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‘The Force Awakens’ restores the joyful spirit to a beloved saga

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(Disney/LucasFilm)

(Disney/LucasFilm)

“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” looks and feels like a passion project. J.J. Abrams directs with the wide-eyed excitement of an adoring fan. There’s a sense of wonder to his camerawork – a slow pan takes in the engrossing detail of a bustling cantina, a wide shot reveals the surreal majesty of a Star Destroyer buried in sand. Each image appears so lovingly imbued with nuance that “The Force Awakens” works tremendously as both a reintroduction to a familiar universe and an exploration of something new.

Abrams and co-writers Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt set the seventh installment in the “Star Wars” saga around 30 years after “Return of the Jedi,” and that jump forward brings fascinating consequences. Most substantial of them: the sands of time have buried the events of the original trilogy beneath myth and mystery. This development allows the director to wring intrigue and charm out of a plot that borrows plenty from the past films in the series.

“The Force Awakens” is more than a nostalgia romp, though, despite its tendency to parallel certain previous “Star Wars” beats too closely. Sure, the film follows a fairly derivative blueprint, but even the most overtly Xeroxed moments feel purposeful. There’s a compelling sentiment bubbling beneath all of the narrative connections with the original movies. If these storytelling rhymes serve any function beyond marketability, it’s to remind us that people keep making the same mistakes, struggling through the same issues, causing the same harms. The apple of history, one could say, does not fall far, far away from the tree.

Much of the magic in this film stems from how efficiently Abrams extends the saga’s existing mythology. The storyline rarely gets bogged down with exposition – Abrams drives much of his worldbuilding through precise visual cues. A further-aged retrofuture aesthetic hints at the broader changes that occurred in the years since Luke Skywalker faced off with the Emperor. By contrast, moments of blatant Third Reich imagery reveal that fascist evils lingered in this distant galaxy long after the fall of the Empire.

Simplicity works to the film’s advantage, but unfettered earnestness is its greatest strength. “The Force Awakens” rediscovers the joyful spirit largely absent from the stilted political slog of the prequels. There’s as much operatic sound and fury as there always has been, but here it’s finally reunited with the adventurous beating heart that first made “Star Wars” so great. A mix of choice and happenstance pulls the new cast of characters together – they stumble onto a journey much bigger than all of them, and the movie embraces that grandiosity with a freewheeling glee.

And how about that new cast? Daisy Ridley delivers a breakout performance as Rey, the plucky star at the center of this sequel trilogy kickoff. Rey has spent around two decades scavenging to survive on the unforgiving desert planet Jakku – she’s self-sufficient and lonely, strong and vulnerable, and Ridley captures these dualities with aplomb.

The actress is equally in touch with Rey’s physicality and emotional depth, speaking and fighting for a larger cause with a verve tinged with world-wary melancholy. She takes her carefully written role and turns Rey into a full, flawed, accessible woman. Ridley’s commitment makes Rey a beacon of hope for a new generation of “Star Wars” fans, and these movies need more characters like her.

John Boyega also does affecting work as Finn, a Stormtrooper seeking a moral higher ground. He’s determined and eager and his effortless rapport with Ridley makes their characters’ fast friendship as delightful as the adventure around it. Boyega plays just as well off of Oscar Isaac. Isaac’s part – a formidable X-wing pilot named Poe – goes underused in “The Force Awakens,” but the talented actor charges his short screentime with a winning wise-cracking charisma. Poe steals all of his scenes – except those shared with his loyal astromech droid, BB-8, a roly-poly ball of adorable whose appearance alone would undoubtedly improve most movies.

Each of the film’s heroic leads is afforded layered characterization and I can happily say the same for its primary antagonist. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) certainly has an intimidating presence on-screen – he wears a voice-distorting helmet whose design nods to Darth Vader and wields an erratically blazing crossguard lightsaber – but he’s fueled by wounded rage, not two-dimensional malice. Ren is tortured and tantrum-prone, and Driver’s emotional acting makes him more believably conflicted than Anakin Skywalker ever was. His actions and imperfections earned my empathy and scorn, and establish him as a genuinely dynamic character.

The intersecting arcs of these fresh faces push the film into fascinating thematic territory. Ren, Rey and Finn’s mutual search for belonging opens up potential for a “Star Wars” in which personal agency, rather than lineage, determines one’s destiny. Their quest offers important ideas about connection and validation: camaraderie can heal the wounds of abandonment, and the family that loves you may not be the one you’re born into.

That the movie can approach such heavy concepts while maintaining its light, comic step is nothing short of remarkable. “The Force Awakens” consistently proves that a tone of levity often carries a story best. Kasdan, Abrams and Arndt know exactly when to inject laughs – they embed dialogue with sparkling wit, and their knack for situational humor easily makes this the saga’s funniest entry. John Williams’ score and Daniel Mindel’s cinematography capture the spectacle, triumph and tragedy in the narrative, but the film’s script never forgets to be playful.

I was 10 years old the last time I saw a “Star Wars” movie in theaters. When I was young, this series inspired me and made me believe in the stuff of dreams. “The Force Awakens” brought me back to a simpler time. It made me laugh, cry and smile in awe as it took me to worlds that felt just as real and vibrant as our own. There’s something beautiful about that.

Nathan Frontiero can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @NathanFrontiero.

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