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'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' is a nostalgic and exciting return to a galaxy far, far away
A scene from Star Wars: Episode VII The Force Awakens. - photo by Josh Terry
STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS 4 stars Daisy Ridley, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac; PG-13 (sci-fi action violence); in general release

"Star Wars" fans can breathe easy: The Force is in good hands. With The Force Awakens, director and longtime fan J.J. Abrams has recaptured the spirit of the original trilogy and delivered the sequel fans have been waiting for since the summer of 1983.

Abrams first turn at the franchise controls combines the freshness of 1977s A New Hope with the darkness and intensity of 1980s The Empire Strikes Back. The Force Awakens opens 30 years after Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) defeated Darth Vader, restoring balance to the Force in 1983s Return of the Jedi. But time has not been kind, and the traditional opening crawl announces that the legendary Jedi Knight is missing in action.

In his absence, a new regime called the First Order has risen to power, stepping into the plastic white combat boots of the Empire. Led by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and an aspiring Sith Lord named Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the First Order has a new fleet of Star Destroyers, an army of Nazi-like Stormtroopers, and a secret weapon that might put the Death Star to shame.

But a new resistance movement is also underway, led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher). Leia is determined to find her brother before the First Order does and sends a flashy young X-Wing pilot named Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) to a remote planet called Jakku to locate a map of Lukes whereabouts.

But a First Order raid lands Dameron with Finn (John Boyega), a rookie Stormtrooper who suspects intergalactic oppression isnt his best career option, and the map eventually falls to Rey (Daisy Ridley), a Jakku scavenger who makes her living pilfering the remains of old Star Destroyers.

There are lots of moments in The Force Awakens that mirror elements of the original trilogy, but none more than the journey Rey takes once a quirky robot named BB-8 crosses her path. Yet for all of its knowing nods, The Force Awakens should be quickly accessible to anyone who can appreciate a Joseph Campbell-style heros journey.

The early images of Rey sifting through wrecked Star Destroyers feel almost metaphoric, as if Abrams is picking through the toys he played with as a kid and bringing them back to life. The Force Awakens frequently feels like the kind of adventure fans might have envisioned on their own, playing with a truckload of Kenner toys back in the 80s.

From the beginning, The Force Awakens injects the audience into that familiar world, often in ways director George Lucas prequel trilogy struggled to achieve 15 years ago. As you might expect, the gritty, lived-in visuals which de-emphasize CGI in favor of practical effects are incredible, and the pacing never gives the audience a chance to let its guard down. But a few choice cues from John Williams classic soundtrack serve as a reminder of how important the composer was to the impact of the original films.

The challenge for Abrams is to balance fan service against the needs of his story, and for the most part, he succeeds. Fan favorites like Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) are welcome reveals, and the return of the Millennium Falcon is going to get huge cheers. But Abrams doesnt use cameos for a few cheap brownie points. He gets plenty of mileage on nostalgia, but The Force Awakens isnt a cute reunion special.

Ford especially earns his money with this one. But as fun as it is to see Han Solo back in action, the newcomers like Ridley take center stage, launching subplots that should be fun to watch in ensuing installments.

If it matters, The Force Awakens has its flaws. The CGI Supreme Leader could use some work, for example. And the films PG-13 rating, while definitely on the soft end of the scale, might lead some parents to keep younger viewers from jumping onto the bandwagon. But unless youre still bitter that Disney and Abrams dismissed the content of the Star Wars Expanded Universe, you should be very happy with what you see in The Force Awakens.

Its a little weird watching the words A Long Time Ago, In a Galaxy Far, Far Away without the traditional 20th Century Fox fanfare. But Lucas has officially passed the lightsaber, and it has never looked better.

"Star Wars: The Force Awakens" is rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence; running time: 135 minutes.
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