before seeing “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” here’s a primer that will get you ready:

Mythology

“Star Wars” creator George Lucas combined influences from classic sci-fi serials (“Flash Gordon”), samurai culture (particularly Akira Kurosawa’s work), American Westerns and World War II aerial dog fights in crafting the first installment, which was released as a standalone picture in 1977 and later retitled “Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope” after a wildly successful theatrical run.

The blend of romantic mysticism (embodied in The Force) and grounded elements (yearning for adventure, struggling with identity and change) offered audiences a new style of big-screen storytelling that brought breathless sci-fi action to timeless mythological themes.

Originals vs. prequels

The three original films (“Episode IV,” “V” and “VI”), which were released between 1977 and 1983, are widely considered superior to the more recent prequel trilogy (“Episode I,” “II” and “III,” 1999-2005). The former three tell the story of Luke Skywalker’s transformation from a Tatooine farm boy to a galactic hero, while the latter recount the story of a different Tatooine youngster in his father Anakin’s turn to the dark side of The Force — and eventual transformation into the villain Darth Vader.

The originals featured groundbreaking special effects and helped make stars of cast members Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and others. But director Lucas’ emphasis on computer-generated imagery over practical effects, as well as groan-inducing dialogue and flat acting, made the prequels something many “Star Wars” purists would rather forget.

Power-watching the saga

We recommend Machete Order, so named in a widely shared 2011 blog post by Denver software programmer Rod Hilton. It’s neither chronological (following the films’ release dates) nor episodic (following the numerical order).

Hilton proposes cutting out “Episode I — The Phantom Menace” entirely, staring with “Episode IV,” then putting “Episode II” and “III” between episodes “V” and “VI” as a sort of extended flashback. The film order looks like this: “A New Hope,” “The Empire Strikes Back,” “Attack of the Clones,” “Revenge of the Sith” and “Return of the Jedi.”

As Hilton argues, this allows viewers to start with the two strongest films — the ones that established the universe best — and finish with the most satisfying ending, the (supposed) destruction of the Galactic Empire.

“Two films of Luke’s story, two films of Anakin’s story, then a single film that intertwines and ends both stories,” he wrote, noting that nothing in “Episode I” is essential to grasping the mythology or plot of the six-film arc.

It’s also, more broadly, a satisfying comeuppance for Lucas and his widely reviled hubris in digitally tinkering with his creations long after their release, as he has done multiple times. Just as he is able to remaster his films, viewers are able to redefine the way the story unfolds.

7 ‘Star Wars’ facts

No one can deny the sheer excitement surrounding the release of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” But how well do you know the fascinating trivia surrounding the 38-year-old franchise?

In time for the seventh installment’s Dec. 18 release, here are seven fun facts:

1. Yoda told Luke he was 900 years old shortly before dying and becoming one with the Force. He was actually 892, according to “Star Wars” lore. As for the inspiration behind Yoda, legend has it he is a hybrid between the late British makeup artist Stuart Freeborn and Albert Einstein. Freeborn did the makeup for “Star Wars” (1977), “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back” (1980) and “Star Wars: Return of the Jedi” (1983).

2. John Ratzenburger, who is best known for his role as Cliff Clavin, the factoid-loving mailman on “Cheers,” had a small role in “The Empire Strikes Back” before landing on the hit sitcom.

3. To track R2-D2 and C-3PO’s character origins, fans should check out the 1958 film “The Hidden Fortress,” which features comedy foil sidekicks and inspirations Tahei and Matashichi. R2-D2 was designed and built by Ralph McQuarrie, John Stears and roboticist Tony Dyson.

4.Speaking of R2-D2, Kenny Baker, 81, and Anthony Daniels, 69, will reprise their roles as R2-D2 and C-3PO respectively in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” The two have appeared in all seven “Star Wars” films. Peter Mayhew, 71, plays Chewbacca. He will also be back for “The Force Awakens,” which is his fifth movie in the franchise.

5. “Saturday Night Live” has famously parodied the casting calls behind “Star Wars.” But did you know actress Karen Allen (“Starman” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark”) auditioned to play Princess Leia? Meanwhile, James Caan (“The Godfather”) was in consideration to play Han Solo.

6. Actor Samuel L. Jackson, who played Mace Windu, asked for his lightsaber to be purple. (It is a cool color.)

7.Princess Leia’s iconic cinnamon-bun hairdo was inspired by a combination of the hairstyles sported by Native American Hopi women and Queen Fria from the “Flash Gordon” comic books.

Mekeisha Madden Toby

Special to The Detroit News

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