“Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” Reviewed: The Force is Strong in This One.

John Boyega, left, and Oscar Isaac in 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens.' (Lucasfilm)

John Boyega, left, and Oscar Isaac in ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens.’ (Lucasfilm)

Since debuting in 1977, the Star Wars saga has transformed our popular culture in ways big and small, subtle and obvious. And what’s most remarkable about that feat is that it’s happened through six films of largely middling quality. The original was exciting and revelatory if raw in spots, and The Empire Strikes Back (1980) was a masterpiece of its form; but Return of the Jedi was something of a stumble. And as for those prequels, well, if you can’t say anything nice….

It’s fair to say, then, that this is a franchise whose cumulative impact is much greater than the sum of its parts. The adventures of Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, Han Solo et al, are thrilling in a way that doesn’t require any one movie to be great – not that a legitimately great installment wouldn’t be nice, you know?

Enter Star Wars: The Force Awakens (rated PG-13), the movie fans have been waiting for, in every sense, for a very long time. Equal parts sequel and remake, this seventh film moves the franchise forward with confidence, storytelling flair and the unmistakable enthusiasm of a creator who has loved these stories from the very beginning – even if he was only 11 when the first Star Wars came out. Forty-nine-year-old J.J. Abrams is a fan who’s been given the keys to the universe George Lucas built. Those keys are in good hands.

As you’ve probably heard by now, Force is set a few decades after the events of the original trilogy – far enough in the future to make Luke, Han and Princess Leia mythic figures in their universe, but not so far ahead that they’re incapable of showing up. First, though, we meet Fin (John Boyega), a stormtrooper for the First Order (formerly the Empire), who turns traitor just in time to save the life of Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), a pilot for the Resistance who has information that the villainous Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) would like very much. Poe hid the data inside a cute little droid before he was captured, and now the droid is more-or-less safe in the hands of Rey (Daisy Ridley), a humble orphan on a desert world.

Let’s stop for a moment and acknowledge the elephant in the room, shall we? The Force Awakens borrows a lot of plot from the original Star Wars. Fin is new, but he’s also little more than a narrative device to move the action forward (we never learn what inspires him to switch sides, for instance). And everything else mentioned so far is a beat-for-beat revisiting of the events in the first film. This becomes even more obvious later, when the imminent threat facing the Resistance is revealed as Starkiller Base, a planet-sized weapon whose menace and weaknesses are reminiscent of the Death Star.

All that is forgiven, however, when Han Solo (Harrison Ford) shows up out of nowhere with his faithful Wookiee companion Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) still by his side. The massive Star Wars galaxy suddenly feels like a very small world indeed, to have such singular characters happen to drop by. Han, Rey and Fin bring the droid to Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), a general now instead of a princess, and the gang’s all here again. Except for Luke (Mark Hamill), of course – and hey, where is Luke anyway?

The Force Awakens is awash in fan-service moments that strain credulity, but by now Star Wars seems almost exempt from criticism for that sort of thing. What’s slightly less forgivable is the occasionally slack pacing of the action scenes, as if characters were posing for unseen audiences who can’t believe they’re watching another Star Wars movie. But no offenses are significant enough to take away the legitimate rush of watching the vintage performers pass the torch of this franchise to a new generation of characters – and all set to the music of composer John Williams, the franchise’s MVP since day one.

When you walk out of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, you’ll be prepared for a new era of battles between virtuous Jedi Knights and corrupt Sith Lords; of prideful boasts about how few parsecs it took the Millennium Falcon to do the Kessel Run; and of the British-accented droid C3PO (Anthony Daniels) chastising his pal R2D2 (Kenny Baker). It’ll all feel familiar, like the return of an old friend who hasn’t aged a bit. And if you’re 11 years old, who knows? A few decades from now you might even be picked to steer these adventures yourself for a while.