Daisy Ridley in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” | Lucasfilm

Daisy Ridley in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”


‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’: Thrills are strong with this one

It’s a return to greatness.

Nearly 40 years after “Star Wars” exploded the pop culture universe and practically became a religion for generations of fans, and a full decade after many of those same fans felt betrayed and defeated by “Revenge of the Sith,” the seventh “Star Wars” movie could well bear the same subtitle as the original:

“A New Hope.”

What a beautiful, thrilling, joyous, surprising and heart-thumping adventure this is. “The Force Awakens” pops with memorable battle sequences, gives us chills with encore appearances by stars from the original trilogy and introduces more than a half-dozen terrific Next Generation characters.

If the U.S. presidential election were held this weekend, director-producer-co-writer J.J. Abrams might carry the day based on geek support alone.

“The Force Awakens” is set about 30 years after the events of “Return of the Jedi.” Of course Abrams begins with the familiar blue text telling us this all takes place “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” and then we get the iconic yellow crawl text giving us some basic backstory and letting us know where we are now.

And then boom! We’re off and running. (More often, flying and soaring and zigging and zagging.)

BB-8 | Lucasfilm

BB-8 | Lucasfilm

Oscar Isaac has more than a bit of Han Solo swagger as Poe Dameron, the best X-wing fighter pilot in the Resistance, and his traveling companion and best little buddy is BB-8, a droid who holds the key to the future of the rebellion against the First Order, an evil and dominant military-political organization inspired by the Galactic Empire.

(About BB-8. He just might be the droid you’re looking for this holiday season, because the hype for “The Force Awakens” has been so insane and the marketing so intense, we knew about BB-8 as a pricey and cool toy well before BB-8 ever made his big-screen debut.)

‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’

Star Wars: The Force Awakens review

Lucasfilm presents a film directed by J.J. Abrams and written by Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt. Running time: 136 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for sci-fi action violence).

John Boyega is funny and vulnerable and conflicted as Finn, a First Order stormtrooper who has a crisis of conscience, and let’s just leave it at that. Boyega is given some of the best lines in the richly layered screenplay by Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt, and he delivers a half-dozen laugh-out-loud moments. Finn is the closest thing to how one of us might act and feel if we found ourselves in the middle of an epic “Star Wars” adventure.

The British actress Daisy Ridley, bearing more than a slight resemblance to Keira Knightley, has a breakout performance as Rey, a plucky scavenger on the junkyard wasteland planet Jakku. Like many of her generation, Rey isn’t even sure if the Force is an actual thing, or if Han Solo and Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia are real people or the stuff of myth. Rey is tough and resourceful and smart and brave but not immune to being utterly terrified when she comes face to face with the power of the Force — and the Dark Side.

Combining local shoots, elaborate studio set pieces, practical effects and CGI, “The Force Awakens” is often visually dazzling, whether Rey is taking a sled ride of sorts down a desert hill, the midnight-black universe is suddenly lit up with firefights and explosions, or we’re introduced to miraculous creatures such as Maz Kanata (voiced by Lupita Nyong’o), a tiny power broker who might not have the wisdom of Yoda but knows a LOT about what’s going on.

N’yongo isn’t the only actor playing a character enveloped in special effects or obscured by a mask most of the time. Adam Driver wears a Vader-esque getup as Kylo Ren, commander of the First Order. Andy Serkis, the undisputed champion of the performance-capture roles (“The Lord of the Rings” and modern-day “Planet of the Apes” films) is the hissing and grotesque Supreme Leader Snoke, Kylo Ren’s master and the most powerful representative of the Dark Side. Old favorites Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) return, forever encased in their iconic shells and forever charming and lovable. (Well, in C-3PO’s case, forever combining a dash of charm with a tendency to irritate a little.)

Harrison Ford as Han Solo in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” | Lucasfilm

Harrison Ford as Han Solo in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” | Lucasfilm

It’s no Spoiler Alert to acknowledge Harrison Ford’s return as Han Solo — and it’s a full-fledged role and not just an extended cameo. Ford’s a great movie star but he’s never had the widest range as an actor, but at 73, he seems to be having more fun playing Han Solo now than he did back in the day. He’s still crusty and snarling and cynical, but he’s a lot quicker to reveal the real heart inside. Ford has a terrific father-figure chemistry with Ridley and Boyega.

I’ll discuss even less what has happened to Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia and Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker since we last saw them. Suffice to say Abrams has done a masterful job of linking the old guard with the new generation, and telling their stories in grand and bold fashion.

Not everyone will love the new “Star Wars.” Maybe some fans and critics won’t find the fresh characters nearly as memorable as the classics. No doubt some will be flat-out ticked off at certain developments.

Better to take such risks than to give us a “Star Wars” sequel that plays it safe or ventures into weirdness and goofiness and Jar Jar Binks.

May 26, 2017. That’s when “Episode VIII” is scheduled to be released.

Can’t wait.

Lucasfilm presents a film directed by J.J. Abrams and written by Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt. Running time: 136 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for sci-fi action violence).

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