Carrying with it an almost suffocating weight of expectation, Star Wars: The Force Awakens might be the most anticipated film since The Phantom Menace stumbled into cinemas, slurring as it went about its disappointing way.
There’s no small thrill then in reporting that Episode VII sees the series back at its high-flying best, an exhilarating tour-de-force of blockbuster filmmaking. The Force Awakens picks up some 30 years after the climactic events of Return of the Jedi, and while much has changed, more has stayed the same, from the massed ranks of white-clad stormtroopers to the shady cantinas teeming with alien species.
Almost every frame is loaded with enough background details and little touches to warrant multiple cinema trips, each the result of exquisite production design. From the sleek new First Order troops to the clutch of new creatures, designs evoke the series’ past while standing firmly on their own. That strong visual sense extends to the cinematography, which luxuriates in moments of beauty before hurtling a spaceship right through the middle of them.
Director JJ Abrams takes the same propulsive energy he brought to Star Trek, with tightly paced, inventively staged action set pieces peppering the film. An early ship battle above the desert planet of Jakku is jaw-dropping, seat-of-your-pants stuff, while every ground battle carries with it a weight and chaotic grit that the plasticky prequels could never manage.
That goes double for the lightsaber action, which sees the weapons made impactful and fearsome again. Abrams wisely holds them back as much as possible so that the moment you hear that iconic hum, there’s a feverish excitement. There’s no balletic choreography here, but brutal, unflinching violence, painful and purposeful.
That dark tone is supported by a script, from Abrams and The Empire Strikes Back scribe Lawrence Kasdan, that pushes into foreboding new territory. But underneath it all is an infectious layer of fun, making this the wittiest Star Wars film to date. From simple sight gags (BB-8 is a consistent delight) to some of Han Solo’s wryest of quips, The Force Awakens is committed to putting a smile on your face, and the film’s humour that might stay with you the longest.
That’s in no small part thanks to new leads Daisy Ridley and John Boyega, who each by turns offer the same wide-eyed wonder and palpable fear that the film itself hopes to evoke. From his first appearance Boyega is captivating, his emotions laid bare and carried through every inch of his energetic, physical performance.
Adam Driver is another welcome addition as Kylo Ren, a Darth Vader acolyte who nonetheless stands by his own merits. He’s a distinct villainous presence, all unbridled rage and immature frustration, the fulfilment of the dark side’s embrace of every emotion.
If there’s a fault to be found here, it’s an almost slavish devotion to Lucas’s original trilogy, with what at times feels to be a checklist approach to cramming in references to and recreations of its most loved moments. If this is in service of re-establishing the series’ credentials, leaving room for bolder, more inventive expansion in the already confirmed sequels, then it will have been worth it, but it’s hard to avoid the occasional sense of watching a $200 million fan film that plagued Abrams’ similarly nostalgic Star Trek Into Darkness.
If the biggest fault is that The Force Awakens hews too closely to the much-loved originals, then that says all that you need to know about the film’s place in the series pantheon. This is a worthy successor, the Star Wars that fans have waited for since 1983.
Words by Dominic Preston