'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' is the best movie in the series since 'Empire Strikes Back'

( PG-13 ) ( Monitor Movie Guide )

'Star Wars' stars newcomers to the series like Daisy Ridley and John Boyega as well as actors from previous movies like Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and Mark Hamill.

Disney LucasFilm/AP
'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' stars John Boyega.

So it’s finally here, as if you didn’t know. The good news is that “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is easily the best movie in the franchise since “The Empire Strikes Back.” Unlike the dismal prequel trilogy that preceded it, or the too-slick “Return of the Jedi,” “The Force Awakens” has much of the spirit and inventiveness of the original two installments, “A New Hope” and “Empire,” its sequel.

Ironically, George Lucas was not creatively involved in the new film, which was directed by J.J.Abrams and co-scripted by “Star Wars” veteran Lawrence Kasdan and is being distributed by Disney, to whom Lucas sold the franchise in 2012 for billions. With sequels and spinoffs stretching ahead as far as the eye can see, Disney will undoubtedly make it all back many times over.

Reviewing this movie entails such a potential minefield of spoiler alerts that, for self-preservation, I think I will dispense here with most of the niceties of plot description. But let it be said that the action occurs 30 years after the end of “Return of the Jedi.” There’s a young woman, Rey (Daisy Ridley), who scavenges on a desert planet and is as feisty and formidable as a cross between Annie Oakley and Lara Croft.

There’s also Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), a captured rebel pilot who is being tortured aboard a Star Destroyer by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a Darth Vader-ish bad guy. Finn (John Boyega), a renegade stormtrooper of the nefarious First Order (a military wing inspired by the Empire), teams up with Poe and crash-lands on Rey’s planet. BB-8, a marvelous droid made up of revolving spheres and half-spheres, who is carrying information vital to the resistance, is a welcome addition to the Star Wars toy store. Many of the old toys show up as well, and it’s like a reunion of old friends, including Chewbacca, R2-D2, and C-3PO. 

There’s also Harrison Ford as Han Solo, manfully holding down his role after all these years, and Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia (except now she’s a general). I’ll leave it up to you to wonder if Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker is in the mix.

Abrams understands that “The Force Awakens” had to be both a tribute to the original films and a reboot. One of the many problems with the prequels was their obsessive overreliance on CGI effects. There is, of course, CGI in “The Force Awakens,” but it’s comparatively minimal. The film looks handmade, and this allows for a greater range of human emotion, too. When tragedy strikes, you feel it.

I am not one of those who subscribes to the mythology of the “Star Wars” saga. I have always regarded the Joseph Campbell-inspired hoo-ha as so much deep-dish blathering. When I wrote about “Return of the Jedi” a while back in my book “Rainer on Film,” I described it as “a myth without a vision,” and to some extent that remains true even of “The Force Awakens.”

But Abrams isn’t really attempting to mythologize the saga here. His focus is on staging a whiz-bang show, and the new additions, especially the charismatic Rey, with her endless derring-do, and the plucky Finn, are especially welcome. (The fact that a young woman and a young black man are at the film’s forefront is also welcome.)

I only regret that Lupita Nyong’o is playing Maz Kanata, a 1,000-year-old space pirate, in CGI disguise. She’s unrecognizable, which is not the sort of thing you should be saying about one of the more stunning women in movies.

If the sequels to “The Force Awakens” are as good as this film, that will probably be because they follow the same formula: heavy on the human side, more comedy, less CGI, more fresh faces, and more delightful droids. And, yes, one must pay homage to the Force. Grade: A- (Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence.)

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