**** out of ****
Rated PG-13
for sci-fi action violence
Released: December 18, 2015
Runtime: 142 minutes
Directed by: J.J. Abrams
Starring: Harrison Ford, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Lupita N’yongo, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is ranked #6 on my Top Ten List for 2015

My God.

Believe the hype. Trust your hopes. J.J. Abrams has brought balance to The Force.

He’s taken the reins from Lucas and made it feel as if they’ve been taken by Spielberg. The most cinematic entry in the saga to date, Star Wars: The Force Awakens doesn’t just continue the story. It expands the mythos.

Of that expansion, I will only say this: the film opens with everyone in that galaxy far, far away asking the same exact question we’ve all been asking here, after every new promo and poster we’ve seen: Where is Luke Skywalker? Pursuing that answer – and finding that Jedi – fuels an epic story that’s also a consummate Hollywood entertainment of, well, the first order.

The immense and absolute satisfaction of Episode VII goes far beyond not having Jar Jar Binks, Ewoks, or a whiny and petulant Chosen One. It’s more substantial than returning to a proper balance of old-school optical effects and creatures with new-era digital environments and creations. It goes deeper than all of that, giving us dramatic (and thematic) stakes that keep us on the edge of our seats, and characters that once again stir our hopes, passions, and ideals.

In the prequels (and unlike the originals), every good guy was so noble that they were bland, and nearly every bad guy (with the exception of Darths Sidious and Maul) failed to fascinate. They all felt the same, and never provoked the effective clashing personas of Luke, Han, and Leia, or the cultural zeitgeist as did Vader.

But with Abrams – and returning Empire/Jedi co-screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan (his input should not be underestimated) – we’re given heroes and villains that are distinct, varied, and dynamic. Ones we root for, are shaken by, and fall in love with. And so good are these new ones – Rey, Finn, Poe Dameron, and Kylo Ren (along with the lovable droid BB-8) – that this episode could’ve soared completely on their strength alone. Indeed it often does, and right out of the gate, so thrillingly that bringing back the old crew wouldn’t have even been necessary.

Yet Abrams does bring them back, but not just for the nostalgia factor. He validates their presence beyond the audience wanting them to be there to the story needing them to be there. That veracity is felt especially in Harrison Ford, who takes a character he became so tired of that he asked Lucas to kill him off in the original trilogy, and revives him with a vigor that reveals just how much he believes in Abrams’ take on Han Solo and the broader Star Wars narrative. Ford is not only clearly having fun again; he’s unmistakably grateful for a script (and character) that has the depth and dimension he longs for as an actor.

His chemistry with Carrie Fisher’s Leia also remains, as does her strength, now imbued with age and gravitas – and also, in key moments, tenderness. And Luke, well…his reveal, and his state, will be debated until Episode VIII.

Along with this original trio, callbacks to moments – and central story beats – from episodes past are more than just recycled, desperate fan service; in fact, far from it. At their most simple, these callbacks are clever (but never identical) tweaks on oft-quoted scenes. At their most significant, they’re reminders that good and evil take new yet familiar – and often more evolved – forms, and that fate and destiny aren’t simply a trajectory but a circle. And, at their most moving, they’re necessary motifs, for it’s in them that fates and destinies become irrevocably forged.

Abrams has always had an incomparable eye for casting, and it serves this franchise well. Every newcomer is pitch perfect, not to mention diverse (the three heroes are female, black, and Jewish), and infuses them with the passion, complexity, and conviction that Abrams characters have always been known for – not to mention the humor (sharp, witty, hilarious, perfectly-timed humor). No cool irony here. Across the board, hearts are out on sleeves.

Finn (John Boyega) has the most compelling arc, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is a scoundrel who (unlike Solo) rises to a cause rather than running from it, and Rey (Daisy Ridley, the discovery of the year) is the heroine that girls everywhere have been longing for, especially as she grows into her potential. She’s the character (and performance) I was drawn to most, and the one on which this new trilogy appears to hinge. And while Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren can’t equal Darth Vader (who could?), his violent outbursts are truly disturbing, plus he takes advantage of the tortured, conflicted, humanizing layers that Abrams writes for the saga’s latest villain – especially in the scenes where his mask comes off.

So how does The Force Awakens stack up against the previous six episodes? I have my own opinion, but now is not the time to debate or rank. For now, let’s collectively embrace this truly magnificent saga resurrection, in all its pure joy, thrills, and splendor.

J.J. Abrams hasn’t just set the stage for new episodes; he’s set the standard for the entire Star Wars universe – episodes, stand alones, and all. He’s ended the destructive conflict of the prequels and brought order to our culture’s most beloved, enduring mythology.

This is the Star Wars we’ve been looking for.

May this force be with us. Always.

(To read my spoiler-filled analysis “Han Solo Isn’t Who You Think He Is“, which includes predictions for future episodes, click here.)

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