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A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, a friendly little droid programmed with some secret information is crossing a desert of vast sand dunes searching for … Do stop me if you've heard this one before.

To write the original Star Wars script, George Lucas studied up on world mythology, eventually creating a trilogy of movies that drew on Roman history, Christian myth, chivalric legend and Buddhist philosophy. To produce their sequel to that trilogy, the filmmakers hired by Disney simply studied Lucas.

The much-anticipated Star Wars: The Force Awakens continually reprises plots and themes from the first three movies. It tells a well-crafted story; the new characters are invigorating; the old characters are reintroduced tidily. But it is also far too enamoured with the power of its own history. Apparently, anything that costs $4-billion – that's the price Disney paid for Lucasfilm – must be mythic.

The movie begins once again with an isolated hero on a desert planet: This time, she's Rey (Daisy Ridley), a plucky orphan who makes her living scavenging scrap. When a spherical droid named BB-8 (the app-enabled toy is already on sale) and a deserting storm trooper named Finn (John Boyega) land in her lap, she is drawn into a mysterious quest and enlisted in a battle against an evil organization called the First Order that is run by a guy in a black mask. Rey and Finn soon meet up with the famed Han Solo and Chewbacca, still out there flying around the galaxy – Harrison Ford and Peter Mayhew reprise those roles – and so a familiar team of idealists and opportunists is assembled.

Like many a Christian philosopher before them, director J.J. Abrams and his fellow scriptwriters, Michael Arndt and Lawrence Kasdan (who also co-wrote The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi), struggle most of all to find a plausible explanation for the existence of evil. First of all, the movie simply winds back the clock: A power that looks and sounds just like the old Empire has somehow emerged; the Rebels are fighting it again and the Republic they restored now seems invisible.

To be fair to Revenge of the Sith, the third and least noxious instalment in Lucas's cash-grabbing prequel trilogy of the early 2000s, it contained a rather complex backstory for the emergence of Darth Vader, showing an unusual attention to motivation in a genre where most bad guys just are. Here, elements of that story are repeated, but the new one turns out to be a pale imitation of the original, while his overlord is downright laughable. Despite a fine performance from the always admirable Adam Driver as one of the villains, the baddies feel under-written and when Abrams whips up a Nuremberg-style rally of storm troopers complete with red-and-black banners, a critic must cry foul. A director has to earn his Nazi iconography.

The forces of lightness fare better. Refreshingly, this is a sci-fi action movie in which the main character, Rey, is a woman and Ridley makes her a person of both grit and gravity. Boyega successfully plays her Han – that is to say, her brash yet more uncertain sidekick. And the real Han is nicely integrated into the story, with Ford happily winking away at a knowing audience. This is one area where trading on the audience's affection for the franchise feels more friendly than exploitative, although Carrie Fisher's appearance as General Leia, still commanding that Rebel army, is also well handled. Meanwhile, the elusive Luke Skywalker appears in a manner that suggests Disney is saving Mark Hamill for subsequent movies.

Another welcome character is Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong'o), a wise old woman – well, she is a short female creature, with a large but wizened face and huge eyes further enlarged with magnifying goggles. The doyenne of one of those Star Wars watering holes filled with all the riff-raff of several species, she is the only interesting non-humanoid here.

Abrams's team seems determined that it will not repeat the mistake of creating another Jar Jar Binks – the grotesquely unfunny alien minstrel who appeared in the prequel movies – but instead doesn't invent many intriguing new creatures at all. "Do no harm to the franchise" seems a pretty low artistic barrier for a director to set.

Similarly, the various battles with the First Order replay stuff we've all seen before, whether the fighters are exploding out in space or skimming across planets that enjoy a checklist of climactic conditions and geography. This film is much less CGI-obsessed than the prequel trilogy, which was always gazing longingly into gorgeously detailed space cities, but it doesn't have any startling new effects in its toolkit.

A viewer who had somehow never seen a previous Star Wars movie might find The Force Awakens entertaining, even if he didn't quite follow the Skywalker family tree or get the in-jokes about trash compactors and black masks. But most audiences are well acquainted with the franchise and will find lots of pleasantly familiar tropes here, but little gripping innovation. Some may thrill with delighted recognition at the spectacle of yet another primal duel fought over a great void. Others, though, may know that the real test of myth-making lies in an ability not to repeat but to reinvent.

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