Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Year: 2015
Production Co: LucasFilm
Studio: Disney
Director: JJ Abrams
Producer: Bryan Burk/JJ Abrams/Kathy Kennedy
Writer: JJ Abrams/Lawrence Kasdan/Michael Arndt
Cast: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Harrison Ford, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Carrie Fisher, Domnhall Gleeson, Gwendoline Christie, Max von Sydow, Mark Hamill, Lupita Nyong'o, Anthony Daniel, Peter Mayhew, Andy Serkis, Simon Pegg, Greg Grunberg, Billie Lourd, Iko Uwais, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Daniel Craig, Kevin Smith

Zack Snyder's Man Of Steel made a very decisive and determined break with the past. There was no Jimmy Olsen, no Lex Luthor and no 'up, up and away'. Until the last scene it didn't even look like it was going to have Clark Kent and the Daily Planet in it.

It was a new Superman for a new world, Snyder seemed to say, and he was going to drop all the cheesy tropes that had defined the mythology since the 1930s. The film had its share of haters, but it was hard to argue that it updated the story to the modern age.

When he picked up the mantle of the Star Wars universe, JJ Abrams knew he had to do the complete opposite – it would be all about the tone, tropes and aesthetic that had come before.

Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens knows what we all love about Star Wars and delivers it in droves. Since the Imperial Cruiser roared over our heads after the rebel Blockade Runner for the first time it's always been about nostalgia – the feeling Generation X (or me at least) has been searching for ever since, a feeling that seemed even more remote when the prequels revealed themselves to have nowhere near the same magic.

The fact the film exists at all is still enough to make a Star Wars fan swoon. For all the endless rehashing, rebooting and revisiting Hollywood does of itself and every other movie market in the world, there's one cinematic institution that's had a beginning and an end that we never thought we'd get the chance to see more of.

So it was with paroxysms of giddiness that fanboys and financial analysts alike received the news that Disney was buying LucasFilm and making more Star Wars movies. How many of us felt the same leaden sadness when we walked out of Star Wars Episode 3: Revenge of the Sith? No matter how good or bad the prequels, we had every reason to believe it'd be the last time we'd ever go to the cinema to see a Star Wars film we hadn't already watched 900 times on TV, VHS and DVD.

But while it was a surprise there'd be more Star Wars films, the notion the next one would be good was a given when JJ Abrams was announced as the director. Why? Let's not forget Lucas has only ever directed one good film in his career (the A New Hope-superior The Empire Strikes Back and the on-par Return of the Jedi were both made by other directors).

Abrams is a better director than Lucas ever was, and the latter's early 2015 admission Disney didn't listen to any of his ideas was frankly a blessing. It was a given Abrams would be a deft hand when it comes to action and spectacle, but as the Star Trek films showed us, his more important talent is in knowing how to blend action and thrills with a sense of rambunctious fun, something Star Wars came to embody and which sci-fi event cinema has had trouble recapturing ever since as one story and hero after another gets darker and moodier.

Just like the reports and reactions from the first screenings said, you're barely thirty seconds into the movie – never mind the LucasFilm logo, John Williams' signature carousing blast or the familiar yellow title crawl – before you can feel the soul and magic of the original, almost like it was woven into the very fabric or DNA of the film stock.

It obviously has something to do with the creative choice to use 35mm (and sometimes 65mm) film, real costumes, puppets and models and real sets, but the Star Wars universe again feels lived in, the 'used future' of the original that George Lucas himself pioneered and then abandoned in the too-clean and crisp all-digital prequels.

Something else that dances successfully on a knife-edge is the balance between anchors to the past and the founding of a new story. Abrams – a fan as much as we all are – knew full well links to the original series would be crucial, and he establishes them both far deeper and more subtly than just having the starship or First Order Trooper designs evolve after 30 years have passed.

Firstly, there are the narrative and thematic nods – the story is propelled into being by a droid receiving something very secret and dangerous and then setting out across a desert world. It then meets a seeming nobody who has powers and a destiny greater than she ever could have imagined. There's a dark villain, his mysterious overlord, even a cantina scene.

But it all feels like it very much belongs, and it's not until it's over or until you see it again that you realise how many callbacks there are that still leave room for the current story and characters to develop and come into being.

The droid in question is BB-8 – Abrams, co-writer Lawrence Kasdan and puppeteer Neil Scanlan's (successful) attempt at a contemporary successor to R2D2 and C3PO. As the opening crawl informs us, his master, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac, one of the few actors in the cast who's both established and good) has been sent to the desert planet Jakku to collect part of a map by his commander, Leia Organa. The map supposedly leads to Luke Skywalker, who's been AWOL since he tried to train a new generation of Jedi until one of them went power mad and started killing everybody.

But the First Order is hot on Poe's trail, a military force that's arisen out of the ashes of the Empire and has a super-weapon even more fearsome than the Death Star. Rather than give up the crucial piece of the map when the First order troops attack led by the evil, masked and robed Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) – as worthy an update to Darth Vader as was probably possible – Poe puts it in BB-8, sends the droid on his way and joins the fight.

At the same time, a First Order trooper (a thus far unseen John Boyega) is having a crisis of conscience at the bloodshed around him during the Jakku attack, and after Poe is captured and tortured by Ren to give up the droid's location, Finn (as Poe nicknames him) helps Poe escape. But when their ship is crippled during their daring escape flight, the pair crash back down to Jakku, Poe nowhere to be found and Finn wandering off into the endless desert.

Meanwhile, BB-8 has got himself captured by a scrap dealer, but is rescued by kindly young professional scavenger, Rey (Daisy Ridley). Rey tries to scrape a living out of the harsh sand by extracting metals and fixtures she can sell out of the wreckage of the old Imperial/Rebellion war, walkers and cruisers rusting slowly away in the sand.

When Finn finds his way to Rey's settlement, the First Order descends – apparently, Rey and Finn realise, BB-8 is a big deal. The three barely escape with their lives by commandeering a beat-up old ship lying in the desert (but one that prompts a wave of frisson through the audience), and the chase/battle is on – one that will lead Finn and Rey back to their ship's rightful owners, Poe back to his Commander – now general Organa – and the bad-tempered and chilling Ren on their tails.

And like the best example of a Star Wars movie, their adventures take them to strange worlds filled with strange creatures, wise old sages and evil warlords around every corner.

The other thing to take note of is the performances. Some of them aren't so great, but Abrams is too good a director to just elicit a bad performance or pick a bad actor (*ahem* Hayden Christensen). It's more likely he directed his actors to stay in tune with the whole Star Wars universe, one we don't equate with Oscar-worthy acting.

Domnhall Gleeson as First Order base 'Starkiller' (one for the real Star Wars nerds) commander General Hux scowls and sneers and ends up as scary as a tin of spaghetti. When he delivers his big speech to the assembled troops and officers about how they're going to crush the Republic he sounds like a teenage boy trying to sound evil by using his big boy voice.

Ridley and Boyega aren't brilliant actors – you can see their eagerness papering over their lack of subtlety at times – but they bring some much-needed energy to the performances. Carrie Fisher was never a great actress and Harrison Ford only marginally so, and despite what you've heard they both look aged and tired. They're here because they're Star Wars royalty, while actors like Max von Sydow (brief though the role is) and Oscar Isaac are here for dramatic chops.

When considering every individual character, actor, design or sequence, Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens isn't perfect. The monsters Han and Chewie are transporting are indeed (like I heard it described) like something out of Men in Black 3, and represent the only over-digital element in the film. And with all their writing talent, surely Abrams and Kasdan could have come up with a better name to keep calling the Starkiller offensive device than 'the weapon'.

But the tone is perfect, and that's more important to an audience with 30 years of love invested in the unique creative outlook of the original trilogy. Ironically now it's out of Lucas' hands, the future of Star Wars is assured.

One more personal note; I've written before about my bemusement at how shocked people were that Vader reveals his relationship to Luke – even aged 10 I rolled my eyes at such a soap opera moment. The same applies here to the big shock death three quarters of the way through. If you didn't know it was going to happen as the scene was setting it up you must never have been on the inside of a movie theatre.

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