A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, news came that a seventh "Star Wars" film was being made. And while some may have been initially hesitant (they were still recovering from the prequel trilogy), the hype surrounding "The Force Awakens" has been impossible to ignore, with hungry fans devouring casting news, poster images and teaser trailers.
Now, the release of the J.J. Abrams-helmed "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" is right around the corner. It officially opens Thursday night in one of the biggest film releases ever. Will moviegoers take to the new characters played by Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Oscar Isaac in the same way they responded to Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and Han Solo (Harrison Ford) in 1977?
The answer, it seems, is a resounding yes. Early reviews for "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" are out and most critics are raving, with the film earning a 97% "certified fresh" rating on review aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes.
Of course, not everyone was completely taken with the film.
The Times' Kenneth Turan writes "though a definite improvement on the last three abortive 'Star Wars' prequels directed by series creator George Lucas, 'The Force Awakens' is only at its best in fits and starts, its success dependent on who of its mix of franchise veterans and first-timers is on the screen."
For Turan the film, set 30 years after "Return of the Jedi," has an inevitably "erratic, haphazard quality to it," which he credits to the many audiences "The Force Awakens" is trying to please.
He does note that "director J.J. Abrams and fellow screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt have come up with some potent new characters and outstanding moments."
Among the franchise veterans, Turan praises an "altogether splendid Harrison Ford who, unlike original costars Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill, has a full-fledged, rip-roaring leading role rather than a cameo." Turan singles out Ridley, who plays the scavenger Rey, as "the brightest of the film's new cast members."
While there are definite highlights in "The Force Awakens," the film is "burdened by casting miscalculations and scenes that are flat and ineffective. Sometimes the Force is with this film, sometimes it decidedly is not," Turan says.
Many other reviewers were more upbeat, including Ann Hornaday of The Washington Post, who says fans "can rest assured that the Force is still with the franchise they grew up on or grew old with."
"'The Force Awakens' strikes all the right chords, emotional and narrative, to feel both familiar and exhilaratingly new," Hornaday says. And she praises Abrams for "unit[ing] the original cast with a group of newcomers who mesh seamlessly with their elders, in an ensemble effort that brims with the chops and brio of a great jam session."
For Hornaday, "'The Force Awakens' has succeeded where it counts most, in creating a cast of characters that viewers can spend the next several years rooting for, especially the spirited, resourceful heroine at its center."
The New York Times' Manohla Dargis writes that Abrams "turns out to be what this stagnant franchise needs: a 'Star Wars' superfan and pop culture savant."
Dargis notes that "The Force Awakens" "has the usual toy-store-ready gizmos and critters, but it also has appealingly imperfect men and women whose blunders and victories, decency and goofiness remind you that a pop mythology like 'Star Wars' needs more than old gods to sustain it."
Additionally, Dargis praises Abrams for "his most far-reaching accomplishment ... casting Mr. Isaac, Mr. Boyega and Ms. Ridley — a Latino, a black man and a white woman — in this juggernaut series."
"Mr. Abrams may be as worshipful as any 'Star Wars' obsessive, but in 'The Force Awakens' he's made a movie that goes for old-fashioned escapism even as it presents a futuristic vision of a pluralistic world that his audience already lives in. He hasn't made a film only for true believers; he has made a film for everyone (well, almost)," she writes.
Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle believes the movie "is the best 'Star Wars' sequel yet and one of the best films of 2015."
"['The Force Awakens'] is what the first 'Star Wars' was, and what the series always was when it was at its best, a story about people caught up in troubles they didn't look for, who rise to the moment," LaSalle says.
Specifically, LaSalle also praises Ford in his return as the gruff, reluctant hero Han Solo. "Ford is everything in this film that a 'Star Wars' fan could want him to be," writes LaSalle. "Even if the film were only so-so, 'The Force Awakens' would be worth seeing for Ford alone."
The Boston Globe's Ty Burr writes that watching "The Force Awakens" is "like pulling a cherished old record album from the shelf and cueing up the needle," but that the film is more "one that just satisfies every nostalgic itch you need scratched."
"Don't tell anyone, but the movie's more of a remake than a reboot," writes Burr. "There's a hero who starts as a nobody from a nothing planet, only he's not named Luke Skywalker and he's not a he: She's Rey (Daisy Ridley), abandoned as a child on a desert junkyard called Jakku."
Other similar elements are "an adorable robot named BB-8 who speaks in digital-boppedy-boo ... a bigger, badder Death Star, and ... even a new Darth Vader on the block: Kylo Ren." And according to Burr, it's these nostalgic elements that make the film work.
"We don't really want to see what happens next in that galaxy far, far away. We want to recapture what it felt like the first time we arrived, in 1977, with a movie called 'Star Wars,'" says Burr. "'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' takes us there."