PEOPLE weighs in on the year's biggest movie Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Credit: Lucasfilm Ltd

Somewhere, on an arid little planet, a seemingly unremarkable orphan finds a droid with a critical message. Only this time, it’s not Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) we meet, but a young scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley). Luke is missing, having exiled himself for reasons unknown. The Dark Side wants to kill him. The Resistance wants to protect him. But he isn’t the hero we’re looking for. She is.

The Force Awakens shakes off the doldrums of creator George Lucas’s late-nineties series reboot by walking the finest of lines. With meaty roles for Leia (Carrie Fisher) and Han Solo (Harrison Ford), it honors the series’ roots, without digging too deep into the lore. (Don’t know Qui-Gon from Obi Wan? No idea who fought in the Clone Wars? Doesn’t matter!) At the same time, the film leaves plenty of room for the new generation to carry on the legacy, led by Ridley’s Rey. She’s resourceful, smart and fearless the kind of person you want wielding a lightsaber for your side. She’s also the fulfillment of a promise Lucas and Star Wars made long ago.

Before Jennifer Lawrence fired a shot in The Hunger Games; before Angelina Jolie cracked skulls in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Salt, Wanted and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider; before Linda Hamilton took on the Terminator; and even before Sigourney Weaver‘s Ripley battled a spaceship full of aliens, there was Princess Leia. Like Rey, Leia was canny and intrepid, helping lead the Rebels in their fight against the Empire. Unlike Rey, Leia rarely saw action, never saw battle and often needed rescue. She got to be a princess, but never a warrior. In The Force Awakens, Leia drops the metaphorical tiara, having earned her stripes as General Leia, while there’s never any doubt that Rey more than any of the men is the new hope of the Resistance. And by mighty Jabba’s fat face, there isn’t a metal swimsuit in sight.

But every warrior needs backup, and Rey has plenty. First, there’s that droid carrying the message. As you probably know, he’s BB-8, an adorable little bot with deeply cool spherical locomotion. What you may not know is that he belongs to a Resistance pilot named Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), to whom he’s totally loyal. Then, there’s Finn (John Boyega), a deserter from the First Order’s army of stormtroopers. Boyega has a warm chemistry with Isaac and Ridley, while adding comic relief and new dimension, as someone walking the path from dark to light. Lupita Nyong’o has a small but crucial role as Maz Kanata, a pint-sized pirate with big secrets.

Together, the new members of the Resistance face off against villains Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), who run the First Order. Given how powerful the Dark Side has become while the Force slept, it’s clear that it will take more than a ragtag band of neophytes to stop them. Do you hear John Williams’s score rising in your head? Good, because this is when the old heroes step in.

If watching Hamill, Fisher and Ford onscreen again doesn’t bring back a flood of terrific memories, then you should check your pulse. You are likely dead. The three have the same heart and soul they ever did, with years adding lines and wisdom. The shorthand is easy, the gaps fill in they’ve never left popular culture, and therefore never really left us. We just needed to see them again. Granted, director J.J. Abrams leans a little heavily on the nostalgia, but given all he had to accomplish in this massive franchise reboot, can you blame him?

And let’s be clear: The Force Awakens is an accomplishment. It does precisely what it needs to do to wrestle the story away from Episode I-III‘s dreadful midi-chlorian-covered mess, and get back to doing the Kessel Run in under 12 parsecs. But frankly, it doesn’t do much more than that. The story will feel more than a little familiar to old fans, the relationships more satisfying than surprising. There’s also a distinct lack of depth to many of the characters, presumably to keep as much of the unfolding plot under wraps for the next episodes. If you’re looking for the year’s best action movie, that honor still sits with Mad Max: Fury Road. Still, the fact that Abrams was able to tell a story that entertains while expanding this universe is a feat. Star Wars may be a massive epic, but it leaves precious little room to work.

Which is part of why Ridley is such a joy as Rey. She’s a long time coming, this character, a sort of inevitable surprise. Star Wars may take place a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, but Rey feels very much of the here and now. She and Finn make a buoyant partnership, even if it is weighed by heavy concerns. She’s not just a worthy successor to Leia, but to Han and Luke as well. Speaking of Luke, hey where is that guy? We won’t spoil that mystery here, but given all that’s at stake, here’s hoping the Force is with him.