Star Wars: The Force Awakens review: The best film in the series since The Empire Strikes Back

 
Simon Thomson
The Force is strong with this one.

12A | Dir. JJ Abrams

★★★★★

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens opens with the now familiar golden expository text scrolling into an infinity of stars. The Empire has fallen, only to be replaced by Darth Jar Jar and his Ewok army, who ruthlessly enforce a trade blockade against the ice planet Hoth… just kidding.

When Star Wars’ creator, George Lucas, sold the space opera franchise to Disney for a paltry $4bn, it gave fans who had been burnt by his digital reworking of the original trilogy and lacklustre prequels a new hope, that once again there could be Star Wars films they actually, really, genuinely liked, without guilt or caveats.

And although it is without a doubt true to say that The Force Awakens is the best film in the series since The Empire Strikes Back, that statement could still leave a wide margin for disappointment.

Rest assured then, The Force Awakens is actually good and frequently great: entertaining and, most importantly for long-term fans of the series (176,632 of whom registered their religion as “Jedi” in the last census), it recaptures whatever it was that elevated the original trilogy above mere pop cultural ephemera to the status of cultural touchstone.

Director JJ Abrams has crafted a new story, deeply rooted in all those parts of the series that made it so popular to begin with. Gone are gungans, midi-chlorians, turgid galactic trade negotiations, and young Anakin Skywalker, and in their place are adventure and characters we can root for.

Relative newcomers Daisy Ridley and John Boyega are fantastic as the notional leads – and hopefully their success will encourage more potential blockbusters to put women, people of colour or characters from other historically underrepresented groups at their centre – but Harrison Ford’s return to the role of Han Solo is difficult to beat.

New droid BB-8 holds his own against stalwarts C-3PO and R2-D2, while the only disappointing thing about Oscar Isaac’s ace pilot, Poe Dameron, is his lack of screen-time. Adam Driver from TV’s Girls offers an intriguingly complicated antagonist in Kylo Ren, and it is only his master, played by Andy Serkis as a rejected Harry Potter villain in badly rendered CGI, who shatters the suspension of disbelief.

When Abrams does put a foot wrong it’s usually because of his too-slavish devotion to the source material. Disney has been draconian in its decrees about spoilers, requiring journalists to sign strict embargoes, but if they were really serious they would have pulled every existing copy of A New Hope, because boy are there some striking similarities.

In any case, it may be that repetition and predictability are inescapable aspects of Star Wars, because at its core the series isn’t merely a story, it’s a myth.

While still epic, The Force Awakens is more anchored in reality than its predecessors. A possible downside of this is that it hasn’t inspired John Williams to write any arresting new leitmotifs, but the sets and dialogue are more convincing, and the actors portray characters with layered personalities, rather than mere archetypes.

No doubt some will miss the stark simplicity of the old films, but ambiguity here offers scope for more daring storytelling in subsequent episodes.

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