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Film review: "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" 

It's been 10 years since the last "Star Wars" film, and as the seventh installment of the beloved space opera franchise, there's a ridiculous amount of expectation being heaped upon "Star Wars: Episode VII -- The Force Awakens." Fans are hoping the film will capture the spirit of the classic original trilogy of films while making them forget the bitter disappointment of the prequels. Adding additional baggage, this is also the first "Star Wars" film made without the guidance of series creator George Lucas. Fresh off reinvigorating the "Star Trek" series, director J.J. Abrams was a solid choice to usher the massive franchise into a new era, and his effort should leave most everyone happy. "The Force Awakens" is an exhilarating ride, delivering solid action, big emotions, and compelling new characters, even if the film too often looks to the past rather than toward the future of the series.

Abrams introduces us to a new cast of characters, several of whom will presumably be our guides through this new trilogy of films: Rey (relative newcomer Daisy Ridley), a scavenger living on the desert planet of Jakku; a defecting Stormtrooper named Finn (John Boyega, who should already have been a star after "Attack the Block"); and wisecracking, superstar pilot, Poe Dameron (a charismatic Oscar Isaac), all set to face down the villainous Kylo Ren (Adam Driver, who is excellent).

Set 30 years after "Return of the Jedi," the familiar opening crawl explains that the Empire has not been completely vanquished, and a new power, known as the First Order, has risen from its ashes. The Resistance, led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), fights to defeat this dark new presence. And famed Jedi Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has mysteriously vanished.

In addition to the return of favorite characters -- Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) soon join in the fight -- the story beats start to feel routine. Even without Lucas's involvement, you can still feel the influence of his mantra that these films are like poetry, with each chapter "rhyming" with the one that came before. This idea is presumably meant to illustrate how history often repeats itself, but in the context of a film series, it just seems like lazy storytelling. The story is loaded with familiar elements, references, and callbacks to the original trilogy: the rise of the Dark Side, a visit to a seedy alien watering hole, and the creation of a Death Star-like weapon (it's bigger this time).

In the world of this film, the original trilogy's characters have become almost mythic (not unlike in real life), and the new characters are sometimes awestruck standing before the figures whose exploits are so familiar to them. Abrams is himself a fan of the "Star Wars" franchise, and whereas Lucas found inspiration in the old serials, samurai films, and comic books he grew up on, Abrams clearly spent his childhood watching "Star Wars." This leads to "The Force Awakens" feeling like a film based in nostalgia. But if it sometimes feels like "The Greatest Hits of Star Wars," there's a good reason people buy those albums.

But Abrams, working from a script he co-wrote with Lawrence Kasdan ("The Empire Strikes Back") and Michael Arndt ("Toy Story 3"), nails other aspects of the film -- especially the characters. As the prequels proved, creating great characters is even harder than finding a decent story to place them in. The new cast of characters are instantly appealing, and the writing is supported by some pitch-perfect casting. By far, the best section of the film is the opening 35-40 minutes where we're introduced to our protagonists, before the old familiars show up to jockey for screen time. Ridley and Boyega in particular, are fantastic: Rey and Finn provide the heart of this new film, and we get hints of interesting backstories that will no doubt be explored in greater depth throughout the next two installments. The fact that the film's two lead characters are a young woman and a man of color -- and what that will mean to kids who aren't used to seeing themselves represented in the world of blockbuster filmmaking -- can't be underestimated.

The buzz leading up to the film's release stressed the production's use of real sets and practical effects, adding a pleasing tactility to the movie (being shot on film helps). Speaking of physicality, there's also more blood than any previous "Star Wars" film (not a lot, but parents should probably be warned that it's there). "The Force Awakens" is the first "Star Wars" film I've seen in 3D, and I can't deny the pure excitement of seeing X-wings and TIE fighters whooshing overhead, and while the format isn't required to enjoy the film, it does add an additional layer of excitement to the series' trademark space battles and dogfights.

There's another two years to wait until we get the next chapter in this story: "Episode VIII," directed by Rian Johnson, then "Episode IX" from "Jurassic World" director, Colin Trevorrow to follow in 2019. Only time will tell whether the names Rey, Finn, Poe, and Kylo Ren will grow to the same pop culture ubiquity as Han, Leia, Luke, and Vader, but the potential is certainly there, and that's a success in and of itself. Now that we've established that it's still possible to make exciting "Star Wars" films, I hope they're allowed to diverge onto their own unique path. The filmmakers have succeeded in making us fall in love with an entirely new cast of characters, and now I can't wait for them to be sent off on some thrilling adventures of their own.

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