Blue letters on black: A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away… And then: STAR WARS. And if that doesn’t elicit goosebumps, the receding crawl that follows – straightforward, enticing, with not a jot of gobbledegook about trade tariffs – thrillingly echoes the openers of the original trilogy.
This is old-school stuff, pitched just right, and so it is with most of the film that follows. Forget the overstuffed, over-polished, over-pixelated, underwhelming prequels by George Lucas. The look and feel of J.J. Abrams’ seventh episode in the beloved space saga is just what fans have been waiting for since 1983’s Return of the Jedi. It’s time to party like an Ewok: the Force is strong with this one.
But back to that crawl. The First Order has risen from the ashes of the Empire; and the Resistance’s (nee Rebellion) General Leia Organa has sent her most daring pilot to the planet of Jakku on a desperate mission (we’re paraphrasing here). That pilot is Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac). He’ll team up with Finn (John Boyega), an AWOL Stormtrooper, and the pair will go in search of Dameron’s BB-8 droid, conveyor of a vital piece of a vital map...
On Jakku, scavenging to survive, resides Rey (Daisy Ridley), the at-first-dubious-but-increasingly-proud owner of (you guessed it) a BB-8 droid. But no sooner have Rey and BB-8 started to roll together than they find themselves targeted by a death squad. “Stop holding my hand!” Rey yells at Finn, who’s turned up in the nick of time to drag her to safety. Pointedly, thrillingly, she then grabs his hand to haul him into a rusting ship, their only hope of escape…
If any of this sounds convoluted – and we haven’t even mentioned the First Order’s Big Bads General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), and its even Bigger Bad Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis, mo-capping once more) – it’s not. Abrams and co-writers Lawrence Kasdan (who co-wrote The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi) and Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire) bring clarity and purity to the storytelling, returning to the part-mythological, part-Saturday-serial vibe of A New Hope.
The images, too, are uncomplicated and unfussy. Just as Abrams jettisons the antiseptic sheen of the prequels in favour of the clunky, lived-in world of the originals, and uses CGI more to take away than to add (opting for practical effects and props wherever possible), so he refrains from the kamikaze camera and ADD-cutting of so many modern blockbusters. Yes, there’s a mobility and immediacy to the battles that wasn’t possible 30 years ago, but it never jars, always serves story. The use of irises and wipe-edits, meanwhile, is adopted for house style.
Of the new triangle of characters, Boyega brings intensity and a surprisingly honed comic timing (“I love the Resistance,” he gabbles when Rey asks him if that’s who he’s with); Isaac is amiable and handsome and a welcome throwback in his effortless derring-do; and Ridley, always likeable, overcomes some initial woodenness to handle the heavy lifting of later emotional scenes.
Of the old triangle, here making fan-pleasing returns, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Leia (Carrie Fisher) set bottom lips a-trembling whenever they share the screen, while Luke (Mark Hamill)… well, that would be telling. Let’s just say there’s good reason J.J. has guarded this aspect of the plot with the tightness of a Force choke, and instead focus on Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), still rocking the greatest backcomb in movies. The hairy guy has also sharpened his sense of humour over the last 32 years – his bickering double-act with Han will have you choking laughter like you’re bringing up a fur ball.
But it’s Driver’s Kylo Ren who steals the show, a match for Darth Maul when sporting his car-grill mask, and something else entirely when he removes it. Star Wars, in many ways, is all about clearly defined lines and black and white, but this is the kind of anguish and soul-searching you’d expect in an Ingmar Bergman movie. Albeit with a really cool lightsaber.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens is not perfect nor could it ever be. But for every niggle (Snoke is pure Voldemort, one tentacular beast better belongs in Men in Black 3) there are 10 things that are exactly right, and it says much that no one will leave disappointed despite going in with hysterical levels of expectation.
There are images here that brand the brain: Rey dwarfed by a crashed Star Destroyer as she toboggans down a huge hill of sand; Hux addressing thousands of Stormtroopers like it’s some Nazi propaganda rally filmed by Leni Riefenstahl; Starkiller Base, boasting firepower to make the Death Star(s) look like a Zippo lighter, destroying multiple planets.
And if Episode 7 is almost too slavishly reverential, it’s every sub-plot mirroring or reversing those that have gone before, and its nods and winks so plentiful as to border on the distracting, it is better this than to repeat Lucas’ prequel mistakes.
This, undoubtedly, is the movie that fans wanted, the movie that fans deserve. And it’s only fitting that it is, beneath the scintillating action and striking world-building, a film about parents and children, about the effects of one generation on the next, about legacy. Star Wars: The Force Awakens will be viewed and passed down for many years to come.