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

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 (opens in new tab) 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?

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Viewer: Samuel Roberts, Editor, PC Gamer 

Location: Little Theatre Cinema, Bath 

Seating: Four seats from left, front row 

Price: £8.50

I was only ever going to see Star Wars in 2D. My local Odeon sadly decided to just do 3D showings of Star Wars at midnight in order to roll in those sweet 3D ticket price mark-ups, and in no way was I willing to watch an inferior version of the film for more money. With no 2D IMAX in my area, my local independent theatre was the only choice – and I'm so glad I did it. Star Wars is meant to be seen in 2D. That's how we all saw the original trilogy. And this is so deliberately a throwback to those films, to recreating the beats of A New Hope while introducing a new generation of characters, that it just makes the most sense.

I wouldn't recommend seeing it in any other way. So much of the appeal of seeing The Force Awakens is about recapturing the feeling you had watching the films on the big screen in 1977 or 1997, that I don't believe any environmental 3D effects would greatly improve this brilliant revival of the series – see it in 2D at a cinema where you know you're going to have a comfortable, fun experience.

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Viewer: Ian Sandwell, Features Writer, GamesRadar+ 

Location: Cineworld IMAX, Enfield 

Seating: Eight rows from front, centre 

Price: £17

Given it was a conversion, Star Wars: The Force Awakens was never going to be an groundbreaking 3D watch along the lines of Gravity. However, it's about as good as a conversion as I've seen in a while. In particular, the early scenes on Jakku have a wonderful depth to them that really gives a sense of scale, more so than in the 2D IMAX version I saw previously. And while some of the action sequences skirt close to being a bit of a blur due to their speed, the first-person segments of them are terrific and the ratio change for one particular segment becomes an immersive experience.

Is it an essential watch in 3D? That would entirely depend on your opinion on the format. Naysayers aren't going to be swayed (and would likely choose to see it in 2D in the first place), but the conversion could have been an awful lot worse (hello, Clash of the Titans). Really the defining factor of whether to watch in 2D or 3D should depend on whether it's at an IMAX screen. The superior quality of sound alone makes an IMAX viewing of Star Wars: The Force Awakens unmissable, and if it happens to be in 3D, then rest assured that your viewing won't be impaired with a dodgy conversion.

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Viewer: Richard Edwards, Editor, SFX magazine 

Location: Empire Leicester Square, London 

Seating: Three rows from the back, left of centre 

Price: £16.50

I can't think of a better way to watch a Star Wars movie than 2D IMAX. The original movies worked fine in two dimensions, so what's the point of confusing matters by throwing in a third? Just so long as the screen was as big as humanly possible, the picture quality good and the roar of the TIE Fighters loud, I knew I could live without watching the opening crawl disappear into the actual distance.

I wasn't disappointed. In fact, it was utterly spectacular – one of the finest cinematic experiences of my life, along with Avatar. Having since seen the film on a standard 2D screen, I now realise just how amazing it was. The scale is what makes it – having that galaxy far, far away fill your entire field of view is utterly exhilarating, allowing your mind to be totally transported to another world.

It's a given that the action sequences look amazing – the Millennium Falcon's acrobatic escape from Jakku is probably the highlight – but IMAX also accentuates the smaller, subtler character beats and emotions. The only place the movie suffers is with the weaker CG effects – like Andy Serkis's performance-captured Supreme Leader Snoke – where the enhanced picture quality is less kind to the flaws. It's a wonderful film anyway, but the IMAX 2D makes it that little bit more so.

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Viewer: Daniel Dawkins, Group Editor in Chief, GamesRadar+

Location: Odeon IMAX, Cardiff 

Seating: Seven rows from front, left of centre 

Price: £13

Initially, fear. The screen is overwhelmingly huge, and I can see the corners of my glasses wherever I look, as if each eyeball was fixed on a different screen. Moments into the action, a friend advises me to focus on the centre of the image, and the black frame surrounding my periphery vision melts away like a Magic Eye picture. From that point on, all that mattered was the movie, and what impresses most is the breakneck pace of the action, plus the pixel-crisp clarity of the image – not to mention the organ-reverberating surround sound. During the film's final fighter battle, the intensity of action was so acute, and laser fire/music mash-up so overpowering, I started to wonder if I was having a heart attack, or out-of-body experience. Which may, in no small part, be due to the cocktail of beer, spirits, spicy burritos, coffee and fizzy sweets I'd scoffed in my lunatic excitement pre-show.

The only 3D bits that really stood out were the 'first-person' planetary descents, the map hologram and the expected 'out of screen' bits, like the Falcon bursting through the trees. I had to remove my glasses about 45 minutes in for an eye rub, but there was no major discomfort. Overall, I'd say the scale and resolution of the IMAX screen was more telling than the 3D effect, and significantly more so, the film itself. I've no base mark comparison, but suspect a 2D IMAX viewing might be just as impactful – but either way, don't regret my choice at all.

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 (opens in new tab). 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

Rich is a freelancer journalist and editor, and was once a physicist. Rich was once the 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.