No matter how one feels about Star Wars films in general, it’s undeniable that director J.J. Abrams has breathed new life into the franchise with The Force Awakens.
And how badly it was needed; after the legend was created in the 1970s with the awe-inspiring trilogy (A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi), the three ‘prequel’ films released between 1999 and 2005 were turgid disappointments. What Abrams has done is to survey the strengths of the Star Wars series and to offer what all its fans, of various generations, might want to see.
Thus The Force Awakens is an intriguing blend of old elements and new. An example: one didn’t expect to see quite as much of Harrison Ford as Han Solo in this new film, yet here he is, handsome but grizzled, still wisecracking and going through his deadpan routine with the amiable Chewbacca.
Ford’s presence (and that of Carrie Fisher, whose Princess Leia has now evolved into the humane General Organa) is an acknowledgement to audiences who bought into Star Wars way back in 1977, and have loved it ever since.
Yet undeniably what gives The Force Awakens its verve and spirit is the infusion of youthful characters. The two prime examples are both young British actors: John Boyega, who plays Finn, a defecting storm-trooper with an acute sense of right and wrong; and Daisy Ridley as Rey, a young woman who initially scavenges in a spaceship graveyard in return for scraps of food from its canteen. But by the end of the film Rey has become a lithe, resourceful heroine.
The story’s premise is that Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has disappeared, (and possibly gone to, oh dear, The Dark Side). An oppressive movement called The First Order has arisen as the Empire has declined. This outline is delivered in a familiar manner, in huge lettering crawling upwards into the heavens, accompanied by a rousing score. It’s a way of making Star Wars fans of all ages feel comfortable.
Abrams has strengthened the cast with a generation of youngish, talented actors. Oscar Isaac excels as a resistance fighter pilot; Adam Driver is a tortured Dark Side warrior in thrall to the legacy of Darth Vader; Domhnall Gleeson plays a severe First Order general with a clipped English accent.
The story clips along at an agreeable pace, and I won’t be revealing any ‘spoilers’ here – though I will add that the film’s final scene seemed an inevitability from early on.
On the plus side, the dialogue – by Abrams, Michael Arndt and Lawrence Kasdan – has plenty of zip and feels less clunky than in any of the preceding six Star Wars films.
And it must be said, this genuinely feels like a Star Wars episode for our times, with a cast that is more diverse than before. There’s also a real sense of gender equality; Daisy Ridley’s Rey is the real find here, and one senses her character will be the lynch-pin of the next two episodes. For her and for John Boyega, these are star-making roles, and these young British actors both seize their opportunities with relish.
Overall, then, The Force Awakens does precisely what it needed to do: reinvigorate audience interest in an extraordinary franchise that had lost its way. And in its own right, it tells a new story – one sufficiently intriguing to have audiences flocking back to the next movie in the Star Wars series.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens is released in the UK on 17 December.
Read David Gritten's piercing film reviews every month in Saga Magazine. Subscribe to the print edition or download the digital edition today.