Review: 'Star Wars' is back in full 'Force'

Brian Truitt

That old Star Wars magic is back.

Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega) are chased by the First Order in 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens.'

Set aside worries about the second coming of The Phantom Menace. With a cast of entertaining new characters, heartfelt scenes, huge planetary battles and no qualms about being very funny or very dark at times, director J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens (**** out of four; rated PG-13; in theaters Friday, with preview screenings Thursday night) returns the iconic sci-fi franchise to a glorious place that hasn’t been seen since Ewoks danced off into victory in Return of the Jedi 32 years ago.

The galaxy far, far away has taken a downturn since the Galactic Empire was defeated. The last three decades have not been kind to Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Princess — now General — Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher). And with the First Order, a genocidal outfit that’s risen from the ashes of the Empire, there’s a military force that might even be worse than its predecessor.

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Luke has gone missing, and his absence has let the First Order grow its power across the galaxy. The group's attack legions are headed up by psychotic General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a lightsaber-wielding hothead who makes it his mission to finish what Darth Vader started and wipe out all the Jedi.

While everybody is looking for Luke — the First Order wants to kill him, and the rebellious Resistance just wants to bring him home — three new heroes enter the fray.

Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is Leia’s No. 1 pilot and his droid BB-8 has important intel in regard to Luke’s whereabouts. Finn (John Boyega) is a Stormtrooper who can’t kill on his first time out, and while helping new ally Poe out of a jam, he ends up on the desert planet Jakku. And Rey (Daisy Ridley) is a lonely Jakku scavenger who lives in the ruins of an AT-AT (those Imperial Walkers from TheEmpire Strikes Back) and trades junk for food.

Ridley brings a lot of pathos to Rey while also giving her a strong sense of naivete at first, which plays into her being the Luke of this new trilogy. (By the end of the movie, pretty much everybody is going to want a Rey action figure, guaranteed.)

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The dynamic between her and Finn is something new for Star Wars, with her bright-eyed heroism complementing Boyega’s roguish wit. They wind up in the Millennium Falcon and run into its old owner Han Solo, beginning a sequence where secrets come alive and the kids get a sense of how epic their battle for survival really is.

Isaac is fantastic as flyboy Poe, who has a swagger reminiscent of Ford from the original films. Audiences will miss him when he’s not around. Just as good is Driver, who’s a different and more petulant take on the Vader villain template but finds a way to be even more menacing when he takes off his dented mask.

While Abrams uses many of the legacy players sparingly, and thankfully never lets them overshadow the newcomers, he gives Ford time to shine and really do something neat with a man who has reverted to his smuggler days. The aging Solo has much more gravitas but still has a way with one-liners, courtesy of Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan’s script. Gone is the clunky dialogue of the prequels — instead, it’s replaced by some seriously clever writing that often leads to nice little moments, many with Han and Finn.

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The Force Awakens leans heavily into shades of Star Wars past and isn't shy about that in the least. There are visually spectacular dogfights between X-wings and TIE Fighters set to John Williams’ sparkling score; another overarching bad guy who uses holograms, Supreme Leader Snoke (played via motion capture by Andy Serkis), a nasty figure along the lines of the late Emperor; and Starkiller Base, which makes the Death Star look like a Fisher-Price My First Space Battle Station.

Abrams comes close to overdoing it with the nostalgia but pulls back by focusing on Finn’s tale or Lupita Nyong’o’s motion capture role of Maz Kanata, an alien pirate and old friend of Han’s whose castle is important for Rey’s journey. Plus, while each of the prior Star Wars movies had a definite ending, The Force Awakens finishes with an excellent and emotional cliffhanger that will leave fans, casual and hardcore alike, breathless for Episode VIII.

The Force Awakens reveals surprising connections, begins a few bromances, solves mysteries while digging up others, and sets a strong tone for what comes next in Star Wars lore. Best of all? It’ll make you feel like a kid being introduced to something truly special once again.