Has there been a more anticipated movie in my lifetime than Star Wars: The Force Awakens? Maybe Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace, but even that didn’t seem to have the same level of hype that surrounds the seventh entry in the Star Wars saga. This is the movie that’s been on everybody’s minds since it was first announced and anticipation only continued to build as the film’s release date got closer. Director J.J. Abrams seemed like the perfect choice to begin a new trilogy and the fantastic trailers that Disney released made the film seem like it was too good to be true.

Well now the film has finally arrived and I can safely say that Star Wars fans will be able to find a lot to love here. This franchise has resonated with moviegoers for generations and The Force Awakens does an excellent job at reminding us why we loved these films in the first place. The characters, locations and story all feel like classic Star Wars and it’s hard not to get swept up in the experience. But with anticipation so high, it must be said that there are still a number of flaws that prevent the film from being truly cathartic. But most of these flaws are minor and the film’s overall sense of fun and adventure makes it worth seeing.

The film begins by introducing us to Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), a fighter pilot in the Resistance army led by Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher). Thirty years have passed since the fall of the Empire and the Resistance is working to stop a new sinister force known as the First Order. Leia has ordered Dameron to visit the planet of the Jakku to search for a clue regarding the missing Luke Skywalker’s (Mark Hamill) whereabouts. Dameron receives intel from Lor San Tekka (Max von Sydow), but they are interrupted by an attack from the First Order, led by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Dameron knows that this intel must be hidden, so he hides it inside a small droid known as BB-8 before he is captured by the first order.

Let me just get this out of the way right here: BB-8 is amazing. This is a franchise that has given us a slew of memorable, non-human characters and BB-8 might just be one of the best of them all. The design of the droid is great, with a memorable orange and white color scheme and a continually rotating body with a head that always manages to stay on top. I’m not entirely sure how they were able to make BB-8 work, but kudos to the prop department for turning this idea to a reality. But it’s ultimately the droid’s character that will make you fall in love with it. BB-8 is undeniably cute and its ability to speak through beeps and boops will melt the heart of even the most cynical audience member. It’s essentially the cutest pet in a universe that doesn’t actually exist and my love for BB-8 must be similar to how audiences initially reacted to R2-D2 back in 1977.

So with the highly sensitive intel intact, BB-8 rolls its way into the path of Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger who has been living on Jakku ever since her parents left her. They’re soon joined by Finn (John Boyega), a former First Order Stormtrooper who helped Dameron escape from the clutches of Kylo Ren. As the First Order descends on Jakku to retrieve the droid, Finn and Rey make a daring escape inside of a ship that they find in a junkyard. But what they don’t know is that this ship is actually the Millennium Falcon and Han Solo (Harrison Ford) is looking to return to his home.

Maybe it goes without saying, but The Force Awakens is a vast improvement over the George Lucas directed Star Wars prequels. In fact, it seems like Abrams and company focused a ton of their effort on making sure that this feels nothing like those overly digital films. Aesthetically, this feels like classic Star Wars, with a focus on filming in real environments with practical effects. The production design on the film is outstanding, with so many different sets, costumes, creatures and makeup effects that you’ll have to see the film multiple times to take everything in. The decision to use CGI only when absolutely necessary was a smart one and the film greatly benefits because of it.

Another mistake from the prequels that this film manages to fix is the overuse of the lightsaber. The lightsaber is such a cool weapon, but one of the reasons that it was so cool in the original trilogy is that it was used sparingly. No doubt this had something to do with restraints in the budget and effects, but when someone pulled out a lightsaber in the original trilogy, you knew they meant business. In the prequels, lightsabers were so overused that you actually started to become numb to their effects. When a character pulls out a lightsaber every five minutes or so, some of the magic of the weapon is lost. In The Force Awakens, there’s essentially only one lightsaber battle and it happens at the very end of the movie. This means that not every action sequence is dependent on the sight of a shiny, colorful sword and the final climactic set piece feels even more exciting because of this.

But while The Force Awakens does a great job at fixing most of the mistakes from the prequels, one of the biggest problems with this film is that it’s ultimately too similar to the original Star Wars. This might sound like an odd complaint, but Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt’s script essentially repurposes the same story and structure from A New Hope. From a droid carrying important information, to a dreamer being stuck on a desert planet, to a group of X-Wing pilots targeting the one weak spot on a large battle station, you’ll consistently be reminded how similar The Force Awakens is to the original film that started this franchise in 1977. This was clearly a conscious choice (most likely to tap into some sort of nostalgia), but it probably would have been more interesting if the story had taken a unique path.

Even some of the new characters in the film feel like direct counterparts to the original characters that we fell in love with. But this isn’t really a problem because these characters all feel fully formed and every part is perfectly cast. Daisy Ridley is absolutely radiant as Rey, a young woman stuck on a desolate planet who one day hopes to see her family again. John Boyega makes Finn’s arc from a Stormtrooper in The First Order to a hero in the Resistance feel believable and he also looks great in a Stormtrooper outfit. As the film’s primary antagonist, Adam Driver creates a villain that stands out in the Star Wars franchise. He’s young, whiny and he overestimates himself, making him all the more dangerous. Finally, Oscar Isaac’s Poe might not be written with the same depth as the rest of the cast, but Isaac is great as the skilled but sarcastic fighter pilot.

It’s these four characters that are the focus of the film’s entire first act and it’s no surprise that this easily the best part of the movie. For one thing, it’s such a joy to be back in the Star Wars universe, especially when Abrams’ style and visuals seem to fit perfectly with the aesthetic of the originals. The filmmakers do a great job at introducing Rey and Finn to the audience and how their characters ultimately intersect is pretty well conceived. The first act concludes with an exciting escape from the planet of Jakku aboard the Millennium Falcon. It’s absolutely brilliant how they reintroduce this iconic ship into the franchise and its appearance is one of the greatest moments in the film. The reappearance of Han Solo and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) is another cause for celebration. After this point, the film tapers off a bit, but even if it’s unable to match the heights set by its first 45 minutes, it’s still a lot of fun from beginning to end.

For most Star Wars fans, these are more than just movies. These are the films that we grew up with and they’ve gone on to define who we are as individuals and as a moviegoing audience as a whole. Sitting down to watch the seventh entry in the nearly 40 year saga, it’s hard not to get emotional when the Star Wars logo blasts onto the screen. As a huge fan of the franchise, I can definitely say that Star Wars: The Force Awakens is an extremely satisfying chapter in the saga. It’s great to once again spend time with the characters that we’ve fallen in love with and the new cast of characters is hugely enjoyable as well. Even if the film hits some familiar beats along the way, the overall experience is so satisfying that you’ll walk out of the theater feeling like a kid again. The Force is still strong with this franchise.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens receives 3.5/4

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