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'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' delivers from start to terrific end, with a direct line to the original

Relax, Star Wars fans, and breathe easier than Darth Vader.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens delivers from its opening blast of John Williams' theme music, to a final shot leaving viewers hanging on a literal cliff. It is the movie fans are awaiting, though missing its own vision.

It's inevitable that after 38 years and Disney's acquisition of the franchise, director and co-writer J.J. Abrams leans toward ordinary sequel mechanics, mostly giving moviegoers what previously worked.

Abrams is so intent upon aligning this episode to the original trilogy (not the prequels, thankfully) that he eventually crosses the creative line between tribute and repetition. And not just because Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill are back for the ride.

Callbacks are plenty in The Force Awakens — visual cues, camera angles, dialogue, settings, twists — so viewers are excused if momentarily feeling they've seen this movie before.

But how much can anyone complain, with such a cherished monomyth being reprised so expertly? Not to mention the new Jedi generation Abrams sets up, correcting any gripes about diversity among its original heroes.

What George Lucas wrought in 1977 with Star Wars was culturally seismic worldwide, turning sci-fi fantasy into a respected and enormously profitable art form. Lucas' empire changed the way movies are made, distributed and cashed-in upon. The Force Awakens is a course correction after those divisive prequels that could net more at worldwide box offices than the $2.2 billion of six previous episodes combined.

So, let's not spoil it, shall we? Just the basics of a densely entertaining, instantly historic blockbuster.

Abrams sets up two new, young heroes to embark on a singular quest. One is Rey (presto star Daisy Ridley), a scrappy metal scavenger on the desert planet Jakku. The other is Finn (ditto John Boyega), bringing a face to the Dark Side's previously anonymous stormtroopers, deserting after battle and helping an enemy escape.

Their goal is to find Luke Skywalker, coax him out of seclusion and into a new resistance movement. It's a path strewn with TIE fighter dogfights, lightsaber duels, a grubbier cantina than Mos Eisley's, telekinetic chokeholds and hyperspace leaps.

Jedi business like the old days, presented by Abrams with state-of-the-arts practical stunts, models, costumes and puppetry. The effect is something like Lucas' bargain disbelief in '77, less perfect that most modern blockbusters yet more relatable.

Episodes V and VI scripter Lawrence Kasdan returned to co-write with Abrams, perhaps explaining why ingredients are familiar. Rey and Finn's quest begins with important information stashed in a droid (R2-D2 then, the even cuddlier BB-8 now), pointing the way to someone vital (Leia in the originals, Luke here) to battle the First Order, a resurrected Empire.

Even slight variances are welcome. Meet the new Darth, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who isn't the same as the old Darth, making him a more desperate villain answering to Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). They too want to locate Luke, for sinister reasons.

There are bloodline issues, settled as in The Empire Strikes Back on a catwalk over a seemingly bottomless pit. Meanwhile, resistance (nee rebel) pilots attack the First Order's death starry Starkiller Base, aiming at a tiny armor flaw, like Luke bull's-eyeing womp rats in his T-16.

Certainly the most anticipated encores in The Force Awakens are Ford as Han Solo, Fisher as Princess (now rebellion General) Leia Organa, and Hamill as Luke Skywalker. Fisher is a third-act presence and Hamill even later, with more hinted in the next episode.

Ford gets the most screen time by far, piling on Han's sarcasm while appearing a tad slower during derring-do. But this is HAN SOLO on the screen again, and an actor clearly relishing the chance.

The Force Awakens accomplishes its fan base mission, bringing back a modern myth with the torch-passing respect it deserves (plus some crass commercialism it doesn't). Now this new generation deserves adventures just as fresh. The original Star Wars was long ago, meaning what comes next can be far, farther away.

Contact Steve Persall at spersall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.

.REVIEW

Star Wars:

The Force Awakens

Director: J.J. Abrams

Cast: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Domhnall Gleeson, Peter Mayhew, Simon Pegg, Lupita Nyong'o, Kenny Baker, Anthony Daniels, Andy Serkis, Max von Sydow, Mark Hamill

Screenplay: Lawrence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams, Michael Arndt, based on characters created by George Lucas

Rating: PG-13; fantasy action violence

Running time: 135 min.

Grade: B+

'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' delivers from start to terrific end, with a direct line to the original 12/16/15 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 16, 2015 12:47pm]
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