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Star Wars The Force Awakens

D: J.J. Abrams / 135m

Cast: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Harrison Ford, Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, Carrie Fisher, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, Peter Mayhew, Anthony Daniels, Mark Hamill, Max von Sydow, Gwendoline Christie, Greg Grunberg, Warwick Davis, Simon Pegg, Harriet Walter, Iko Uwais

The Lucasfilm logo appears. The screen fades to black. Then the opening crescendo of the Star Wars theme in perfect sync with the Star Wars logo sends a welcome shiver down the spine. And then the subtitle: Episode VII The Force Awakens appears, followed by a summary of recent events that tells us Luke Skywalker is missing and Princess (now General) Leia has sent her best man to find him. With everyone up to speed we see a familiar sprinkling of stars against the inky blackess of space. The camera begins its equally familiar pan down until a planet comes into view. Then an ominous sound can be heard, and a dark shadow falls across the planet, only this is no shadow, it’s a huge starship; this can’t be good.

And it isn’t. But we all know it isn’t. This is Star Wars, and huge starships are always bad news, because it’s a sure sign the bad guys are up to no good. But wait – haven’t the bad guys been defeated? Wasn’t the evil Emperor, Palatine, killed by Darth Vader at the end of Episode VI? And didn’t the Rebel Alliance take charge of the galaxy, and restore order where previously there had been tyranny and unfair trade embargoes? Isn’t this a brave new future we’re looking at?

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Well, actually, no, it isn’t. Thirty years have passed since the Emperor’s death, thirty years in which a lot has obviously happened, but for some reason the Rebels are still fighting, this time against a pernicious new regime, the First Order, and they don’t seem to have been in charge of anything, or made any difference to the galaxy they fought so hard to free from oppression. Just what have they been doing all this time? (We learn what Luke has been doing, and Han Solo, but Leia? That’s a little less clear.) So with no one having ensured peace and prosperity are the “first order” of the day, we’re back to a frighteningly familiar situation: the bad guys are running things and a small group of rebels are the only thing standing between them and – wait, that’s a little less clear as well. Just what are the First Order planning to do, other than show off their fancy new weapon (or the Mark III as it might be known)?

Now, don’t get me wrong, I really liked Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It’s a fantastic thrill ride, for fans new and old, but instead of The Force Awakens it should be titled Another New Hope, because this is what writers J.J. Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt have given us, a retread of Episode IV with some fancy new trimmings. The similarities between the two movies are unavoidable, and are sometimes as unavoidable as the crashed star destroyers we see in the deserts of Jakku. Where we might have hoped that this new trilogy would strike out in a bold, new direction, instead it retreats back into the previous trilogy and gives us a kind of Star Wars Greatest Hits movie, with storylines lifted clean out of Episode IV, dusted down and given a shiny retooling, and references galore to the earlier episodes (“Is there a trash compactor?”).

As there may still be some people who haven’t seen the movie yet, I’m not going to spoil things by listing all the ways in which Abrams et al have cribbed from George Lucas’s original vision (not in this post anyway), but it’s relevant to say that he is very much present throughout, almost as if Abrams and his co-writers have continually asked themselves, what would George come up with next? So we have a movie that looks new but feels old at the same time, and it’s a tribute to Abrams – can the mantle of franchise viagra be stripped from Dwayne Johnson and given to Abrams now? – that despite this the movie feels as invigorarting as it does. It fizzes and pops in all the right places, and if it doesn’t quite have anything that really gets the audience saying “Wow!”, then you can put that down to the number of big-budget sci-fi spectaculars we’ve become overly familiar with since 1977 (and that includes the other five Star Wars movies).

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What it does have that raises the bar for the franchise as a whole, are three new characters who audiences can relate to, and who have been developed with great care by… yes, Abrams et al. First there’s Rey, waiting for her parents to return to the planet of Jakku where she ekes out a living trading scrap for food. Then there’s Finn, a stormtrooper whose conscience won’t allow him to serve the First Order any more. And lastly, there’s this trilogy’s über-bad guy, Kylo Ren, a follower of the Dark Side who boasts Darth Vader as an inspiration. These three characters’ fates become intertwined, and it will be interesting to see how their storylines play out over the course of Episodes VIII and IX.

Thanks to some very astute casting – Ridley as Rey, Boyega as Finn, and Driver as Ren – these characters should prove to be as popular as Luke, Han and Leia, and its their diversity which is a major plus for the franchise as a whole. Rey is fearless and largely unimpressed by the testosterone she’s surrounded by (including Han Solo), and it’s great to see a female character so unencumbered by stereotypical programming at the forefront of such a huge movie. The same can be said for Finn, his character torn between doing the right thing and getting as far away as possible from the First Order. As for Ren, well, let’s just say he has issues and they’re not going anywhere anytime soon, and it’s good to see a level of emotional complexity that you don’t normally see in what’s effectively a space opera.

With the new cast members proving so effective – except for Isaac, alas, whose role as Leia’s “best man” Poe Dameron is sidelined for much of the movie – what of the old guard? Without giving too much away, it’s only Ford and Mayhew who grab much screen time, but it’s good to see them back, and there’s a moment in the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon that should bring a tear to the eye of every diehard fan of the series. This feels very much like a transition movie, and though one “old” character should be at the forefront of Episode VIII, it’s the new ones who’ve already proved they can connect with fans and it’s their journey that (hopefully) will drive the trilogy to its conclusion (and even if it seems clear already where those journeys will converge and end).

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A good job, then, and imbued with the sense of wonder that made Episode IV such a breath of fresh air back in 1977. It has a modern day sheen to it, and is effortlessly funny in places, with Abrams’ trademark sense of humour applied liberally throughout, but it’s unmistakably a Star Wars movie, from John Williams’ magical score to the inclusion of so many different alien races and species, to the exhilarating aerial battles between T.I.E.’s and X-Wing fighters. And of course there’s the Force, so integral to everything that happens, and still the guiding factor for everyone concerned. It’s so good to know that it’s woken up at last.

Rating: 8/10 – not entirely the joyous celebration everyone wanted it to be, but still standing head and shoulders over every other sci-fi series, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a welcome return to form after the po-faced seriousness of the prequel trilogy; with more than enough on display to make fans feel that the remaining two episodes are in good hands, this is easily the best feelgood movie of 2015, and if you don’t come out of the cinema with a big smile on your face, then you shouldn’t have gone in the first place.

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