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updated: 12/17/2015 9:15 AM

Review: 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' returns to its roots

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  • Video: "Force Awakens" trailer

  • Rey (Daisy Ridley) and BB-8 are chased by stormtroopers who are after a secret map in "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," directed by J.J. Abrams.

    Rey (Daisy Ridley) and BB-8 are chased by stormtroopers who are after a secret map in "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," directed by J.J. Abrams.

 
 

It doesn't quite make up for nine long years devoted to four excruciatingly disappointing prequels.

But it's an excellent start.

"Star Wars: Episode VII -- The Force Awakens" marks the Star Warsiest movie since "Return of the Jedi," a fun and fantastic blend of old memories and new blood, old enemies and new friends, old actors and really old actors.

(Critic's note: This review contains no spoilers, ruins no surprises and judiciously fudges on plot details so as to maximize enjoyment.)

Director J.J. Abrams, uniting with "Empire Strikes Back" writer Lawrence Kasdan and writer Michael Arndt, finds that delicate balance between the nostalgic past and the adventuresome present to re-create a vintage "Star Wars" movie made before George Lucas went a little nutty and produced three prequels pretty much already covered by the 75-second opening crawl in "A New Hope."

"The Force Awakens" has been constructed by savvy filmmakers keenly aware of the "Star Wars" universe.

So, we get fight scenes, chase sequences, stylized sets and lines of dialogue that effortlessly evoke scenes, sequences, sets and lines from the earlier "Star Wars" episodes complete with those old-fashioned "Flash Gordon" screen-wipe transitions between scenes.

Remember Luke's desperate bid to destroy the Death Star in his X-wing?

"Force Awakens" replicates it with different characters and a newer, bigger death device called the Starkiller. (In the original "Star Wars" script, Lucas named his main character Luke Starkiller in "Adventures of the Starkiller: Episode 1 The Star Wars.")

Yes, C-3PO (Anthony Daniels, who can still fit into that suit) shouts, "We're doomed!"

Yes, Han Solo (reprised by Harrison Ford) says, "I have a bad feeling about this."

Yes, a stormtrooper calls a rebel "scum!"

Regretfully, the spirits of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda have left the metaphorical building, so we get no lectures on "There is no try" or encouragement to "Use the Force."

What we do get are two new Rebellion warriors sworn to oppose the new totalitarian threat to the universe, The First Order.

Stormtrooper FN-2187 (John Boyega) suffers a crisis of conscience after being ordered to massacre a village of innocent families.

He breaks ranks and rescues a rebel prisoner named Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) who has hidden a map inside a BB-8 robotic unit. That map tells the location of the universe's last Jedi, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill).

"I thought he was a myth!" says Rey (Daisy Ridley), a lowly scavenger on the planet Jakku. Light on her feet, and more than capable of taking care of herself, Rey befriends Finn (Poe shortens FN-2187's name to that), unaware that the First Order's Vader-like commander Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) has launched a search for the roly-poly BB-8.

As you might guess, "Force Awakens" offers a weepy reunion moment between Solo and Leia (Carrie Fisher), complete with original composer John Williams' swelling music planting the nostalgic cherry on top.

At times, the characters become a little too self-aware for their own good, and it's to Abrams' credit that he pulls them back from the brink of overdoing the moment.

Back in 1977, 1980 and 1983, Lucas had the right characters and plot, but not the technical quality he wanted in the visual effects.

In the second trilogy, he achieved the level of effects he wanted, but no longer had strong characters or punchy, traditional plots.

Now, "The Force Awakens" merges cutting-edge visuals with characters spouting funny, telling dialogue (thanks, no doubt, to Kasdan), making it the first ideal Lucas production, even though Lucas sold all his "Star Wars" rights to Walt Disney in 2012 for $4 billion.

"Force Awakens" nails the classic "Star Wars" experience down to the original trilogy's enduring theme of friendship as the most powerful force in the universe.

If you don't believe it, count the number of times the characters say the words "friend" and "friends."

"My dear friend, how I have missed you!" C-3PO says to R2-D2 after being away for a long time.

But we know the truth.

C-3PO's not talking to R2-D2 at all. He's talking to us.

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