Spoiler-Free Review: 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' Exceeds the Hype

First a confession, then a spoiler-free review.

I suspected that the full might of Disney marketing would have overhyped the latest "Star Wars" movie to the point where it could never live up to expectations. I feared this movie could only disappoint me. I was wrong. "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" is a better movie, a more thrilling ride, and a more satisfying adventure than I dared to dream.

The first line of the franchise's iconic scrawl sets up a quest teased in the trailers. Both the First Order and the Resistance are desperately seeking the same key character. It's a simple premise made grand by looping in exciting new characters (like Daisy Ridley's Rey, John Boyega's Finn, and Adam Driver's Kylo Ren) with beloved old characters like Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and Princess General Leia (Carrie Fisher). They soar through star systems, battle with blasters and lightsabers, and share moments tender, tragic, and triumphant. In short, they do what you'd wish for a "Star Wars" movie, all while world-building for an epic new journey in this ever-sprawling universe.

"Episode VII" plays thoughtfully to old fans, giving its classic heroes grand entrances, and gamely revisiting themes, scores and scenes that are etched in the landscape of this seminal film series. But rather than slapdash allusions to the franchise's greatest hits "Jurassic World"-style, "The Force Awakens" subverts audience expectation by providing new twists and turns within these iconic setups, knowingly toying with our anticipation. It's delicious. I suspect director J.J. Abrams and his team built these incredible moments -- made richer with context -- so that they can be enjoyed in reverse by newcomers to Star Wars, for whom "The Force Awakens" may be their introduction.

Here, I wish I could give you examples to illustrate how Abrams' masterfully stayed loyal to "Star Wars" legacy, while employing innovative turns that give it a fresh feel. However, as its trailers and stars have worked so hard to keep these secrets under wraps, it feels wrong to spill them out, no matter how much I want to gush about their greatness.

I can say the ensemble cast is positively stellar. Like Ford, Fisher and Mark Hamill (original trilogy focal point Luke Skywalker) did decades ago, Boyega and Ridley shoulder this space-traversing adventure with dizzying charisma, a playful chemistry, and an enthusiasm so radiant it's contagious. For his part, Driver leaps out of his loose-limbed hipster niche to play a Dark Sider whose physicality is less starched and more feral than Darth Vader's, making Ren -- with his towering height and tri-bladed saber -- uniquely menacing. Oscar Isaac gives sexy swagger as rebel pilot Poe Dameron, while Gwendoline Christie brings a steely threat as the internet's latest obsession, Captain Phasma the Chrome Trooper. Lupita Nyong'o pops in as a motion-capture creature so intriguing and expertly animated, you may well forget the cringe-inducing mess that was Jar Jar Binks. And BB-8 is even more adorable and emotive than his much-touted toys would lead you to expect. He's a stealthy scene-stealer, that droid.

Ford, Fisher and Hamill slide comfortably back into their most memorable roles, and the audience rightly cheers for each re-introduction. Ford, wrinkled and weary, brings a curmudgeonly attitude to Han that suits the battered smuggler. Fisher's smirk and biting wit bring us the Leia we remember, and Hamill... let's just say he knows exactly what this movie demands of him and delivers it with force.

Abrams deserves scads of praise for bringing this impeccable cast together. But perhaps even more for action scenes that beautifully blend violence with emotional impact, not to mention top-notch visual effects. Rated PG-13, there's nothing too gruesome for youngsters. But the sound effects, blended with riveting fight choreography, sell the blows of blasters and lightsabers alike. Beyond that, Abrams crafts sweeping battles sequences on land and in the skies, all mesmerizing and frequently laced with humor. Unlike the prequels, fun is never forgotten in "The Force Awakens."

It's been a crazy year for sequels. "Avengers: Age of Ultron," disappointed many with its clunky plot and regressive themes. "Jurassic World" offered rehash over renovation. But "Mad Max: Fury Road" and "Creed" defied the odds to deliver show-stopping action and heart-wrenching drama, creating some of the best cinema 2015 had to offer.

"Star Wars: The Force Awakens" has joined their ranks. It's rich in history, grows the legacy with compelling new characters, and offers some of the most exhilarating action scenes of the year. It's the kind of thing you can take the whole family to, and be sure of a good time. But even rarer, "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" is a movie so of the moment, so aware and respectful of its power over audiences, that seeing it in theaters is guaranteed to be a treasured cinematic experience.

"Star Wars: The Force Awakens" opens Friday, with early showings beginning at 7 p.m. on Thursday.

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