The Rise of Skywalker represents the final installment of a saga spanning nine films released over a 42-year timespan. This wealth of Star Wars stories is enough to make anybody's head spin, but for someone new to the galaxy — or anybody looking for a refresher course — here's a small guide to the Star Wars movies you should watch before The Rise of Skywalker hits theaters on Dec. 20.
The Rise of Skywalker finds Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega), Poe (Oscar Isaac), and Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) all continuing their fight to save the Resistance from destruction at the hands of the First Order, led by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). What began with the story of farm boy Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) unexpectedly caught up in a civil war now ends with a whole new generation of heroes rising up to find their own place in the galaxy's pantheon of freedom-fighting heroes and evil villains. The Rise of Skywalker is the culmination of an adventure that spans at least three generations and the rise and fall of an entire empire, all of which are chronicled in three separate sets of trilogies, or in other words, nine movies, if you're including The Rise of Skywalker.
Watching all eight films is a tall order, but if you're dedicated to understanding exactly what it means for this saga to end, they're all well worth watching. Yes, that means sitting down to tune in to the original trilogy of A New Hope (1977), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and Return of the Jedi (1983); the prequel trilogy of The Phantom Menace (1999), Attack of the Clones (2002), and The Revenge of the Sith (2005); and the two most recent films in the almost-completed trilogy, The Force Awakens (2015) and The Last Jedi (2017).
All of these films collectively cover the main events of the of Star Wars universe and act as the origin point of many other spinoffs. As far as films that really need to be seen to appreciate The Rise of Skywalker, these are it. If you're looking to go a little further, the spinoff films Rogue One and Solo are standalone films that provide some really great background information on some of the saga's most pivotal moments and heroes. They're good to watch for a full understanding of the galaxy, but aren't "required reading" per se like the others might be.
But even without those two films, it's a lot of information to take in and a lot of movies to watch. While it's perfectly fine to tear through these movies chronologically by release date or even by in-universe timeline order (i.e., prequels, original trilogy, then new trilogy), consider an alternative order for the films.
There are a multitude of orders to check out, and Empire covered a few of them in 2017. But a popular one is known as the "Machete order," which orders the movies thus: A New Hope, Empire Strikes Back, Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith, Return of the Jedi, The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, and finally, The Rise of Skywalker. The biggest change in this order is the omission of The Phantom Menace, which does seem a bit of a harsh indictment of the film, but it makes sense, given that all of the events that occur within it don't have too much of a major impact on the later films, making it feel more like a spinoff in the vein of Rogue One or Solo.
In short, this order turns the major revelation of Darth Vader being Luke's father at the end of Empire Strikes Back into a kickoff for a long flashback sequence — i.e., the prequels. The prequels culminate in the creation of Darth Vader, whose motivations and background provide for a stronger emotional impact in The Return of the Jedi.
Ultimately, the order doesn't matter too much if you're simply trying to prepare for The Rise of Skywalker. What does matter is seeing the films at least once, which should give you a chance to fully appreciate the film's major story arcs, which, again, are the conclusion of a story 42 years in the making. If you've never seen any Star Wars movies before, some of the more minute details and references might go over your head, but even just a once-through should be enough to get you up to speed.