When was the last time you sat in a full cinema and the mere sight of the title card made everyone burst into applause? The difference between expectations and reality is a crucial factor in reviewing a film; it’s the reason a film like Prometheus (hype – major; reality – just ok) isn’t as good as a film like John Wick (hype? Late-era Keanu has no hype; reality – rollicking good action).
With that in mind, I’m not sure anyone ever took on as daunting a task as JJ Abrams. Reviving arguably the most-loved sci fi franchise of all time, with a massive, vociferous and exacting fanbase; servicing the original trilogy and its array of senior, legendary actors; making a modern action film that’s child-friendly enough to keep The Youth hooked in for merchandise and sequels; staying true to the style and tone of the previous films, while putting your own stamp on the universe; differentiating the film from that OTHER space franchise you successfully rebooted recently; and keeping Disney happy after they splashed $4bn on the rights. That’s without even mentioning the maligned prequel trilogy. There were bear traps absolutely everywhere for Abrams, which is presumably why he initially said no to Lucasfilm, telling them he didn’t want to be “the guy who does sequels”.
But he relented, even if the hype didn’t. My cinema was packed with adults and children who applauded the title card. Then they applauded the Lucasfilm logo, then the opening tease, ‘A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away’. Then John Williams’ iconic brass salvo filled the room and the applause rose even more. So has he done it? Did it work? Are adults, children and the box office satisfied? Is the stench of Jar Jar Binks gone forever?
The answer is yes. The film is terrific. The applause at the end credits was even louder than at the start. I do have a couple of reservations, but set them against the sheer scale of the tightrope that’s been navigated here, and this is a triumph. The story (set out in writing at the outset as is tradition) finds Luke Skywalker vanished from the universe, sought by both the Resistance (led by Carrie Fisher’s Leia Organa) and the rebooted Empire that is the First Order, led by holographic terror Snoke (Andy Serkis), directing weaselly General Hux (Domnhall Gleeson) and red lightsabre-wielding malevolence, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Drawn into the conflict are rookie stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) and small-town scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley), and the reluctant hero duo of Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew).
To reveal any more of a plot endlessly second-guessed since the sale of Lucasfilm to Disney in 2012 would be as pointless as it would be unfair. Abrams, together with writers Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt, show a great deal of confidence in loading the bulk of the storytelling and character development onto the young leads, rather than the old legends – the film is primarily about Rey, Finn and Kylo Ren, with Oscar Isaac’s fighter pilot Poe Dameron providing a dose of uncynical, swashbuckling heroism too. Adam Driver in particular was inspired casting – he really is a singularly magnetic actor who can convey depth and complexity with and without his Vader-esque mask. John Williams’ score was never a worry and it delivers the rich emotional signposting we’ve come to expect. There’s also a good degree of comedy, an element which was at best underpowered and at worst entirely missing from Lucas’ prequel trilogy.
It’s not without the odd problem. Beyond the search for Skywalker, the plot basically involves trying to stop a bigger Death Star – the same planet-killing weapon premise that constituted two of the original trilogy, plus the first of Abrams’ Star Trek films. Surely there are some other ideas out there? Also (sorry, fans) C3PO seems entirely pointless in the film, sticking out like a sore thumb. There are some odd cameos that are possibly supposed to be funny, but ended up being a bit distracting, and the trailer is slightly misleading, with much of its dialogue being entirely missing from the film. But these are minor gripes – fans and newcomers alike will get the euphoric nostalgia and emotional payoffs they’ve been looking for, with dizzying space action consumately delivered. An almost impossible mission accomplished with aplomb as far as JJ Abrams is concerned – here’s hoping the quality stays this high for subsequent trips to a galaxy far, far away.
If you didn’t already know, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is in cinemas now all over the country. To explore the Star Wars galaxy, visit www.starwars.com.