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[LOS ANGELES] Hollywood rolls out the red carpet on Monday for the premiere of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, with excitement at fever pitch as the space epic resumes to the delight of die-hard fans.
Ever since 1977, when Star Wars introduced the world to The Force, Jedi knights, Darth Vader, Wookiees and clever droids R2-D2 and C3PO, the sci-fi saga has built a devoted global fan base that spans the generations.
Fans will rub shoulders with Tinseltown royalty at the star-studded premiere, to be followed by a global roll-out taking in a dozen countries from Wednesday before the film officially reaches US theatres on Friday.
Dozens of fans have been camped out for a week - some in full costume - outside the Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard where the first Star Wars movie began its journey four decades ago, and which is hosting Monday's event along with two other nearby theaters.
Motorists will need The Force to navigate the area - nearby roads have been closed to traffic, and Los Angeles police have deployed extra officers.
"This is probably the biggest opening in decades," said Jeff Bock, an analyst at box office tracker Exhibitor Relations.
"There's more security than at the Academy Awards. It's a huge deal." The intergalactic tale of good versus evil, friendship, loyalty and love created a defining moment in the history of popular culture and launched one of the biggest movie franchises ever.
The original blockbuster turned Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill - who play its heroes Han Solo, Princess Leia and Luke Skywalker - into stars overnight.
Much to the delight of legions of fans, the beloved veterans will return in the new installment - which picks up 30 years after the events of 1983's Return Of The Jedi. But The Force Awakens also brings a host of fresh faces, among them British actors John Boyega and Daisy Ridley, who could be the breakout stars of the new film.
"You could say it's the themes, it's the Force, it's the lightsaber - there's just something in this that touches people, and I don't think you can summarize that," 23-year-old Ridley, who plays a scavenger called Rey, told AFP.
"When we finished shooting, it felt like 'Oh, it's so long until it comes out' - and now we're here," she said.
Boyega plays a character called Finn, portrayed in the trailer as a renegade Stormtrooper.
Other franchise newcomers include Oscar winner Lupita Nyong'o, who plays Maz Kanata, a motion-captured pirate character whose castle is packed with smugglers from across the galaxy.
Director J.J. Abrams had the daunting task of taking the intergalactic tale created by George Lucas forward while trying to meet the high expectations of fans.
The last Star Wars film came out a decade ago - the final chapter in a prequel trilogy that was less well received than the original three films from 1977 to 1983.
So far, the plot of The Force Awakens - Episode VII in the franchise - remains a fiercely-guarded mystery.
"Everyone knows we keep it secret for the right reasons," Ridley said. "Even the people that really want to know about it, they want to see it in the film." The secrecy has sparked much speculation, with Abrams promising it won't be a nostalgic trip down memory lane.
Is Darth Vader really dead? Will the hero of the first trilogy, Luke Skywalker, be back? And could Rey, whose last name hasn't been revealed, be linked to the Skywalker dynasty?
"The Star Wars saga is a lot about family, the preservation of the community," Nyong'o told AFP. "The fabric of 'Star Wars' is diversity." What is already known for sure is that "The Force Awakens" cast counts far more women than previous renditions.
Aside from Fisher, Ridley and Nyong'o, it also features Gwendoline Christie, who made a name as the formidable warrior Brienne of Tarth in Game Of Thrones and plays Captain Phasma, one of the film's villains.
Anticipation for The Force Awakens has been building steadily for months, with Disney unleashing a well-orchestrated advertising campaign of merchandise tie-ups, trailers, interviews with cast members that left fans hungry for more.
Excited fans are counting down the hours, many with tickets already in hand - although those without may be disappointed on opening night in the United States, as many theatres are already sold out.
Experts say that the movie, which could generate US$400 million by the end of the year if well received, could help make 2015 the biggest year ever for the box office.
Products tied to the film meanwhile could bring in up to US$5 billion in revenue for Walt Disney Company, which paid US$4 billion for Lucasfilm in 2012.
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