JJ Abrams artfully brings together the old and the new is his brilliant Star Wars reboot and while it often seems like one long homage, The Force Awakens remains true to the spirit of the original. It’s all here - the look, the action, and the humour.
There is a strange dislocating sense of déjà vu throughout this affectionate and lovingly made reboot of the ultimate blockbuster sci-fi classic. It’s there in that almost amateur looking seventies sci-fi blue of the opening legend. “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away . . . " it's there in John Williams’ rousing orchestral score; and it is certainly there in the non-stop visual and plot references to the original Star Wars mother lode.
The Force Awakens is so loyal to the 1977 original in terms of plot, dialogue and design that it seems like little more than some kind of cleverly constructed remake but there is so much else here that sparkles with freshness and a bold sense of free wheeling adventure too. Abrams has refashioned the myth and made a hugely entertaining and utterly engrossing action film that explores the lethal generational pull of the Dark side on old characters and new.
It does not hang about. The opening half hour of The Force Awakens is a sensory overload featuring a wise old village elder (Max von Sydow lending some real gravitas), a dashing resistance fighter (Oscar Issac), marauding stormtroopers liquidating desert settlements, and the kind of Leviathan spacecraft suspended in space and glinting with interplanetary light that will give devotees of ‘70s sci-fi paperbacks hot flushes.
John Boyega as Finn
It is quite a set-up. Everything looks simply magnificent (including a certain outcrop off the coast of Kerry) and everything is on a grand scale. You want freakish alien life forms? The Force Awakens teems with ‘em; you want epic interstellar warfare; this has planets flaming into massive fireballs; and of course, then there is the hardware. Abrams remains true to Lucas’ visionary idea of science fiction as scuffed and worn (what he called “a used universe”); the rust bucket Millennium Falcon may arc and pirouette across the desert sky but it is as reliably unreliable as ever.
All this does not dwarf or render the human element of The Force Awakens secondary. We are introduced to the old guard of Han, Leia, Chewy, C-3PO and RD-D2 with subtlety and the jolt of fond recognition is genuinely thrilling but it is to Abrams’ credit that it is the new characters that are the most engaging and interesting.
The story centres on Daisy Ridley as a hard ass scavenger called Rey and John Boyega as a disillusioned stormtrooper who is given the name Finn. Like the young Luke Skywalker on Tatooine all those years ago, Rey is eking out a living in a sand-blasted outpost on the desert planet of Jakku, selling scrap from the ruins of the downed Imperial star fleet when she crosses paths with the droid BB-8 and the naïve but fiercely brave Finn.
Domhnall Gleeson is great value as the cartoon baddie General Hux
From here The Force Awakens enters light speed very quickly and takes off into a satisfyingly twisty plot. It is a two-hour plus love letter to the first Star Wars but Abrams delves far deeper into the Dark side than Lucas ever did.
The remnants of the old Empire have now coalesced into a fascist army complete with quasi Nazi insignia and a planet-destroying zeal that would turn Vader white. They are led by the deeply sinister Supreme Leader Snoke, who is played in ominous motion capture by Andy Serkis. He appears as a terrifying hologram atop a stone dais for audiences with the feuding General Hux and Kylo Ren, the two villains who are the dark heart of the movie.
Kylo Ren and his impractical light sabre
Domhnall Gleeson as Hux is great value and he’s clearly studied his big book of Hollywood baddies for the nostril-flaring madness of his performance as he delivers speeches to rally the serried masses of stormtroopers for battle. Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren is far more enigmatic. He certainly has daddy issues and he also seems petulant and gauche - we see him throwing King Joffrey sized tantrums when his plans go awry and then revealing that he is, in fact, a cold-blooded destroyer of worlds.
The First Order is bent on one thing - eradicating the risen Jedi for good and imposing a new and terrible galactic rule. Meanwhile, the plucky Resistance, all seemingly played by a mix of English thespians and lantern-jawed Americans, are holed up in the kind of places we have become accustomed to from the first Star Wars trilogy. However, there is one thing that has the potential to destroy The First Order's plans . . .
The chemistry between Ridley and Boyega is strong
Stylistically, everything is intact here - from the Flash Gordon screen fades and wipes to the clunk and whirr of that battered hardware. There is a Yoda character in the shape of thousand year-old pirate Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong'o) and the dialogue by Abrams, Empire and Jedi writer Lawrence Kasdan, and Michael Arndt (The Hunger Games and Toy Story) really does sparkle in places; possibly the best line in the whole movie goes to Harrison Ford when he meets the now General Leia Organo (a phoned in performance from Carrie Fisher) for the first time in many years and there are many bravado one liners in the face of certain death.
Abrams plays with the iconography beautifully but not always with restraint. There can be far too much historical overkill with some of the dialogue and visuals. However, a climatic light sabre duel in a snowbound forest at night is brilliantly done and during one X-wing fighter assault, Abrams even makes a very nifty visual reference to Apocalypse Now.
Watch TEN's interview with John Boyega
Having learnt the lessons of the originals, there is a strong and charismatic female lead front and centre in the form of Ridley’s superb turn as Rey and in a post Katniss Everdeen world, there really was no other way. Boyega’s Finn as the dissenting buckethead turned good also grows with determination and focus as the film progresses and the chemistry between the two young leads is very strong.
However, even after all that exhilarating action and after reacquainting ourselves with beloved old faces and meeting fresh and vital new ones it is the fantastic closing sequence that delivers a spine tingling hit of pure adrenalin that will leave you reeling with a genuine emotional rush.
It’s a big Star Wars universe out there and Abrams has just made it bigger again with this mix of fan boy homage and a fresh and quirky vision of his own. You will skywalk out of the cinema.