JJ Abrams jumps the Star Wars universe light-years ahead of the prequel trilogy in a film that provides as much fan-service to its original fans as it does fast-paced action and sheer fun to newcomers. 

It’s one of the most anticipated film in years. Since the announcement three years ago that Disney was to pick up LucasArts and start production on a new Star Wars trilogy, fans have been eagerly anticipating its release. It’s almost impossible to avoid the intense amount of hype surrounding the new film The Force Awakens, but it’s here, it’s already smashing box office records, and boy, is it fun to watch.

There are a huge number of reasons why the original trilogy is so revered by its fans – the focus on interesting and relatable characters, the unusual, slick and cool style, the fantastic soundtrack – each of these is replicated by Abrams in abundance. The plot quickly establishes itself in the ‘good against evil’ idea that permeated the original instalments. Now called The First Order, the remnants of the Galactic Empire are attempting to take down The Resistance; if this all sounds familiar, you wouldn’t be wrong. Abrams follows the formula set by A New Hope to a fault. There’s a villain in a mask dressed in black and plagued with a creepy voice, second in command to a Palpatine-esque Supreme-leader. There’s a comedic droid that winds up on a desert planet only to discover a lone-ranger with no family. There’s even a Death-Star-like weapon designed to destroy planets with a laser beam. Almost everything about the film is a reflection of what has come before it.

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It isn’t just a clear reflection, though, Abrams takes the original ideas and makes them bigger. The ties of family that formed one of the biggest plot twists in film history is taken to greater heights, giving an incredible amount of emotional pay-off in the film’s climax. The aforementioned ‘Starkiller base’ (itself a nod to the original protagonists’ intended name) is an actual planet, with its own atmosphere and climate, that takes the form of a giant weapon that sucks the energy from stars. The world itself is imbued with the used-future atmosphere that was so absent from the prequels, with the main character herself scavenging from old bits of AT-STs and Star Destroyer ships.

Yet despite this copy-and-pasting technique that seems to ebb through the film, it still comes away with its own sense of identity. There are cinematic sequences spread throughout that are absolutely breath-taking – the sense of photography and style is simply immense, giving new life to an old formula that desperately needed reinvigorating.

The characters themselves play a large part in giving the film a sense of life, with terrific performances from all the main cast. Particular attention needs to be given to the dynamic between Daisy Ridley and John Boyega who bounce from each other with abandon, lending the franchise a touch of humour that hasn’t existed since the original trilogy. Even BB8, the new droid clearly intended as a way to reel in the kids, can be laugh-out-loud funny – while miraculously leaving out the toilet-jokes favoured by the universally criticised Jar Jar Binks. The Force Awakens does not take itself too seriously, despite the weight of expectation on its shoulders.

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Harrison Ford manages to steal the spotlight for this one, however. A combination of nostalgia and sheer characterisation gives Han Solo charm and wisdom not previously seen. As his character becomes more fleshed out, you begin to understand the nuances of his performance – he soon begins to take the form of a rough but sturdy rock, emotions hardened and eroded by a combination of time and circumstance. It doesn’t take long for the audience to realise what makes his new personality tick, though, such is the obviousness of the plot. Partly due to the seen-it-all-before effect that comes with sticking so closely to the original formula, partly due to lazy script writing (the sheer circumstance of how things fall together is almost too much to forgive), it becomes obvious how the pieces of the film will fall into place. Mercifully Abrams decided to not to transcribe the original films literally, as major plot twists in the family department are revealed so early on that they become a large part of the story-telling, rather than an obvious shake-up that would have been groan-inducing in its typicality.

Even though the plot remains flawed, there are moments that induce classic spine-tingling. The films climax becomes a fantastic culmination of the emotions that have been building up throughout, leading to incredibly emotional moments, subtly emphasised by John Williams’ incredible score – and what a score it is. Williams’ takes an unusually more light-handed approach in this episode, with atmospheric themes that match the directorial style perfectly. New themes are introduced, some of which feel like their own characters in musical form; old themes are carefully placed to provide the maximum nostalgia-induced sentiment. Famous pieces, like the force theme, are played at exactly the right moment to make fans of the serious grip their seats in anticipation.

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Although bogged down by the shadow of the original trilogy, The Force Awakens never fails to satisfy our sense of fun. Completely action-packed from start to finish, the incredible dogfights and laser-blasting battles will be enough to please the biggest fans of sci-fi action-adventure, while the fantastic characterisation combines with a gorgeous directorial style and soundtrack to keep newcomers engaged throughout. Yet, even though the fan-service remains strong throughout, the people most at liberty to enjoy this film are those that have never seen a Star Wars film before. In fact, the sheer scale of the film may ruin the original trilogy for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet, as The Force Awakens feels like a bigger, more bombastic version of the same film. Here lies its main problem – in an attempt to capture as wide an audience as possible, Abrams seems to have created another version of A New Hope, but one that feels more grandiose and modern. This isn’t entirely a bad thing, as it makes for incredible watching and one of the most engaging films I’ve seen in a long time, but as a result, it succeeds more in rebooting the franchise than it does in being a successful stand-alone film. Thanks to Abrams, I can’t wait for his successor to take over.

By Jake Overend
@inserthosehere

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