“Oh my dear friend, how I’ve missed you,” says a returning character to another in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. They’re glad to see each other again. I was, too.

Throughout the decades since we first met them, the metallic, furry and extraterrestrial personas of Star Wars have felt like larger-than-life acquaintances who’ve been gone a long time. They come back in stellar fashion in Episode VII, bringing with them new heroes and villains that point to a very bright future for the saga of the Force.

[This post originally ran on Wednesday, December 16.]

Star Wars movies have always been about generation gaps, about how successors to legacies rise or fall to their callings. In A New Hope, Luke Skywalker knew precious little about the father who fought in a war and was killed by Darth Vader, yet he had to follow in his footsteps. In Return of the Jedi, Darth Vader has to choose between a father figure who taught him to wield power and a son he never raised. The same kinds of tensions move through The Force Awakens as well. It’s a movie about trying to find one’s place within a legacy and the ache that accompanies such a quest.

The new characters in the 2015 Star Wars film—set 30 years after the end of Return of the Jedi—have grown up in the shadow of something too big for them to fully comprehend. Finn, played by John Boyega, makes a break from a life in service to something he’d been programmed to do. Daisy Ridley’s Rey scavenges just enough to get by on the planet of Jakku, dreaming of the return of barely remembered loved ones. Both characters have to figure out what to do next while running and fighting through the detritus of past battles that lies all around them.

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It’s clear that J.J. Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan and the other filmmakers who’ve assembled the latest episode in the Star Wars franchise have studied the films that came before them. Humans, robots and members of other alien races bicker and coo at each other in ways that make them feel like citizens in a vast interconnected galactic society. The landscapes here are covered in sand, snow and jungle, familiar environmental treatments for other movies in this lineage. But the sweep of the cinematography and the movie’s brisk pacing makes Jakku and the other new planets feel like more than just stand-in destinations on memory lane. Even though the structure of Evil Space Oppressor vs. Scrappy Grassroots Insurgency—the First Order and the Resistance, respectively—gets resurrected in The Force Awakens, the stakes of the fight are embedded in new characters who feel well rendered.

The awkward, maladroit chemistry between the key actors in the prequel trilogy will seem even moreso after seeing The Force Awakens. Where the prequels felt sluggish and heavy-handed, there’s a palpable liveliness to the performances in this movie. Most importantly, Episode VII restores that oh-so-important, quasi-religious feeling to the idea of the Force through characters that are struggling to believe in themselves. John Boyega’s turn as Finn offers up a fun, affecting mix of bluster, dread and reluctant bravery, while Adam Driver adeptly infuses Kylo Ren with a level of emotional dysfunction that catapults the character to the A-list of Star Wars villains. Boyega runs away with this movie’s broader moments, balanced by Daisy Ridley’s simmering combination of longing and fear. As Resistance pilot Poe Dameron, Oscar Isaacs doesn’t get as much screen time as the others but comes across as magnetically affable whenever he’s in a scene.

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The DNA of the last generation of Star Wars heroes is here in intentionally recognizable form. One character starts on a backwater planet, another pilots an X-Wing through the skies with preternatural skill, while a third uses bravado to cover up a checkered past. But just when you think you know where Poe, Finn or Rey might be going because of who they remind you of, the film crosses you up and subverts expectations.

There’s freighted baton-passing in this movie and the metatext that surrounds it. It’s a movie by people who studied Star Wars, deconstructed it and reconfigured it in very canny ways. You get the sense that Abrams—like the characters in the film—feels the weight of Star Wars mythology on his shoulders. But the film doesn’t feel cynical or calculated. Abrams turns that burden into a dance partner, nimbly choreographing the audience’s collective nostalgia to land on surprising new beats. With the way that the fandom has multiplied exponentially since 1978, it’s not really accurate to say that Star Wars fans are waking up from a slumber. Nevertheless, The Force Awakens feels like a new dream, an imagining that should fulfill the hopes of millions.


Contact the author at evan@kotaku.com.