By Hans Pedersen, December 2015 Web Exclusive.

Guaranteed: If you’re a Star Wars fan your skin will crawl when the movie begins, just like the epic words crawling up the screen: “Episode VII The Force Awakens” and the opening phrase “Luke Skywalker has vanished …”

The latest chapter in the franchise features its strongest heroine yet, and all-new villains and worlds – indeed don’t expect any familiar faces, droids or Wookies until at least 15 minutes into the sci-fi tale (a clever slow reveal that keeps viewers invested in the new characters and locales).

The cultural impact of the original Star Wars in 1977 cannot be overemphasized: it remained in theaters for an entire year, inaugurating a new era for insane mass merchandising.

Nearly 40 years later, the newest movie in the franchise, in the hands of Disney and director J.J. Abrams (Star Trek), is a crystalline-perfect blend of flawless CGI, stunning action sequences and inspired storytelling.

Photo courtesy of LucasFilm.

In the latest chapter, set 30 years after the celebrations in Return of the Jedi, The First Order has risen from the ashes of the old Empire, and its leaders have crafted a new weapon, built within the core of an icy world: it’s part-Death Star, part planet.

Stormtrooper FN-2987 with the First Order refuses his assignment to kill villagers during a raid led by a powerful new leader on the dark side Kylo Ren (Adam Brody). Engineering an escape, the rogue stormtrooper finds the best pilot in the Resistance, Poe (Oscar Isaac), in captivity and breaks him free. They escape with a valuable droid, BB-8 – but not before Poe renames the stormtrooper Finn.

The pair crash on the desert planet Lakku, and the First Order is already tracking BB-8 – which carries a holographic map indicating the whereabouts of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). Seems he’s gone missing and nobody – not even General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) – knows where he may be.

“Without the Jedi, there can be no balance in the universe,” remarks one character, underscoring the importance of finding Luke.

Rey (Daisy Ridley) is a young scavenger living in the deserts of Lakku, eating rehydrated food in the ruins of an old Imperial AT-AT walker. When she discovers BB-8, the skilled fighter and pilot teams up with Finn, tapping into her inner courage and prowess.

Rey and Finn ultimately meet up with one of the most infamous smugglers in the universe – war hero Han Solo (Harrison Ford) – along with his trusted Wookie Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew).

Their adventures include a visit to a lush green planet with a hangout that’s like a blend of Mos Eisley cantina and a ski lodge for outcasts. There, they meet the sage Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o) who unveils a valuable item from the original trilogy that’s been locked away.

In many ways The Force Awakens is more like the original Star Wars than any other film in the franchise.

Most importantly, the new story includes what may have proven elusive from some later films in the saga: the idea that a feisty underdog can stand up to a military industrial complex.

It also idealizes the rugged independence of the everyman like Finn or Han Solo, while placing value on the gifted chosen ones like Luke or Leia, whose cells are flowing with grace.

And just as audiences were shocked by the fact Darth Vader was Luke’s father, there a new family relationship uncovered in the latest film.

While the romance between Leia and Han has gotten rocky 30 years after the events of Jedi, the obstacle they face also plays a role in the story.

For fans, watching the actors feels like reuniting with old friends. Ford is dynamite as the legendary smuggler who’s chock full of quips and comebacks, but Fisher turns in her best performance yet as Leia. The wry actress’ grizzled, seen-it-all demeanor suits Gen. Organa perfectly now; no longer a political princess, she’s an embattled warrior.

From stunning desert vistas to verdant green forests, the cinematography is spectacular, and the CGI is essentially invisible as a special effect, nearly indistinguishable from sets, props or scenery.

The final impact of all this artistry is nothing short of thrilling. Of course nobody wants spoilers, but expect the unexpected, whether it’s the gender of stormtrooper leader Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie), or the fact BB-8 is actually more expressive than R2-D2. And you won’t believe how dusty and rusty the Falcon has become.

Anticipate the return of other favorites characters, even those you might not expect (calling fans of Admiral Akbar!), not to mention familiar gadgets and ships.

This sci-fi tale includes plenty of mysteries left unexplained, like Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), who heads up the powerful new weapon Star Killer base, but only appears as a hologram, never in person.

And then there’s the whole matter of Luke’s whereabouts.

Like a dream you always wanted to happen, the gang’s newest adventure marks the saga’s magical and triumphant return to the big screen. Indeed, The Force Awakens surpasses the quality of Episodes I and II handily, and rivals that of the third and sixth installments.

And, no spoilers here, but The Force Awakens includes twists that will arguably be considered some of the greatest in cinema history.

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