STAR WARS: EPISODE VII - THE FORCE AWAKENS | ★★★★½

Reviewing a film that has generated enough hype to fill an entire galaxy is really tough to do without going into specifics about its plot. I fear this critique may be not be enough to express what I am feeling as I write this. But as a wise old sage once said, "Fear is the path to the dark side," so I'll do my best to contain myself.

10 years ago, I saw "Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith" (the most underrated entry in the saga), which is undoubtedly one of the most memorable filmgoing experiences I've ever had. After seeing "Star Wars" creator George Lucas complete his six-chapter odyssey, it seemed like it was the end of something I'd never get to experience in a theater again. Hearing the words "Episode VII" alone seemed too good to be true. 10 years later, this tiny possibility has become a magnificent reality. If you're questioning the early buzz surrounding the film, I am here to tell you that it's true, all of it. "Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens" is the most fun you'll have at the movies this year.

Three decades after the fall of the Galactic Empire in "Episode VI - Return of the Jedi," a new threat has risen from its ashes: the First Order, led by the mysterious Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a warrior strong with the dark side of the Force. The Resistance, led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), struggles to keep this new evil at bay. Meanwhile on the desert planet Jakku, a scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley) and a disillusioned Stormtrooper named Finn (John Boyega) are swept up into the new conflict. Along the way, the two eventually run into Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and his furry companion, Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew).

Taking over the beloved space fantasy series is director J.J. Abrams, who clearly demonstrates that he is at the absolute peak of his filmmaking career. As a fanboy of the first film ("Episode IV - A New Hope"), Abrams manages to have just enough fun to satisfy his own inner geek by inserting passionate references to what has come before. Some fans may be too distracted by these noticeable nods, but "The Force Awakens" successfully creates its own path and breathes exciting new life into the franchise without succumbing to overly nostalgic fan service. Learned much from "Star Trek Into Darkness," J.J. has.

Much of the film's fabulous energy is provided by the cast that Abrams has flawlessly assembled. It's great to see Harrison Ford back in the role that essentially birthed his career, but it's even better to see that Han Solo plays a highly integral part in this new chapter. His purpose here is greater than ever before. However, "Episode VII" belongs to Ridley, Boyega and Driver. These three new leads give the greatest performances in any "Star Wars" film to date. Ridley's Rey makes for a compelling female hero while Boyega plays up Finn's charisma in the best possible way. Driver is absolutely phenomenal as Kylo Ren, who may actually become the most beloved on-screen villain since the character's very inspiration and motivation, Darth Vader.

As for the film's spectacle, "The Force Awakens" is filled to the brim with imaginative aliens, creatures and action sequences. The new droid BB-8 is by far the most exceptional creation in the film. Abrams and company have taken great care to make sure that the practical and computer-generated effects blend into a seamless whole. The result is impeccable, but what's truly extraordinary is that Abrams does not linger on the film's handcrafted wonders in order to prove that what we're seeing is 100% real and that practical effects are superior to visual effects.

If there are any quibbles to be made, they could be in regards to the motion-capture characters (played by Andy Serkis and Lupita Nyong'o) who stand out in a film dominated by visual practicality. Another extremely minor disappointment is that the new planets in the film are not as visually stimulating as those seen in the prequel trilogy. Not that the film necessarily needed such exotic locales, but they could've been a nice addition to the "Star Wars" universe.

Sound design and cinematography are also quite staggering. The editing is appropriately fast-paced, but there are a few jarring scene transitions here and there. It also goes without saying that hearing the legendary John Williams compose another "Star Wars" film score is a beautiful experience all its own.

If you asked me to compare "Episode VII" to the first six films after only one viewing, it would be impossible for me to give you a definite answer. If anything, there really is no beating "Episode IV," a film that will remain a cinematic classic forever. Dare I say it is arguably more intense than "Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back" (and "Episode III" since I'm such a sucker for it). Comparing it to the other films is unavoidable, but doing so would require me to dive into spoiler territory. What I can say without any doubt is that "Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens" is one of the best installments in the saga and is easily one of the best films of 2015.

(9/10)