BY MELISSA RUGGIERI
I still remember how, in 1999, my heart thumped as the opening “Star Wars” fanfare blared to introduce “Episode I: The Phantom Menace.”
I also still remember how I exited the theater that afternoon -- disgruntled, disappointed and primed to denigrate the good name of George Lucas for destroying my dream that the magic of the original trilogy would be restored.
Nope. Still not over that Jar Jar Binks nonsense.
After watching “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” twice on Tuesday (the force apparently wasn’t strong enough to combat area power issues that dogged Atlantic Station during the first screening of the movie, which cut to black minutes before the ending ), I left with a different feeling.
I wished I could hug J.J. Abrams.
The “Force Awakens” director – who also salvaged the “Star Trek” franchise, brought us the cool “Super 8” among other movies, and co-created a brilliant little show called “Lost” – has gift-wrapped this movie for fans of the original trilogy.
It’s both nostalgic and fresh, a tender homage to, especially, the initial “Star Wars” (“Episode IV: A New Hope”), as well as a bridge to help those of us stuck in the splendor of Hoth edge into the future.
It’s also funny – very funny – and self-deprecating, something non-existent in Episodes I-III.
“The Force Awakens” is stuffed with plot twists, but I won’t be responsible for any spoilers. You can take that up with the Internet.
But as someone who dutifully studied every teaser and trailer released in the past 12 months, I’ll say this: All of those meaningful glances exchanged between characters don’t mean what you probably thought they did. (Why does now-General Leia look so sad when Han Solo is holding her? Why is that rogue Stormtrooper hyperventilating? Have these Finn and Poe fellows crossed paths before as they share a shoulder squeeze on the way to battle?)
Abrams, who also co-produced and co-wrote the film, clearly spared no expense in his determination to make “The Force Awakens” as tactile as possible. These sets, fighter planes, robots – especially little BB-8, a rolling package of anthropomorphized adorability – and even some kooky creatures look real (as they are in most scenes).
There is an aching familiarity to the sun setting beneath the desert acreage on Jakku, the home planet of scrappy scavenger Rey, and Abrams doesn’t shy away from blatant sentimentality in some moments on the Millennium Falcon, a ship Rey initially dismisses as “garbage.”
This will probably be the only moment in life when your eyes will mist at the first glimpse of “garbage.”
While newcomers Rey (played with grit and vulnerability by Daisy Ridley) and Finn (a soulful John Boyega) anchor the film with a deft blend of Millennial me-me-me-ness and a heap of respect and awe for their elders, it’s the latter, with their crinkled eyes and ash-colored hair, who make this installment of the franchise so tear-inducing and special.
Harrison Ford still injects Han Solo with grumbly charm and a sideways grin, while Carrie Fisher’s Leia, the idol of so many teen girls (hand raised) in the original films, maintains her stoic calm, which is only betrayed when the Force alerts her to some emotional upheaval.
And Chewbacca, well, yes, the “big furry oaf” remains Han’s consigliere in space, but he’s also given the opportunity to present, to a much larger degree, a sly wit and deep feelings.
Of everything in “The Force Awakens,” the Han Solo-General Leia scenes are to be treasured the most. They’re jolts of wistfulness, sure, but so what? Isn’t that what most of us wanted in this movie?
Fans who have thrilled to the “Star Wars” films for explosions and action, as well as the latest manifestations of good vs. evil, dark vs. light, sins of the fathers vs. bratty offspring, will have plenty to gnaw on for a brisk-feeling 135 minutes.
A trio of lightsaber battles – usually including the vaguely sinister Darth Vader-wannabe Kylo Ren – nausea-inducing zig-zags by TIE Fighters and X-Wings and planets exploding into floods of yellow light fulfill all visual and adrenaline obligations.
But by the time “The Force Awakens” zooms to its closing minutes, you might be emotionally drained, maybe even thinking that a battle scene followed a script a little too similar to Death Star Destruction 101 in “Episode IV.”
If you're a quick-exit type, a piece of advice: Do. Not. Leave. Early.