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Review: Myth and nostalgia in "Star Wars: The Force Awakens"

One of the reasons myths are such powerful narratives is that they are timeless. Stories about King Arthur or Jason and the Argonauts, being elemental to the human condition, never fall out of fashion, and stir within us strong feelings of nostalgia for the characters, which can only inspire us to dream. Who wouldn't be excited to uncover a previously-unknown adventure of the Knights of the Round Table, with all-new heroics?

It's hard to think of a modern myth with more staying power than "Star Wars." The series, created in 1977 by director George Lucas about young farm boy Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia and space pirate Han Solo battling the Dark Side of the Force (and a father of unrepentant evil), is one of the most creative and entertaining film franchises ever. It's spawned sequels and prequels, and an expanded universe of cartoons, novels and video games, not to mention Lego recreations and fan fiction (as when teens corral their friends to role-play the movie characters in front of a Super 8mm camera -- guilty as charged).

But outside of the "Holy Trilogy" of "Star Wars," "The Empire Strikes Back" and "Return of the Jedi," the myth doesn't need hokey adventures that are only pertinent to the original canon simply because somebody happens to whip out a lightsaber. It's been a decade since the last of the "Star Wars" prequels was released, giving the backstory to the rise of Darth Vader (which felt as necessary as a movie about Adolf Hitler's days in art school).

So a new adventure featuring the original trilogy's triumvirate, as well as new heroes and villains, has now been unleashed. How could it possibly live up to the original?

Well, it does.

"Star Wars: The Force Awakens," set three decades after the fall of the Empire and the death of Vader, continues the story of Luke Skywalker, but vicariously. Having turned his back on teaching the ways of the Force after his young Jedi students were destroyed, Skywalker has vanished, and in his absence has become an even more mythic figure to others in the galaxy far, far away. He is sought after by members of the Resistance, and by the militaristic First Order, the governing power that has risen from the ashes of the Empire. To the leaders of the First Order -- General Hux and the Jedi-in-training Kylo Ren -- finding Skywalker is imperative to ensuring their victory over the Republic.

The key to Skywalker's location (as was the case with a cryptic message carried by R2-D2 in the original film) is being carried by a rolling droid named BB-8, whose personality is like that of a stray puppy a child takes home, promising to care for.

We also get characters that are familiar in their humanity but thankfully not clichéd. Rey is an inchoate young woman who scavenges to survive on the desert planet Jakku, where she acquires BB-8, while dreaming of a world that is green. Into her life drops Finn, a stormtrooper who rejects his role as a killer for the First Order and strives to do what is right, even if it means being marked a traitor. Joining them is Poe, a hot-shot pilot who is the resistance movement's most inspiring figure; in bravado he can out-Solo Han Solo.

Speaking of which, Solo is also back, aiding Rey and Finn in their attempt to connect with the Resistance.

And that's all you will read here about plot, because spoilers suck.

Adam Driver as Kylo Ren in "Star Wars: The Force Awakens." Walt Disney Pictures

The cast is spot-on. As Rey, Daisy Ridley's star-making performance is the glue of the film, as she awakens to a fate she'd never dreamed of (or maybe she had). John Boyega gives great moral turbulence to Finn, a man raised to conform to brutal commands, and who finds enormous joy in flexing his freedom. Oscar Isaac, so good in "Inside Llewyn Davis" and "A Most Violent Year," brings an urban toughness to Poe. You believe he could survive just about any threatening situation in which he may find himself.

Adam Driver is very effective and disturbing as Kylo Ren, who -- rather than being haunted by murmurs of the Dark Side of the Force -- is frightened by glimmers of the light.

And talk about nostalgia: Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher are splendid as Han and Leia, now refinding a shared purpose; and Mark Hamill, now of age to fill the role of an Obi-Wan or Yoda, exudes the weight of that responsibility.

Director J.J. Abrams had successfully rebooted the "Star Trek" franchise in 2009 with a youthful cast that brought the crew of the Enterprise back to its glorious beginning, but he stumbled with his follow-up, "Star Trek Into Darkness," when he clung too strongly to nostalgia for "The Wrath of Khan," rather than giving the characters room to breathe new life into new adventures. Here, he gets the tone exactly right: playing the drama and thrills with grit and style, with just a wink and a nod to the earlier films rather than slavishly rehashing them.

Apart from touches that may reflect "Star Wars"' ever-widening fan base (welcome, female X-wing pilots!), the feel of the film's sets, costumes and visual effects (mixtures of miniatures, computer graphics and puppetry) is earthy. Locations in Abu Dhabi, Ireland, Iceland and the U.K., give a tremendous authenticity to fantastic settings. The myth has indeed come alive again, and it feels just right.

"Star Wars: The Force Awakens," released by Disney, is rated PG-13. 135 mins.

To watch a trailer click on the video player below.