Star Wars: The Force Awakens lives up to the hype. Disney is begging critics not to give anything away, so I won’t. I will say that J.J. Abrams successfully walks the line between paying homage to the franchise’s origins and breathing new life into it. Episode 7 begins 30 years after Return of the Jedi ended, and if it weren’t for how much Han Solo (Harrison Ford), General Leia (Carrie Fisher), and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) have grayed, time scarcely seems to have passed at all as the forces of light and darkness are at it again. Abrams starts full throttle and rarely lets up the pace in a film that, in addition to bringing back old favorites like Han and the ageless Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), introduces several new characters to the Star Wars universe, including scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley, who makes the biggest impression among the freshman class), fighter pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), disgruntled Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), petulant Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), and the latest in adorable robots, the rolling BB-8.
Pitched battles of both the large-scale and intimate variety, special effects that incorporate the advances of the past four decades while very much reflecting that more lo-fi era, some arresting cameos (including a motion-captured Andy Serkis as holographic Supreme Leader Snoke—is a large-scale sci-fi/fantasy complete these days without a motion-captured Andy Serkis?), and John Williams’ latest take on his most notable score combine for a thrilling ride. If episodes 1, 2, and 3 felt like Star Wars had gotten lost in space, episode 7 feels like Abrams has righted the ship and charted an exhilarating new course in that galaxy far, far away.—Pam Grady