You are forgiven for hoping J. J. Abrams would do for Star Wars what he did for Star Trek: essentially reboot the beloved sci-fi universe with expert knowledge, sheer guts and lots of energy, updating the series for contemporary audiences without betraying the original coordinates. Handed the "keys of the Mustang" by the franchise's new proprietors Disney (with the hidden blessing of the new Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, former right hand to Super 8 producer Steven Spielberg), that's exactly what Mr. Abrams does with The Force Awakens.

     But for all the pedigree, genre smarts and evident love of the galaxy created by George Lucas that it shows, "Episode VII" seems milder, meeker, less fresh and more formulaic than the director's original 2009 Star Trek felt, as if Mr. Abrams is playing it safer. That does make sense, since, after the crash-and-burn reception of Mr. Lucas' prequel trilogy, all eyes were on him in a way they weren't when he picked up the reins of Gene Roddenberry's franchise (here, there was the Disney machine to appease as well). And, to be fair, by any standards The Force Awakens is a splendid restart to the space-opera saga, set 30 years after the events in Return of the Jedi and clearly designed to "pass the torch" to a new generation of heroes - a torch that is handed over by the original cast of Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill.

     Getting back to the basics and updating the original 1977 Star Wars plot of David versus Goliath against all odds, the new film has the Empire replaced by the First Order and the Rebel Alliance by the New Republic, and again a resourceful droid brings together an unlikely set of heroes in the Tatooine-like planet Jakku to fight a powerful, evil villain. The heroes are ace pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), Stormtrooper deserter Finn (John Boyega) and hard-nut scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley), the villain is the unpredictable Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), and there are more dark family secrets and plot-twist lineages to tie everything together.

     The Force Awakens boasts the exact ratio of fanboy arcana to classic popular entertainment of the original trilogy, guided by the wise hand of Lawrence Kasdan, writer of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, but the contributions of Mr. Abrams and Little Miss Sunshine and Toy Story 3 screenwriter Michael Arndt introduce enough variation to make it more than just a new coat of point or a freshening up of the formula. Still, the fact that there was just so much at stake with the Star Wars universe means Mr. Abrams might have not been able to toy with it at his liking as he did in that first Star Trek - and it's in the moments where he runs with it that The Force Awakens truly soars (the Rathtar and Maz Kanata setpieces come to mind).

     That it puts to shame the Lucas prequels is a given; whether the series can successfully build from here or sag like Star Trek did with the less inspired Into Darkness is for the future - and Rian Johnson and Colin Trevorrow, already signed up for Episodes VIII and IX - to tell. For now, The Force Awakens is a splendid entertainment that falls this short of greatness.

US, 2015, 135 minutes
Starring Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong'o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Max von Sydow
Directed by J. J. Abrams; screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan, Mr. Abrams and Michael Arndt; cinematographer Dan Mindel (widescreen); music by John Williams; production designers Rick Carter and Darren Gilford; costume designer Michael Kaplan; film editors Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey; visual effects supervised by Roger Guyett and Neal Scanlan; produced by Kathleen Kennedy, Mr. Abrams and Bryan Burk, for Lucasfilm and Bad Robot
Screened December 16th 2015, NOS Colombo IMAX


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