Never mind new director J.J. Abrams or the fact the franchise is now owned by Disney. From the opening scrolling credits and the glorious fanfare, it’s clear that this is the same galaxy far far away that you know and love. The Force Awakens looks like Star Wars, it sounds like Star Wars, and it plays out like Star Wars – perhaps more so than you might expect.
In almost every way, this is an ode to A New Hope – from the opening shot, to the climactic battle against a planet-sized ship (that’s definitely not the Death Star…). Along the way, the film is littered with nods and references to the original trilogy in its dialogue, cinematography, setting and characters. There are cocky heroes, a young scavenger discovered on a desert planet, a villain in a robotic mask, a cantina scene, plenty of screen wipes, and so much more, all underpinned by a fresh yet familiar score from John Williams.
And when certain characters reunite, you know they’re not really acting. The Force Awakens certainly gets the nostalgia juices flowing in its triumphant return to this well-trodden universe. Yet it’s a gritty view of a universe scarred by past battles, just as the film itself is haunted by its predecessors. Ruined spaceships lie like corpses on the ground, husks of their former glory pilfered by vulture-like scavengers, and returning characters are old and weary with the weight of their shared history. Far from simply retreading old ideas and ticking boxes, Abrams has created a new compelling narrative with a foot in the past and the future, containing all the swooping stomach-churning space battles and light sabre duels you could hope for, with a whole dose of family tragedy thrown in, appropriate use of CGI, and stunning inter-planetary vistas.
So what’s new? For starters, we finally get to see beneath the helmets of the stormtroopers, who have more personality this time around (and are far less inept than before). Specifically we have new hero Finn (John Boyega), who moves from dark side to light in a twist on Anakin Skywalker’s trajectory. In many ways he is the new Han Solo (though Oscar Isaac’s Poe gives him a run for his money), Boyega delivering comic quips alongside a naïve and likeable personality with just the right amount of conviction. Sadly Gwendoline Christie’s Captain Phasma – the first female stormtrooper – doesn’t fare so well. A potentially intriguing character, she is criminally underused.
If you’re after strong female characters, then newcomer Daisy Ridley delivers as Rey. Despite looking and sounding like a young Keira Knightley, her Rey is a hero for everyone, a girl who can fend for herself and refuses to be rescued. Finally, the series has a female character worth celebrating. Speaking of which, Carrie Fisher’s Leia Organa has finally shed the shackles of that gold bikini, becoming the military leader she was always meant to be – even if it’s too late for any actual action.
On the dark side there’s Adam Driver as Kylo Ren. It’s a tough role, stuck in the inescapable shadow of Darth Vader, but Driver does a decent job in this one film growth of character. Ren shows true villainy in the film’s biggest shock, setting the scene for what is yet to come. The less said about Andy Serkis’ Snoke, though, the better.
And then there’s BB8. He might be the film’s primary comic sidekick, but wisely he is mute (beyond obligatory beeping), learning from the lessons of Jar Jar Binks. Far more than this year’s must-have toy, BB8 is the most expressive robot since Wall-E, providing adorable amusement consistently in a film that balances well the light and dark sides of humour and grandiose drama.
The Force Awakens, then, is everything fans could want it to be – an absolute thrill that will have you grinning non-stop throughout. Though it doesn’t stray too far from established convention, this is a throwback to the best of the series whilst laying ground for the future in a cinematic passing of the torch from old to new. This was the right move for the series, purging us of the memories of the prequel trilogy as Abrams takes us back full circle. Moreover, with its black and female leads, we finally have a Star Wars film that’s universal. And if this is the equivalent to A New Hope, I can’t wait to see what’s next. Hoth battle reprise anyone?
Watch: The Force Awakens is out now.