Anyone who has ever turned an empty wrapping paper roll into a makeshift lightsaber or pretended to use the force to open a set of automatic doors at the supermarket has at some point replayed Return of the Jedi’s cosy final moments and fantasised about what happens next.
That’s why Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the most fervently anticipated movie of the decade. For JJ Abrams, the director hand-picked to continue George Lucas’s era-defining saga, the chief challenge in measuring up to almost thirty years of anticipation was to recreate the Star Wars we all know and love but in a way we’ve never seen before.
The likelihood of succeeding was about the same as a Stormtrooper actually hitting his target, but Abrams tackles the task in a confident, spectacular fashion, delivering a familiar-but-fresh adventure that goes far, far beyond any fan’s wildest dreams.
For the most part, Abrams nimbly walks the fine line between reverence to the original trilogy and providing this sleeping giant of a franchise with a much needed shot in the arm. The result is a Star Wars movie that has everything you could hope for – dizzying dogfights, gritty lightsaber duels, AWOL Jedi – each element infused with a playful modern twist that’s sure to have everyone in the audience beaming like a seven-year-old again.
More importantly, as a self-avowed Star Wars fan, Abrams understands the importance of using people and emotion as the driving force behind the action. Every character here has a clearly defined dramatic arc to play-out – some of which have been simmering for more than three decades – which gives the action an urgency and sense of power the prequel trilogy could never muster due to its overreliance on ludicrous twists of fate.
The story picks up thirty years after the defeat of the Galactic Empire. Luke Skywalker has gone missing and a desperate Resistance despatches superstar pilot Poe Dameron to the desert planet Jakku to recover a clue to the whereabouts of the last remaining Jedi Knight. His mission is disrupted by the marauding forces of the First Order, led by Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren, forcing Poe to hide the intelligence inside a BB-8 droid, which promptly scarpers into the desert. There everyone’s new favourite Christmas toy rolls into Rey, a young scavenger who is stranded on the planet and still waiting for her parents to return.
Meanwhile, a Stormtrooper involved in Poe’s capture suffers a crisis of conscience. Seeing an opportunity to make his escape, he frees the tortured pilot and steals a TIE Fighter to return them to Jakku. But when their ship crash lands back in the desert, the newly christened Finn is left with no choice but to team-up with Rey to return the necessary information on Luke’s whereabouts to the Resistance before the First Order can mount a deadly attack from their secret base.
The search for Luke kicks-off a gleeful, genuinely surprising adventure that’s stuffed with more high-stakes battles and dizzying aerial acrobatics than you could possible handle. Abrams’ efforts to ditch the prequels’ unappealing CGI-aesthetic in favour of practical effects works perfectly, restoring the rickety charm of the originals through handmade puppets and tangible alien landscapes. On the rare occasions digital imagery is preferred, it’s used to great effect, infusing flight sequences with a greater pace and invention, such as our reintroduction to the Millennium Flacon, which twists and plunges in ways that will make your heart soar.
It’s unbelievably good to see Han and Chewy back on board the Millennium Flacon again – later joined by Leia and a couple of familiar robots – but, some brief poignant moments aside, the old gang are mostly here to pass the baton to the film’s new generation of heroes.
And it’s here that The Force Awakens stumbles. Attack the Block’s John Boyega and Oscar Isaac are both lumbered with roles that are heavy on charisma but rather low on nuance. Isaac’s Poe, especially, is thinly sketched, his role amounting to little more than whooping with glee inside a cockpit, which is, admittedly, a pretty fun way to pick up a paycheque.
It’s Rey who turns out to be the most intriguing of the new breed, with newcomer Daisy Ridley imbuing the scavenger with resourcefulness and maturity despite her background being left largely unexplored in preparation for future films.
Those on the dark side fare far better in terms of character development. Kylo Ren is not only a worthy heir to Darth Vader, he’s also a much more formidable presence than the franchise’s iconic figurehead. Part ferocious warrior, part petulant kid, Ren wields astonishing power with a callous unpredictability, freezing a blaster bolt with a mere wave of his hand. He also has the most interesting arc in the film, with his struggle against the seduction of the light making him a more layered and complicated villain than you might expect of a blockbuster franchise.
Ren is partnered with Domhnall Gleeson’s General Hux, a sneering military man who commands the First Order’s vast army of Stormtroopers. While Hux’s dialogue consists mostly of clunky techno-babble, Gleeson impressively instils a sense of menace and authority into his limited role.
Only Ren’s master, Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), fails to live up to expectations, as the character is too rarely seen to make a lasting impact. It’s notable that the motion-capture work behind Snoke is the only time Abrams relies too heavily on CGI, resulting in a cartoonish look that unfortunately dampens the power of his presence.
The Force Awakens can also be too beholden to Star Wars past for its own good. The story perhaps sticks too close to the formula of A New Hope, which often means significant plot points are too easy to predict. One key moment in particular lacks the weight and resonance required because it’s so clearly signposted you’ve already moved on from it before it even happens.
Yet The Force Awakens is still far better than anyone could have reasonably hoped, freshening up the Star Wars formula with brave innovations whilst setting things up wonderfully for Episode VIII. Fans can finally sleep easy again. The Force is strong in this one.
Runtime: 135 mins; Genre: Sci-Fi; Released: 17 December 2015;
Director: JJ Abrams; Screenwriters: JJ Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan, Michael Arndt;
Cast: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Harrison Ford, Adam Driver
Click here to watch the trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens