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Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015)

Hope, Restored

Time will tell if J.J. Abrams has made the best Star Wars movie, but it's fair to say he's made the best version of Star Wars. Specifically, Episode VII: The Force Awakens is built on an almost beat-for-beat blueprint of 1977's A New Hope. Those who've read my diatribes about new-millennium Hollywood's shameless nostalgia-bombing campaign can probably guess where this review is headed. Your guess is wrong. Abrams and co-writers Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt have done what diehard fans never thought possible, re-igniting the heart-filled, hopeful galaxy of imagination that George Lucas created and subsequently butchered.

We're on the eve of a pop phenomenon the likes of which hasn't rocked the moviegoing world since 1999 (or, arguably, 2009), so I'll tread lightly here. No spoilers. We'll have that discussion another time, and with warnings visible from space. In fact, if you want to put yourself in the strongest possible position to see The Force Awakens, stop reading this review. Don't watch any more trailers, teasers, or Target commercials.* In fact, build a time machine and travel back to the precise moment Disney announced its acquisition of the Star Wars franchise. Then jump forward to whichever Episode VII screening you've bought tickets for (of course, you'll have to detour and clear up that detail, as well).

So, how do we talk about The Force Awakens without giving anything away? Let's approach this from the perspective that Abrams and company seem to have, which involves capturing the best of what's come before and adding some thematic tweaks to the equation. The familiar elements are all here: a power-hungry imperial force governed by a Dark Side acolyte, a desert-dwelling dreamer who's unwittingly drafted into the rebellion, and a sassy, charismatic pilot with an equally sassy sidekick (this film has two sets, in fact). There are droids and spaceports; betrayals and revelations; and a big, round weapon of mass destruction. Lineage plays a big role, too.

There are no political machinations to contend with this time around; no chemistry-free romances or poop jokes; and not a Gungan or midi-chlorian in sight. This is pure Star Wars, and it took a raised-on-Star Wars fan to drag the creatively ailing film franchise back into the light.

Set several decades after the fall of the Empire at the end of Return of the Jedi, The Force Awakens parallels the grimy exasperation that opened the very first movie. Though Abrams had Disney money and cutting-edge digital technology at his disposal, his movie feels sufficiently rugged: well-crafted, but not glossy--certainly not rubbery and intangible like the misguided Prequel Trilogy. Just as the years 1999-2005 were a dark time for fans, The Force Awakens signals a dashing warm hug of a return to the space opera we all know and love.

Chock this up to a hearty balance practical and computer effects; terrific actors who navigate the not-leaden screenplay with just the right blend of sincerity and gusto; and filmmakers dead set on reclaiming the mantle of Star Wars for themselves and a for new generation. This film brims with iconic imagery, from the creatures and costume designs, to a whopper of an opening shot that at once acknowledges A New Hope and acts as a promise to fans that Abrams will eclipse the Prequels with honest-to-goodness magnificence

This is also the first time I can remember getting excited about new characters, and the people inhabiting them. One member of the returning cast is more vital than we've seen him in decades, and the new crew--lead by Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, and Oscar Isaac--form an instantly compelling bond that doesn't just copy the Luke, Leia, and Han dynamic. Oh, and Adam Driver's Kylo Ren captures the conflicted, powerful petulance of a burgeoning Dark Side Master better than that stalker-eyed-what's-his-face from Episodes I-III.

I envy the kids for whom The Force Awakens will be their gateway into this universe. The deep-cut references may fly way over their heads ("Who is this 'Luke Skywalker', and why is he so important?" "Why did all the grown men in the theatre cheer when that big dog-man showed up?"). But the film's narrative DNA will present them with a truly magical, transportive adventure that they'll likely cherish the same way their parents worship at the altar of the 70s and 80s films.

Ironically, that DNA is The Force Awakens' only shortcoming, as well as one of its greatest assets. If you've seen A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back more than once in the last three-plus decades, you'll handily match up story points and characters with the new film. Abrams, Arndt, and Kasdan (who co-wrote Empire and Jedi) scatter these elements throughout, while injecting a ton of juicy new mysteries and spins on the original series' ideas; The end result is a bumpy mental and emotional ride, marked by more-than-occasional sinking-heart feelings: I can count on both hands the number of times I'd wished I hadn't known exactly what was coming at key junctures.

Hopefully, you'll be able to fully give yourself over to Abrams' vision, and shut those nitpicky, adult thoughts out. I spent more time smiling and welling up during The Force Awakens than I did critiquing it. Abrams builds upon Lucas' template with a lavish blockbuster that isn't afraid to pause and appreciate the untold stories in its war-torn scenery, or have a laugh at the expense of some of the goofier elements of its outlandish history. 

Star Wars is part of my intellectual, artistic, and, to some extent, spiritual makeup. To paraphrase an old friend (who might have also been quoting a friend), I've never known a world that didn't have Darth Vader in it. The Force Awakens ensures that this playground of possibilities endures as a generations-spanning fable, and not just a brand. I'll never shake those early impressions of Star Destroyers and low-tech lightsaber battles. But, thanks to J.J. Abrams, a kindred Force geek, I have a new favorite Star Wars.

*The members of one alien gang look like armored, anthropomorphic versions of the retail giant's emblem.

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