Many "Star Wars" fans vividly remember their early experiences with that galaxy far, far away, which makes it near impossible to recapture the magic that was born such a long time ago. Just ask anyone who camped out to see "The Phantom Menace" in 1999 and would now rather forget about podraces and the Trade Federation altogether.
But with "Star Trek" maestro and "Lost" co-creator J.J. Abrams at the helm, faith was ostensibly restored. It's been three years since Disney acquired Lucasfilm and announced that a fresh "Star Wars" trilogy was on its way. As I sat down Tuesday night for a New York press screening of the franchise's first installment in a decade, I could summon no word but "surreal" to describe the sensation. Knowing that Han, Leia and (in some mysterious capacity) Luke would appear on the big screen for the first time since 1983 felt like returning home to the company of friends, albeit ones with a few extra wrinkles. And yet, knowing the prequels' fate, one can only ask for a new hope.
When the credits rolled after this brand-new "Star Wars," I wanted to cheer, just as the audience frequently did throughout its 135 minutes. Here, once again, were our movie pals, whom we thought we'd now see only in the old, familiar places (meaning sporadic television airings on Sunday afternoons). As the film ended, the child in me -- the one who once dressed as Darth Vader for Halloween and, yes, even had Jar Jar Binks pajamas -- knew instantly that he would never forget his first experience with "The Force Awakens."
By my count, the audience cheered 16 times -- beginning with the Lucasfilm title card and ending with, well, I can't tell you what. I'm not here to spoil the movie, or even to talk much about its plot. No matter your stance on Internet pop-culture spoilers, some details are best left unsaid. But I will tell you that the moments to elicit the loudest delight involved the arrivals of characters who were first introduced nearly four decades ago. One of them is the Millennium Falcon, which Luke Sykwalker once called a "piece of junk" and Rey -- the franchise's agile new heroine, played by Daisy Ridley -- similarly refers to as "garbage." Another is Leia, once a princess but now a general sporting a fresh hairdo and flanked by a red-armed C-3PO and a sedate R2-D2.
But our gift for waiting patiently -- and licking up every spare plot morsel Disney handed out along the way -- comes in the form of Han Solo and Chewbacca. They are stars of "The Force Awakens." Rey and her reformed-Stormtrooper ally Finn, played by John Boyega, are the franchise's new generation of heroes, but for now, they'd be nowhere without the Falcon's accomplished co-pilots. As fun as it's been to see a once sour Harrison Ford re-embrace "Star Wars" during the movie's press tour, it's even more gratifying to revel in how nostalgically Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan wrote Han. "I've got a bad feeling about this," Han tells Rey and Finn, recalling a frequent "Star Wars" line that he himself says inside the trash compactor in "A New Hope" and while dangling over the Ewoks' fire pit in "Return of the Jedi." Han, he of little "hokey" faith, is also the one to enlighten Rey and Finn about the past, before the wicked First Order replaced the Empire. "The crazy thing is, it's true -- the Force, the Jedi, all of it," he says with a hint of longing. "It's all true."
Han is a proxy for the audience, amazed that he's made it this far in the galaxy's history. Even naysayers become disciples sometimes. And that is the beauty of "The Force Awakens": It stands in awe of its predecessors, and without being corny, it is allowed to exist within a wistful framework. It is paced much like the films of the original trilogy, and its humor is even more riotous. Abrams employs reverence without making it a gimmick. The movie would rather plant an orbit for the many installments yet to come. To accomplish that, it needs to remind us of the story's history -- that, anyway, is where its power lies, which George Lucas forgot when he made the prequels. And to avoid dependency on the "Star Wars" of yore, it builds a new mythology in order to move ahead.
Along the way, callbacks are sprinkled throughout -- in the visuals, the dialogue and the music, oh, the music! Han takes Finn and Rey to the elaborate home of an "old friend" named Maz Kanata, a motion-capture alien played by Lupita Nyong'o. Entering Maz's palace is like being transported back to Mos Eisley, even down to the way the scene is shot and edited, with rapid-fire glimpses of the new cantina's many odd inhabitants. In another scene, Rey uses a timeless Jedi mind trick to convince a Stormtrooper to drop his weapon, just like Obi-Wan Kenobi did when he insisted "these are not the droids you're looking for." Han also calls back to one of the franchise's most famous scenes when he asks, "Is there a garbage chute? Trash compactor?" while looking to vanquish a villain. Maybe it all becomes a bit too on the nose after a while, but who cares when it's this much fun? And, speaking of villains, you'll find ample references to Darth Vader and the Death Star, yet Kylo Ren and his massive Starkiller Base are entities unto themselves. The sneering cadence Adam Driver gives Ren is pretty special. (And yes, after all that speculation, you'll find out soon enough what Luke is up to. I won't say anything more about that right now.)
You'll notice I haven't mentioned many flaws in "The Force Awakens." It's not because they don't exist. (The second half moves too quickly, making the action feel slightly smothering.) It's because, after so many years without these cinematic companions, it is fantastic to witness them again as they exist in our memories. So few characters who return to the big screen get the revivals they deserve, both in and outside of "Star Wars." That we can spend a few brisk hours with these and walk away enlivened is worth eons of anticipation. Our pals have returned to our loving arms, and new ones -- looking at you, BB-8 -- have joined them. Chewie, we're home.
"Star Wars: The Force Awakens" opens Dec. 18.
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