The Star Wars series has taken a beating since George Lucas brought it out of dormancy in 1999 with The Phantom Menace. Much of the
criticism the trilogy of prequel films endured was warranted, while some was unfair.

At the very least, most would agree Episodes I through III were disappointing endeavors. Short of Revenge of the Sith’s stunning second
half, they were entertaining eye-candy at best.

But that’s all in the past. Clearly the fans’ appetite for a return to the tone and quality of the original classics remained strong, as the hype
for a seventh installment reached astronomical proportions.

This time, however, fans can breathe easy, because in the hands of writer Lawrence Kasdan and co-writer and director J.J. Abrams, Star
Wars: The Force Awakens is not just a phenomenal entry in the series, but one of the finest films of 2015.

That might sound like the hyperbole of a fanboy, but the film is a superb production all-around; well-written, spiritedly directed and acted,
and genuinely thrilling and fun.

Everything you've heard is true; the Star Wars we fell in love with is back.

Opening 30 years after the events of 1983's Return of the Jedi, The Force Awakens is a great balance between new and old. Everyone's
favorite scoundrel Han Solo is here (Harrison Ford doing what he does best), Leia (Carrie Fisher) is back, as are countless others.

Thankfully, their characters have evolved since we last saw them. It really feels like time has passed, and we find some of them in places we
wouldn't expect following the 'happily ever after' ending of Return of the Jedi.

Abrams and co. have taken special care to make sure the characters are the reason these films exist again, and not the visual effects and
set pieces, as stunning as they always were.

Unfortunately, the film's greatest weakness is that equal care wasn't given to the plot itself, which borrows a bit too heavily from the original
1977 film, later redubbed A New Hope.

Those structural similarities aside, the film is simply too much fun to let its obvious echoes from the past diminish its humor and energy.

Abrams, who recently rebooted the Star Trek series, has gone on record saying he is a bigger fan of the Star Wars series. And indeed, his
visual, emotionally-charged style always seemed more at home in a galaxy far, far away.

An incredible amount of credit must be given to producer Kathleen Kennedy, who reportedly hounded Abrams until he accepted the job.

In Abrams, the series gains someone who know exactly what Star Wars is, and why it strikes so strongly at the hearts of so many people.

Unlike Trek, Abrams approaches Star Wars with reverence for the original material.

While there are most certainly flourishes of his kinetic camerawork and humor, this is a Star Wars film through and through.

But perhaps even better than recreating the excitement of the originals is his (And no doubt Kasdan's) outstanding work in creating new
characters that will lead the franchise forward in the subsequent installments.

Our new heroes are lovable, and the new villains despicable.

The performances are uniformly excellent, but it's Daisy Ridley as Rey who steals the show. Her toughness and endearing charm are at the
heart of the film.

Her story is the classical hero's journey; introduced as a nearly impoverished scavenger before being whisked away on a fantastical
adventure.

Rey's arc is incredibly satisfying and, by the time the credits role, we are rooting for her 100 percent, eagerly anticipating what will happens
next.

The final sequences add an exclamation point onto the film, showing us both literally and figuratively that there is a new hope for the
galaxy, and for the franchise.

The stunning final shot should make the wait for Episode VIII nearly unbearable for fans, both new and old.

Along her journey, Rey teams up with a defected Stormtrooper in Finn (John Boyega), and a hotshot X-Wing pilot in Poe Dameron (Oscar
Isaac).

Both are likeable, fun characters. Finn's hyper comedic delivery and moral struggles are wonderfully portrayed by Boyega.

I do wish we got a bit more of Isaac as Poe, who has the smaller role by far. Isaac is a fantastic actor, however, and makes the most of his
lesser screentime. His chemistry with Boyega in a few sequences is outstandingly enjoyable, as they share a few fist-pumping, hilarious
'bro' moments.

Boyega also gets some great moments with Ford.

"We'll use the force," Finn states nonchalantly.

"That's not how the force works!" Solo replies.

As much credit should be given to the film for developing excellent heroes, perhaps even more should be given for the creation of the
villainous Kylo Ren.

The masked and cloaked baddie is far from the cookie cutter villain we usually see in sci-fi fantasy.

Another one of the screenplay's admirable attributes is in humanizing its central antagonist.

There are a few strong sequences showing Ren's internal struggles.

An intriguing scene even finds him communing with the melted helmet of Darth Vader, lamenting his struggle to keep the light side out.

A dark Jedi/Sith struggling to wage the same battle against the light as a Jedi would against the darkness is an interesting element that
hasn't fully been explored in the films thus far.

These newcomers lead the way, carrying the film. But that's not to say isn't incredibly satisfying to see Ford back as Han.

Despite his own personally rocky off-screen relationship with the character and series, Solo was a career-defining role for Ford. And he
should be given credit for what is probably the best performance we've seen from him in years.

There are moments that perfectly capture the beloved character, and we never feel like this is simply a caricature of Han, but the same old
pirate from all those years ago.

The other returning cast have much smaller roles, but all get their moments. It's great to see some of that classic Han/Leia banter, or C-3PO
once again irritating Han beyond belief. (And there's Chewbacca, of course!)

Abrams loads the film with metaphors for its return to the classical tone and excitement of the original trilogy, confidently heralding that not
only is the original cast back, but the spirit of adventure and excitement. (Even if a Jedi craves not these things, audiences sure do.)

An immeasurable part of that excitement has always been John Williams' score, and he returns after composing all six of the previous films.
His work is, as expected, exceptional. Thrilling action, memorable new themes and nostalgic reprises of old ones combine to elevate the
film as a truly great score can.

The film is also accomplished technically, as one would expect.

Sound mixing and editing are exceptional, and the visual effects strike a perfect balance between practical and computer generated.

Art direction, costume design and cinematography are all outstanding.

The Force Awakens is a stunning film, and an overwhelming experience for longtime fans of the series. Prior to writing this review, I saw
the film twice. I needed to make sure I wasn't being blinded by nostalgia. And on my second viewing, I enjoyed it even more.

The greatest compliment I can give The Force Awakens is that it is Star Wars. Not because it has lightsabers and X-Wings and the
Millennium Falcon; but because it is so true to the soul of what made those original films great.

Even taken outside of the context of the series, this is an exceptional film, loaded from beginning to end with humor, emotion and thrills.

These aren't just elements of a great Star Wars film, but of a great film, period.

The force has indeed awoken, and it's with Star Wars once again.

* * * *
(out of four)

STAR WARS:
THE FORCE AWAKENS
Directed by: J.J. Abrams

Written by: L
awrence Kasdan & J.J. Abrams and Michael
Arndt


Starring:
Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher,
Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac


Cinematography by:
Dan Mindel

Music by:
John Williams

Released:
December 18, 2015; 135 Minutes