Review: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” has warmth but not much fire

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The acting has been improved, the pacing is solid, the new characters interesting (and nicely diversified), and there’s been a serious reduction in cringe-inducing dialogue. The opening title crawl efficiently prepares us for a good story and the John Williams music is terrific throughout.

What’s missing from “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” though, is a willingness to take us to new worlds or introduce us to new plot points. For a movie packed with adventure, it has an aversion to unexplored territory.

Say what you want about the much-bashed episodes 1-3 (and I’ve been part of the chorus criticizing them), at least there was a sense that George Lucas was trying to expand his tale and show us something we hadn’t seen.

I don’t miss the trade disputes or psychobabble about midi-chlorians, but watching “The Force Awakens” I did yearn for something more creative than an even bigger Death Star (with yet another dumb Achilles heel weak spot), another Darth/Emperor-like relationship, and more been there/done that lightsaber battles–to name just some of the many, many redundancies (hardcore fans may just call them parallels).

If what you want is a clone of your favorite elements from episodes 4 and 5 (aka “A New Hope” and “The Empire Strikes Back”) with a few character tweaks, “The Force Awakens” should please. But this familiarity makes it seem like an afterthought extension (think "Godfather, Part III," only much better) rather than an organic continuation and expansion of the saga (as was "Toy Story III").

Where it better satisfies is in its grace notes. I’m being careful here not to spoil them since these small moments and character touches provide much of the movie’s fun.

And, yes, it is nice to see Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher actually seem committed to playing Han and Leia again. Newcomers to the Star Wars universe Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, and Adam Driver handle themselves well and create characters I’m looking forward to seeing grow in future flicks. And I could have used even more of Maz Kanata (an unrecognizable, motion-captured Lupita Nyong’o)

Thanks to these characters and director J.J. Abrams’ obvious care for the legacy of the beloved series, this chapter of the Star Wars saga has plenty of warmth. I’m just hoping that the next brings back some fire.

P.S.: For the record, I saw the film in 3D by not IMAX.

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