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Movie review: Latest ‘Star Wars’ awakens nostalgia

Finn (John Boyega) and Rey (Daisy Ridley) run for their lives in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”
Finn (John Boyega) and Rey (Daisy Ridley) run for their lives in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” © Lucasfilm 2015

Warning: This review contains no obvious spoilers, but there are words in it about “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” Sensitive people should take note.

“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” returns the franchise to fun after all the prequels, Padawans and Jar Jar Binkses of it all.

The first new live-action “Wars” film in 10 years and first from Disney, which bought “Wars” creator George Lucas’ Lucasfilm in 2012, “Awakens” – or “Episode VII” – revisits the core story, involving Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), from the 1970s and ’80s films.

Though it contains serious moments, this film by J.J. Abrams (“Star Trek”) shows Abrams’ signature light touch, both in witty dialogue and action scenes that are visually accomplished and easy to follow.

“Awakens” often strikes a wonderful chord between wry and nostalgic, especially when the crusty Ford is on screen.

The film, which opens Thursday, Dec. 17, takes place 30 years after the events of 1983’s “Return of the Jedi.” Smuggler-turned-freedom fighter Han Solo is still hanging with hairy buddy Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew). Chewbacca raises a substantial eyebrow every time Han tells fish stories about his smuggling prowess. The years have only strengthened their old-married-couple quality.

Early in “Awakens,” Han encounters Rey (Daisy Ridley), a desert-dwelling scavenger, and Finn (John Boyega, “Attack the Block”), a Storm Trooper with a conscience.

Screen newcomer Ridley and fellow Brit Boyega are the film’s actual leads. Thankfully, neither is a stiff like Hayden Christensen or Natalie Portman were in the prequels.

Boyega expresses authentic emotion, from pride when Finn makes a good shot to fear of reprimand by his bosses at the First Order, an Empire offshoot.

Ridley strongly evokes Keira Knightley, in her tooth-someness, posh British accent (whereas Ridley uses her real accent, Boyega, for whatever reason, adopts a convincing American one) and general excitability. She sparks with Boyega when Finn and Rey meet on Rey’s home planet.

Genuine emotion and excitability mostly went missing from “Episodes I-III,” which were not Lucas’ finest hours as director (although he rallied to a degree with “III,” or “Revenge of the Sith”).

The overall impression those films left was of too many computer-generated creatures pogo-ing in and out of the frame as veteran character actors stood around in robes and younger actors endangered budding careers with flat line readings.

If I digress from “Awakens,” it is because critics are on a spoiler lockdown stricter than a Hollywood trophy wife’s pre-nup. But it reveals little to say the basic story follows the same thread of all the “Wars” films, in pitting forces of light against tyranny.

The First Order’s main enforcer, Kylo Ren, obviously hired the same dark-clothes-are-slimming fashion adviser Darth Vader once used. Ren’s deep, disembodied voice sounds kind of like James Earl Jones’ but mostly like the killer’s from “Saw.”

The script’s everything-old-is-new-again approach ultimately comforts more than irritates. “Awakens” succeeds mostly as a nostalgia piece – an Abrams specialty, as he showed in his Spielbergian homage “Super 8.” Lucas and other filmmakers have complicated the heck out of their sci-fi film universes over the past 15 years or so. Abrams strips this one down to the studs.

Seeing Ford grump it up as Han reminds us of how grumpy he always was in the early “Wars” films. He’s finally aged into his gruffness.

Fisher’s offscreen writing career and irreverent personality long ago eclipsed her hemmed-in on-screen work as Leia. To her credit, she keeps a straight face in more serious scenes.

“Awakens” rarely stops moving, yet its action never seems excessive. That’s because combatants and targets always remain clear instead of fuzzed up by the hyper-speed visuals hack action directors use.

It’s as if Abrams recognizes that “Awakens,” the year’s biggest release, won’t just draw video-game-reared teenagers, but also “Wars” fans in their 60s and 70s. People who demand to see what’s happening on screen.

They’re likely appreciate the humor and sentiment of “Awakens.” More worrisome is that two sequels already have been ordered, since these sequels likely will put further strain on a “Wars” origin story already thinned by “Awakens” and its three predecessors.

This film’s obvious attempt, in one scene, to add “Hunger Games”-style modern dystopian-cinema relevancy (the First Order seems much more amorphous, and less centered on one figure, than the Empire ever was) falls flat. But Disney will need something more than nostalgia to maintain the audience’s attention for two more films.

Oh, who are we kidding? People will come out in droves, like they always have.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Cast: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher

Director: J.J. Abrams

Rated PG-13 (sci-fi action violence)

135 minutes

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