A New New Hope

It’s hard to imagine a world without Star Wars. For almost 40 years, this inspired archetypal story has been a touchstone for generations of fans — many of whom weren’t even born when the first movie came out. Star Wars wasn’t based on an existing property or a retelling of an old story, though it used familiar elements; it built its own mythology, a space fairy tale in which the right path is the one where compassion and love win out. And it certainly didn’t hurt that the spaceships were awesome.

But even heroes falter, and so did the Star Wars universe with the stilted, too-shiny prequels, about which the less said the better — except that we learned, like you might in an adventure story, that your idols can fail you and that people don’t always make the best choices.

Now, we’re starting over again. The Force Awakens is part reset and part reboot; its story is built of the same narrative blocks that created the original trilogy, but the galaxy has moved on. Jedi are a myth. The Republic is still fairly new and opposed by the First Order, which wears the uniforms of the Empire, even if its power structure is somewhat different.

And on a backwater desert planet, a lonely young woman finds a very important droid.

This woman, Rey (Daisy Ridley), is one-third of our new trio; a scrappy, self-sufficient scavenger, she could be a hard-hearted loner, but instead she tries to help every lost soul she sees, from the droid BB-8 to mysterious Finn (John Boyega), who also has ties to the droid — and to Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), the Resistance’s best pilot.

The three actors are perfect — warm and wary and instinctive. Isaac, like his character, seems to be having the time of his life, while Boyega’s Finn, raised with a very narrow view of the world, tries to figure out how the galaxy actually works.

But this movie belongs to Rey, and Ridley beautifully brings her to wide-eyed, curious, prickly life. Her theme, in John Williams’ mix-and-match, new-and-old score, is the movie — and her character — in miniature. Inquisitive, tentative, poignant and hopeful, its heart is a lonely, lilting melody that broadens until it sweeps up the whole orchestra, growing expansive and confident.

The Force Awakens starts on Rey’s desert planet, Jakku, in a palette of browns, but then launches itself into the galaxy — a bigger, wilder galaxy, full of diverse characters and new worlds — soaring into some of the most beautiful shots of all the Star Wars films. An X-wing loops around a ruin, flying with joy; a pilot maneuvers through the ruins of a downed Star Destroyer; lightsabers glimmer in a wintry forest, the only light against the snow.

Daisy Ridley and John Boyega in The Force Awakens

There are nits to pick — for starters, Gwendoline Christie’s Captain Phasma is sadly underused, and a scene between two old favorites is too expositional to hit the needed emotional mark — but the balance between explanation and implication, hints and gimmes, adventure and uncertainty is just right, and so is the give-and-take of bigger-than-life stakes and little human dramas (and the places where the two overlap). Director J.J. Abrams plays respectfully and cleverly in his borrowed sandbox, tossing out the things he doesn’t need and bringing in a few of his favorite toys.

The screenplay, co-written by Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt, is for the most part sharp and smart, especially in the way it uses the Star Wars mythology as connective tissue between audience and character. We grew up with its truths ingrained in our memories, like any other powerful story: anyone can fail, but still might be redeemed; heroes come from unlikely places; princesses can be commanders too.

The Force Awakens feels like the right Star Wars for now: Hopeful, but wary; caught in a cycle of distrust and misinformation, taking place in a universe where nothing is certain and no one’s really sure what to believe from the stories of the past. It’s a grand adventure that illustrates how some things might stay the same, but other things can always, always change for the better. (Now playing in theaters across the galaxy)