NEW YORK (AP) — Cue the scrolling of yellow words into outer space: “Star Wars” is back.
It has taken more than $4 billion, the passing of the torch from George Lucas to J.J. Abrams and enough anticipation to fuel a Death Star, but the force has finally been stirred. Countdown clocks, set in October 2012 when the Walt Disney Co. purchased Lucasfilm, will hit zero on Thursday night when “The Force Awakens” debuts. Once again, packed movie theaters will echo with the rousing themes of John Williams and the buzz of lightsabers.
The opening follows a year of intensely watched dribbles of trailer footage, one of the grandest premieres in Hollywood history and a largely glowing critical response that has pushed fan fervor into hyper-speed __ even as many die-hards, clutching their advance tickets, cover their ears and anxiously yell “No spoilers!”
Much is at stake, from the bottom line of Disney to the hearts of “Star Wars” devotees whose faith was severely tested (but far from extinguished) the last time “Star Wars” returned: in 1999 with the first of a clunky trilogy of prequels.
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As the galaxy far, far away again descends over the globe, a handful of questions surround “The Force Awakens.”
IS IT ANY GOOD?
Critics, embargoed until early Wednesday morning, have roundly praised “The Force Awakens” as a return to form for the franchise and a loving resurrection of the space opera. The general feeling is that the movie balances old (the original stars, hand-crafted effects) and new (the heirs apparent Daisy Ridley and John Boyega) in a kind of greatest hits of “Star Wars” that, while it may not chart much new ground, flows with the spirit of the original movies. The force is strong with it.
The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis said “it seamlessly balances cozy favorites … and new kinetic wows.” Variety’s Justin Lang wrote that the film reinvigorates the saga, even if “fan service takes priority here over a somewhat thin, derivative story.” The AP’s Lindsey Bahr said the film “is no more and no less than the movie that made us love it in the first place. In fact, it’s basically the same thing.” Ultimate judgment, however, doesn’t sit with critics but with the fans.
HOW MUCH WILL IT MAKE?
For months it’s been the favorite parlor game of the movie industry. Will it pass the record $208.8 million domestic debut of “Jurassic World” in June? The December marketplace is a different beast than the early summer; the previous top December opening is the $84.6 million for 2012’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.”
It goes without saying that “The Force Awakens” will smash that. It’s already sold more than $100 million worth of presales. Rival studio executives peg a debut above $200 million and likely surpassing “Jurassic World.”
Analysts, though, caution that the opening weekend is only part of the story for “The Force Awakens.” Given Disney’s investment and planned rollout of sequels and spinoffs for years to come, the more significant box-office fate of “The Force Awakens” will be told over weeks and months.
“The real key here is where we are in March,” says Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for box office data firm Rentrak. “This movie gets into the $1 billion club without breaking a sweat.”
While the film’s all-powerful merchandising soaks up holiday sales, Disney will hope that “The Force Awakens” plays like “Avatar” and “Titanic” __ movies that remained top draws through January and benefited from repeat viewings. The film opens most everywhere internationally this weekend, but doesn’t lands in China until Jan. 9.
WHO’S THE BREAKOUT STAR?
There are many contenders here, led by the fierce Ridley and Boyega, who adds to the humor that runs throughout the film. Harrison Ford, too, has drawn some of his best reviews in decades for his reprisal of Han Solo. But there’s no question: the scene-stealer of “The Force Awakens” is BB-8, the puppy-like droid who bleeps and bloops and rolls away with the movie.
ARE WE ACTUALLY TALKING ABOUT THE OSCARS?
It isn’t out of the realm of possibility, but “The Force Awakens” faces the odds of surviving an asteroid field. Academy voters seldom reward sequels, and Abrams’ film is the last-screened entry of the season. It’s not without precedent, though; “Star Wars” was a best picture nominee in 1978 when Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” won.
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP