You must remember this, or at least you should: Before it became an alternative religion, a defining hodgepodge of myth and a heartbreaking progenitor of dull prequels, Star Wars was just a great ride. That's the best approach to carry into Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the most massively hyped sequel/reboot in the history of massively hyped sequel/reboots.
The new movie moves swiftly and with assurance, with crisp editing and sweeping camera work. The script nods and winks at its predecessors without straining its neck or its eyes. It rewards diehards with in-jokes. It respects the themes of grandeur and destiny without forcing the issue. And it provides a showcase for two rising stars in Daisy Ridley and John Boyega, both of whom deliver more freshness and vitality than anything or anyone in the last trilogy.
Yeah, that's a pretty low bar. But it can't be ignored. George Lucas ran his beloved franchise into the ground and sapped it of the wit and vigor that made it hum in the first place. Director J.J. Abrams has restored Star Wars' charm and updated its original visual dazzle. Like that 1977 proto-blockbuster that changed the way movies are made and marketed, The Force Awakens has a tactile presence; it doesn't feel like it was made in a computer and drained of blood.
Ridley's Rey is this movie's Luke Skywalker, a restless desert inhabitant whisked away on an adventure she didn't ask for, and asked to tap powers she's not aware of. Within minutes she's the strongest female character the franchise has seen (another low bar). She feels like an actual person, as does Boyega's Finn, a stormtrooper with a conscience, marked for something different by a fallen combatant's blood smears on his white helmet.
Abrams' task here is tricky. He has to incorporate all the nostalgic callbacks that fans demand into a universe that stands on its own. He has to make the old seem new, but not too new. For instance, Adam Driver's Kylo Ren is a spiritual descendant of Darth Vader, but he's also a new breed of villain. Driver has the advantage of taking off his black helmet and using his expressive face.
You can quibble with some of the results, especially if you go in expecting a Second Coming (in a series rife with images of resurrection). Some of the mythology lacks density; yet another fraught father-son relationship is explained rather summarily and doesn't pack the punch that it might. But I admire Abrams' mix of reverence and irreverence; his maiden Star Wars voyage feels more free and easy than expected. It's light on its feet. It knows its way around the modern action storytelling rhythms that Star Wars all but created.
Where Ridley, Boyega and an underused Oscar Isaac fare best among the newcomers, Harrison Ford is the most valuable veteran player. Han Solo still has swagger, but comparing the young swashbuckler to the older model reminds us how much Ford has grown as an actor (and perhaps how little Lucas cared about performance). The brashness is shot through with vulnerability to match Ford's gracefully lined face.
Go see The Force Awakens with an open mind, and without expectations of the same lightning being captured again in the same bottle. It is, at the end of the day, a movie. And it's a pretty good one.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (B+)
Directed by J.J. Abrams. PG-13 (sci-fi action violence). 135 mins. In wide release.