Has any filmmaker borne such a brunt of expectation as J.J. Abrams has with Star Wars: The Force Awakens? Already a ticket-burning record setter, the film has been tagged as a possible eraser for the memories of George Lucas’ unfairly derided prequel trilogy, and also as a springboard for a whole host of new Star Wars films, and possibly even TV series too. Could any film really live up to that kind of hype and pressure? Unbelievably and joyfully, the answer to that is a resounding yes. And while Mad Max: Fury Road and Jurassic World proved that a dormant franchise could be effectively resuscitated and brilliantly reconfigured, both of those success stories came partially out of left field. With Star Wars: The Force Awakens, however, there is nowhere to hide. But with this gargantuan effort, J.J. Abrams will have no problem standing tall and in plain sight.
Beginning with that iconic expository scene-setting title crawl, Star Wars: The Force Awakens sends you back to that galaxy far, far away with jolting immediacy, describing a new galactic power structure, where The First Order has risen from the ashes of Darth Vader’s empire, and The Resistance still stands steadfast under the leadership of General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher). We then meet a trio of likeable and engaging new characters – cocky Resistance pilot, Poe (Oscar Isaac); runaway Stormtrooper, Finn (John Boyega); and young scavenger, Rey (Daisy Ridley) – before the show stopping arrival of Mount Rushmore-worthy cinematic icons, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew). They have a menacing adversary in the form of masked Force practitioner, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), and a missing touchstone in mythic Jedi fighter, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hammill).
After his successful reboot of Star Trek, Star Wars: The Force Awakens will make J.J. Abrams the most loved man in cinematic sci-fi. The Force is indeed strong with this one. Scripting with Lawrence Kasdan (who penned The Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi) from an original draft by Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3, Little Miss Sunshine), Abrams gets everything right here. The nods and winks to the beloved initial trilogy come thick and fast (there are Stormtrooper sight gags, a trash compactor mention, and visual echoes galore, along with a plot obviously templated by the original films), but they’re never laboured or gratuitous.
Everything in Star Wars: The Force Awakens is there to serve the story, whether it’s the appearance of treasured vintage characters, or the moments of genuine shock and surprise that punctuate the narrative. Though there is plenty here for the fans, they are never cheaply pandered to: seeing Han and Leia again is a true delight, but seeing them in the middle of a story to which they are key is even better. Their performances are full bodied and real too, with Ford once again channelling the charm and rebellious sass that made him famous in the first place. The film’s new stars – Oscar Isaac, John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, and Adam Driver – match them at every turn (though Andy Serkis’ CGI string-pulling, monstrous bad guy is a little distracting), and provide great optimism for the franchise’s future. With its breakneck pacing; intelligent and measured reverence for the original films; punchy action sequences; and ambitious plotting, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a near perfect continuation of the most beloved movie franchise of all time.