Star Wars: The Force Awakens accomplishes two missions very handily. Foremost, it tickles the pleasure centers of the legion of Star Wars fans who have waited 30-some years for the series to return to form. (The sluggish prequels have been largely stuffed down the franchise memory hole.) To do this, director J.J. Abrams and cowriters Lawrence Kasdan (a toiler on two of the original films) and Michael Arndt have devised a story that will be, shall we say, familiar to anyone who has ever seen the first Star Wars movie, released in 1977. They have also brought back a number of iconic characters and accouterments, and they salute vintage scenes and catch-phrases with knowing fanboy purpose.
An equally important objective was to refresh the Star Wars brand with new young stars—very good ones, it turns out—and to wall off the first trilogy with a presumably irreversible plot development (one of two significant narrative twists). This would enable an honorable rebooting of the franchise by the Disney company, which acquired rights to the series three years ago when it bought the Lucasfilm operation from Star Wars creator George Lucas (who had very little input on this picture). These aims have been fully achieved.
The evil Galactic Empire of old is long gone, of course. It has been replaced here by the evil First Order, which is headed, not by the odious Emperor Palpatine of yore, but by the similarly odious Supreme Leader Snoke (a mo-capped Andy Serkis). Like Palpatine, Snoke has a horde of white-plated Stormtroopers at his command and a black-masked enforcer, the vividly conflicted Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who very strongly recalls the departed Darth Vader. Snoke is frustrated in his quest for galactic domination by the Resistance (formerly the Rebel Alliance), led by the onetime Princess Leia, now a general. (Carrie Fisher returns in the role, attended by newbie fighter pilot Oscar Isaac.) In pursuit of victory, both Snoke and Leia are keen to find Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), the last Jedi Knight, who has vanished. The key to locating him is a secret bit of information installed in a little droid called BB-8, which is even cuter than the now-mothballed R2-D2. (Its adorable gibberings are the work of Bill Hader and Ben Schwartz.)
All of this is background, though. The movie is carried almost entirely by two new characters: a scrappy young scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley) and a reformed Stormtrooper called Finn (John Boyega). Ridley, especially, crosses effortlessly into stardom here with a performance that's equal parts warm yearning and heroic grit (she has a face of the sort that cinematographers so often seek in vain). And fellow Brit Boyega is just right as a man of buried virtue who slowly discovers a well of courage he never knew he had. In a movie that reportedly cost $200-million to make, it's interesting that the romantic glow created by these two—and, in passing, by Leia and the likewise returning Han Solo (Harrison Ford, with Chewbacca in tow)—outshines most of the interstellar zoom-boom action for which the franchise long ago became famous. Some of the trademark ruckus is rousing (especially an attack by a giant tentacle monster), but some of it is shopworn—we've seen it before, and quite a lot.
Director Abrams and his fabrication unit have done a fine job with the movie's new creatures—especially a sly, Yoda-like bar owner named Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong'o). By ringing the old bells and adding some new surprises, and by maintaining focus on the new characters while also celebrating fans' love for the old ones, Abrams has created a sturdy template for the next two sequels, to be directed by Rian Johnson (Looper) and Colin Treverrow (Jurassic World). This one's a solid beginning, and the Force, it's safe to say, will be with it.