Star Wars: The Force Awakens review: "A worthy successor to the original trilogy"

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This really is uncharted territory – not since 1983 has a trip to that galaxy far, far away been a genuine journey to the unknown. Yes, the exact route we were taking in the prequels was a mystery, but the key facts – Anakin turning to the Dark Side, the Emperor making a land grab for everything – were already set down in Star Wars gospel. So watching The Force Awakens – a Star Wars movie where you actually have no idea what's coming next – is a slightly unsettling experience.

Luckily, it's also a totally exhilarating one. Episode 7 is such a worthy successor to the original trilogy that it's difficult to imagine how it could have turned out much better. After three years of ever-growing hype, JJ Abrams has pretty much nailed it, making a film that's simultaneously reverent to the source material, yet prepared to strike out on its own and be its own thing.

Walking that tightrope was arguably the movie's biggest challenge. It would have been so easy to simply make this a cover version of Star Wars' greatest hits, to replay classic moments with different characters in new situations. And indeed, there are plenty of moments in The Force Awakens when the echoes of the original trilogy are so loud as to be deafening: droids that are crucial to the plot; giant, planet-smashing enemy installations; a small, wise alien with a hotline to the Force; a bar populated with a wonderfully imaginative alien menagerie.

But then, every time you think you know where it's going, the movie goes off and gleefully turns your expectations on their heads. Even returning composer John Williams – who could have probably got away with popping on his CD of The Empire Strikes Back soundtrack instead of writing something new – keeps the recycled themes to a minimum, delivering music that feels fresh, yet totally in keeping with the saga. The result is that The Force Awakens is genuinely full of surprises, so much so that even someone who's studied every single bit of footage released to the internet will be wrongfooted.

From possibly the finest, most urgent opening of any Star Wars movie – one that comes with a beautiful nod to the original film – The Force Awakens makes you feel you're being taken on a journey, where the characters' actions have genuine consequences. As with A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, those first steps on the desert world of Jakku, where runaway Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) lands in the orbit of scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley) and ball droid BB-8, feel like a lifetime ago once the final credits roll, so much has happened in between.

The story is allowed to evolve organically, via a series of intriguing McGuffins, and without resorting to too many of the ludicrous twists of fate that bogged down the prequels. While the movie has the challenge of kickstarting a plot that's laid dormant for 30 years, it never resorts to info dumps, with key information drip-fed at the right moments. Thirty-plus years may have passed since the second Death Star went kablooie, but there's a definite dramatic throughline here, character arcs three decades in the making that are more than tenuous thematic links.

Most importantly, The Force Awakens totally transports you to another galaxy, making you forget about the real world for two hours. You frequently find yourself with a grin wider than Nien Nunb's jowls, as the Millennium Falcon does some nifty acrobatics, or Han Solo and Chewbacca banter like they've never been away. There are more laugh-out-loud funny lines in the first 15 minutes of The Force Awakens than the prequels managed in six hours, the characters bouncing off each other in a way we haven't seen since The Empire Strikes Back.

You're instantly reminded how wonderful Star Wars can be when putting memorable people (and aliens) at the forefront of the action is a priority. And beyond the fun and the humour, The Force Awakens manages to be genuinely moving at times – it's a hardy soul who won't find themselves with a bit of dust in their eye when certain characters meet for the first time – and it isn't afraid to put you through the emotional wringer. Abrams the director excels here, knowing all the right buttons to push and when. As a self-avowed Star Wars fan, staying suitably objective must have been one hell of a challenge.

Which format should you watch The Force Awakens in?

It's why enticing back Star Wars original trio of stars (along with Chewbacca, C-3PO, R2-D2 and a few other old friends) was so crucial to the movie – they're the bedrock on which The Force Awakens is built. While Abrams wasn't lying when he said there's a good reason for Mark Hamill's absence from the promotional material – we won't go into that here – they never feel like they've been crowbarred in to pointless cameos in the way C-3PO and R2-D2 were in the prequel trilogy. Plenty of water has flowed under the bridge, yet the relationship between Han and Leia is picked up in a place that makes sense, and the old chemistry is still there. Harrison Ford in particular is wonderful in the role that launched him as a mega-star, the old Han Solo twinkle back with a vengeance. Pulling on Solo's blaster and jacket for the first time in 32 years, he looks way more comfortable than he did reprising his other most iconic role in Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull, yet the old scoundrel charm is bolstered with extra world-weariness, irritability, all that extra mileage clearly having had an impact.

But The Force Awakens isn't really about the old guard, and it's a testament to Abrams and his writing partner, The Empire Strikes Back scripter Lawrence Kasdan, that come the end of the movie, you care about the two new leads nearly as much as characters you've known for 30 years. Finn and Rey aren't just retreads of Star Wars characters we've seen before – their circumstances and traits are entirely new. Boyega has genuine movie star charisma as Finn while Ridley, in arguably the most challenging role in the movie, plays Rey with a mix of gritty, survive-at-any-cost ingenuity, and wide-eyed wonder. Honourable mentions should also go to a pair of fellow newbies: the pirate Maz Kanata (a fun mix of wise old sage and comedy relief, played by a performance-captured Lupita Ny'ongo) and BB-8, who – with apologies to Wilson from Castaway – is undoubtedly the most endearing sphere ever to feature on screen.

The baddies also emerge from The Force Awakens in credit, which is quite a feat considering they have the unenviable task of picking up the mantle from Darth Vader – a fact that the movie tacitly acknowledges. The First Order turn out to be the Empire-plus. They have the same military aesthetic and hardware, given a 21st century update, but their Stormtroopers can actually hit their targets, and they're way more brutal than their Imperial predecessors – one nighttime assault on a village is genuinely chilling. In Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), they have an amazing figurehead, part petulant kid (his tantrums are spectacular), part dangerous, manipulative Dark Side warrior. It's easy to see why Disney have put him front and centre of their marketing campaign. It's a just shame that Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie), with that already iconic silver Stormtrooper armour isn't given more to do.

But for all it gets right on the storytelling front, the main reason The Force Awakens feels so Star Wars-y is the look and feel of the film. From the Stormtroopers and TIE Fighters to the tactile alien landscapes, this is how a modern Star Wars movie should be. Much has been made of Abrams' efforts to get back to a more practical style of filmmaking, eschewing the cartoony, CG-heavy look of the prequels, and it works. In fact, the puppet creatures are generally more successful than the computer generated ones (Maz Kanata is the exception), though the digital effects excel when it comes to the spaceships, as Abrams shoots the Millennium Falcon, X-Wings and the rest in ways that make your heart soar.

Why not the full five stars? We'd have liked to have seen more of the underused Oscar Isaac, whose Poe Dameron has the potential to be a great, Han Solo-ish pilot; for such an important character, First Order puppetmaster Supreme Leader Snoke (a mo-capped Andy Serkis) is not realised as well as he should be; and one key moment in particular isn't given the weight and resonance it perhaps should have been.

But The Force Awakens is as good as anyone could have realistically hoped, and it sets things up wonderfully for Episode 8. Abrams asks plenty of questions that'll be bothering us for the next 18 months, as we rewatch and analyse the movie to death to work out what it all means. Rian Johnson, it's over to you…

More info

Theatrical release17 December 2015
DirectorJ.J. Abrams
Starring"John Boyega","Daisy Ridley","Oscar Isaac","Adam Driver","Domhnall Gleeson","Carrie Fisher","Harrison Ford","Mark Hamill"
Available platformsMovie

Richard is a freelancer journalist and editor, and was once a physicist. Rich is the former editor of SFX Magazine, but has since gone freelance, writing for websites and publications including GamesRadar+, SFX, Total Film, and more. He also co-hosts the podcast, Robby the Robot's Waiting, which is focused on sci-fi and fantasy.