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Past Present: Abrams Shows He’s a Worthy Understudy With The Force Awakens

The greatest feat in this case is successfully merging past with future, incorporating elements from the original trilogy with a new batch of characters, creatures, and planets in a way that feels more seamless than gimmicky.
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J.J. Abrams is a big fan of the original three Star Wars films, and his passion can be seen and felt in every frame of The Force Awakens, the seventh installment in the iconic franchise that should thrill its legions of aficionados and obsessive sci-fi geeks.

In confidently restarting — and in many circles, rejuvenating — the series that began in 1977, Abrams has accomplished a tricky task. His film, of course, is the seventh segment of the intended nine, and it’s a direct follow-up to Return of the Jedi, which was released 32 years ago.

So perhaps the filmmaker’s greatest feat in this case is successfully merging past with future, incorporating elements from the original trilogy with a new batch of characters, creatures, and planets in a way that feels more seamless than gimmicky.

That’s a challenge that series creator George Lucas didn’t face with his prequel trilogy, the most recent of which came out a decade ago, in case you needed to feel old. Lucas has since turned over the reins almost entirely to Abrams and others.

Where does the newbie rank among its predecessors? It’s difficult to say, but as a piece of breezy blockbuster entertainment, The Force Awakens mostly delivers.

Here are some relatively spoiler-free basics from a plot that begins several years after Return of the Jedi left off. The Rebellion has now evolved into the Resistance, with General Leia (Carrie Fisher) in charge. After the fall of the Empire, their enemy is now the First Order, led by the ruthless warrior Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).

His primary mission becomes tracking down Jedi savior Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who has vanished to parts unknown. The map to his whereabouts rests with a pilot (Oscar Isaac) who passes it off to a diminutive rolling droid called BB-8 before being captured.

The droid finds its way to Rey (Daisy Ridley), a tough-minded desert drifter on an arid planet, who later teams with Finn (John Boyega), a reformed Stormtrooper who crossed paths with Poe on their mutual quest to escape. Finn and Rey are reluctantly thrust into the battle for galactic supremacy, especially once they encounter Han Solo (Harrison Ford), who knows a thing or two about, well, everything.

In their world, Luke, Leia, and Han are given an almost mythical status, along with such notions as Jedis, lightsabers, and even The Force. Other familiar friends are dusted off as well, including Chewbacca, droids C-3PO and R2-D2, the Millennium Falcon, and the classic X-wing fighters.

Yet the charismatic new faces are appealing, too — especially the feisty and resilient Rey — providing hope that future sequels, spinoffs, and whatever else, could be both fresh and faithful.

Abrams’ film takes its visual cues from the prior installments, with some amusing touches that devotees will appreciate. In fact, it’s reverent to the Lucas blueprint almost to a fault.

The somewhat derivative screenplay by Abrams (Star Trek), along with Lawrence Kasdan (Return of the Jedi) and Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine), feels more functional than anything else in terms of its story. It’s heavy on exposition but light on action as it clearly delineates heroes and villains, with a climax that proves more of a set-up than a payoff. And it’s best to allow for some logical gaps, which for some die-hards will be impossible.

However, the film shows a sharp sense of humor and offers a logical narrative continuation. It’s technically proficient and fast paced, assembling a compelling collection of chase scenes and confrontations while showing off a new array of vessels and weaponry.

There’s not much in the way of character depth or emotional complexity, but that’s generally been the case with the Star Wars movies all along. The Force Awakens should please fans without alienating a younger generation that’s now the target for all the holiday toy promotions and fast-food tie-ins. What’s old is indeed new again.

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