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Monday, 17 May, 1999, 00:35 GMT 01:35 UK
A novice's guide to Star Wars
Love it or loathe it - there's no escaping it - everyone is talking about the new Star Wars film. Here is a short guide to help you through any Star Wars conversation.

Back to basics

Star Wars
Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace is the fourth Star Wars film to be made. The others are Star Wars (1977) The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and The Return of the Jedi (1983).

Together they form the middle trilogy in George Lucas's nine-part science fiction epic. The Phantom Menace is a prequel, the first of three. The next two installments are scheduled for release in 2002 and 2005. (George Lucas has confirmed that these are the last three Star Wars films he will make.)

The Phantom Menace is the first episode in the whole story, consequently it features younger versions of some of the characters many of us have already come to love.

The story so far...

Darth Vader: The fearsome baddie of the first three films
The Star Wars epic is an old-fashioned tale of the battle between good and evil. In the original Star Wars we meet Luke Skywalker, who with the help of his trusted friends Han Solo, Chewbacca, Obi-Wan Kenobi, C-3PO and R2-D2 rescue Princess Leia, from the clutches of the evil Empire.

Throughout the remaining films the merry band continue to battle on against the Empire while Luke trains to be a Jedi knight - a kind of holy warrior - getting to grips with 'the Force'. Finally Luke faces up to the evil Darth Vader, only to discover that his greatest enemy is really his father - Anakin Skywalker - who 'went over' to the dark side of the force many years before.

That was then. This is now...

Jar Jar Binks
In Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace we travel back in time to when Anakin Skywalker, Luke's father, was a nine year-old boy on Tatooine. But don't expect answers about Anakin's crossover to the DarkSide. Much of the film's action involves the attempts of the evil Federation to invade another planet - the peaceful Naboo.

As the film progresses old characters such R2-D2 and C-3PO resurface as well as new faces with familiar names, such as the young Obi-Wan Kenobi. Completely new characters include the Jedi master Qui-Gon Jinn, the tough Queen Amidala and the just-for-laughs computer generated character called Jar Jar Binks. There are also new baddies - none badder than the devil-faced Darth Maul.

The main characters

Darth Maul
Darth Maul (Ray Park): Darth Maul, known as the Dark Lord of the Sith, is intent on capturing Queen Amidala. Maul is an apprentice to the evil Darth Sidious and is armed with a double-bladed lightsaber. He spends the film trying to destroy Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi, the Jedi assigned to protect Amidala. Maul takes over the mantle of Vader but some fans could be disappointed. Early reviews say he is only on screen for around nine minutes - not much evil for your money.

Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson): Jinn is a Jedi Knight who travels around the galaxy protecting the citizens of the Republic and helping to uphold justice. Said to possess "strong features and a piercing gaze" and a "grave and determined voice". He trains the young Ben Kenobi in the ways of the force

Ben Kenobi (Ewan McGregor): Like Luke Skywalker in the original Star Wars, Ben Kenobi starts off the film learning about the Force - his teacher is Qui Gon Jinn. Before he turns into Sir Alec Guinness - Kenobi is brought together with Anakin Skywalker, who becomes his pupil. Kenobi is assigned to protect Queen Amidala and his deadly enemy is Darth Maul.

Queen Amidala of Naboo
Queen Amidala of Naboo (Natalie Portman): Amidala is young, newly elected monarch intent on saving her planet from the evil Federation with help from Jedi Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan (Ben) Kenobi. She is also specially trained in advanced combat techniques - with enemies like Darth Maul she needs them. Amidala (later mother of Luke and Leia) first meets the boy Anakin Skywalker in this episode.

Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd): At the beginning of Episode 1 Anakin is a nine-year-old boy who lives in the slave quarters of Mos Espa, on the planet Tatooine. He dreams of becoming a starpilot and with the help of the force can see events before they happen. In later prequels Anakin will be trained to be a Jedi by Obi-Wan Kenobi before turning into Darth Vader. Anakin is also destined to fall in love with Queen Amidala - the mother of his son Luke.

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