'There has been an awakening. Have you felt it?"
That's the evil Supreme Leader of the First Order talking in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, sensing that, yes, something is astir in the cosmos.
Indeed, 10 years after the final installment of George Lucas' not-exactly-stellar Star Wars prequel trilogy, reboot king J.J. Abrams has jump-started the mythic franchise. Months and months of micromanaged Disney Studio hype behind us (well, almost), it's time for some strap-yourself-in hyperdrive. Yes, that old jalopy, the Millennium Falcon, flies again.
Set a few decades after the Ewok rumbles of 1983's Return of the Jedi (the final installment in the original Star Wars trilogy), The Force Awakens is half reboot, half remake, and all fun. The Rebel Alliance is now the Resistance; the Galactic Empire, the First Order. But the opening expository crawl still runs off into the infinite darkness, followed by the ominous thrum of a giant spaceship as it flies across - and eclipses - a planet.
That planet is Jakku, a desert orb where a young woman named Rey (Daisy Ridley) gets by selling scrap metal, and where she will soon partner with a young storm-trooper-gone-AWOL by the name of Finn (John Boyega). Poe (Oscar Isaac), who we are told is "the best pilot in the Resistance," teaches Finn to fly. He's a quick study.
On the Dark Side, Isaac's Ex Machina co-star, Domhnall Gleeson, is a young First Order general, answering to Ren, a Vaderlike nemesis whose youthfulness is revealed when he takes off that Darth mask in the third act. (No spoilers here!)
Like Creed, that rousing and excellent Rocky hand-off, The Force Awakens assembles a new generation of stars to take over the operation. But the old-timers are happy to be on hand to help with the transition. Harrison Ford, weathered, worn, and less jaunty of gait, nonetheless proves a welcome presence as Han Solo, supplying wisecracks and seat-of-the-pants mentorship for the new recruits. (As seen in the trailer - by hundreds of millions of fans - he confirms that "the Force, the Jedi - it's all true.") Carrie Fisher returns as Leia, no longer a bun-haired princess but a battle-weary general, a leader of the Resistance. Even Peter Mayhew, the actor beneath all that Wookieeshag carpeting, is back as Chewbacca, Han's copilot and Kashyyykian-speaking best bud.
Lovable droids R2-D2 and C-3PO make their appearance, too, though the former doesn't really light up (literally) until The Force Awaken's new droid, BB-8, rolls into view.
Abrams and his team (co-writers Lawrence Kasdan, the Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi scribe, for institutional memory, and Michael Arndt, for not-sure-what) invoke the original canon with reverence - and with the certainty that first-generation Star Wars geeks will eat it up. Every morsel.
Hence, a bar full of intergalactic lowlifes not unlike the old Mos Eisley Cantina - this one operated by a wizened, begoggled alien named Maz (the voice and motion-capture gestures of Lupita Nyong'o, although why the most beautiful woman in the world was not cast as the most beautiful woman in the galaxy is a question that needs to be asked of Abrams). And, hence, an endgame strategy that involves a slim-chance, seemingly suicidal fighter squadron attack on the enormous enemy mothership - not the Death Star, but an even bigger, more terrifying thing called Starkiller Base.
And what of Luke Skywalker, you ask? The fledgling hero of 1977's Star Wars is pivotal to The Force Awakens, for reasons that move the plot from one corner of the universe to another, pitting good against evil, and prompting Rey and Finn to pick up a lightsaber and wield it against an enemy's similarly illuminated blade.
As for the two Brits cast as Rey and Finn, the former, Ridley, surely must hold diplomas from the Keira Knightley School of Veddy English Pluck, and Boyega is charismatic, proves nimble while dodging artillery fire, and delivers his snappy quips deadpan-style. Both are signed on to Star Wars Episode VIII, set for a May 26, 2017, release.
May the Force be with them. And with us.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens ***
(Out of four stars)
Directed by J. J. Abrams. With Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Domhnall Gleeson, Peter Mayhew, Adam Driver. Distributed by Walt Disney.
Running time: 2 hours, 16 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (intergalactic violence, adult themes).