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My family and some long-time friends waded through the lightsaber-carrying masses – Jedis, Rebel Alliance pilots and Wookies among them – to catch a 7 p.m. screening of the new Star Wars movie last night at the Reading Cinemas Rohnert Park 16. “The Force Awakens” appeared to be playing on every screen in the complex, which, with the help of long streams of “caution” tape, had lines that wound through the lobby, looking like the entrance to Disneyland’s Space Mountain.

In our theater, the crowd was so eager it erupted at the first thing to appear on screen after the previews, which was just the “LucasFilm” logo. Applause and cheers  broke out at a number of times throughout the evening, including the first appearance of the Millennium Falcon, which was nicely handled and came an unexpected moment. So was the appearance of Han Solo and his furry sidekick, who arrived with the line, “Chewie, we’re home.”

Overall, the film felt like that – an arrival home, back among friends we haven’t seen for a while. It was a bittersweet reunion. (I felt like I was back at one of my high school reunions asking, why all those other people have aged so much. but I haven’t. OK, I know, I’m living on Planet Denial. Leave me alone.)

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Fortunately, this is no hyperdrive tour through nostalgia. The real joy in this film are the new characters and the new story. Daisy Ridley is both daring and winsome as Rey and shows something we haven’t seen in a Star Wars film in some time – real acting. The same can be said for John Boyega as Finn, an instantly likable addition to this cast of characters. Likewise, the new hooded villain Kylo Ren is more complex than Darth Vader ever was – until Episode VI, I guess when he turns nice on a dime – which adds an even more deadly dimension.

But the best part about this film is that it’s not weighed down by the obligation to bring the story to a point where it has to be and everyone expects – the anvil that weighed down the first three films. This movie is different. Armed with a compelling plot line and a swashbuckling heroine – who is certain to draw young girls in particular to this series – this story is ready to take us anywhere. And for the first time in a long, long time, we’re ready to go. I couldn’t say that after Episode III.

Family rating: Unlike Episode III, this one is very family friendly. Lots of explosions and the usual Star Wars fare, but it’s stuff, like it or not, your kids have probably seen before. I wouldn’t recommend it for those under four, mainly because they will get bored and you will end up walking them around the lobby and missing the film, as I saw several dads with 2-year-olds doing. But it’s far better than Episode III which was brutal on young viewers.

My ranking of Star Wars films:

  1. Episode IV – A New Hope
  2. Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back
  3. Episode VII – The Force Awakens
  4. Episode VI – The Return of the Jedi
  5. Episode I – The Phantom Menace
  6. Episode II – Attack of the Clones
  7. Episode III – Revenge of the Sith

How does this compare to your list? Did anyone see it in 3D?

– Paul Gullixson