If you were to make a list of the essential ingredients of a Star Wars film, you would find almost all in J.J. Abrams’ wake-up call to this sleeping giant of a franchise. From the biggest — dark versus light side, dogfights, mystical powers — to the smallest — mouse robots, turbo lasers, absurd alien Cantina music — this glories in reminding us what we all loved about this universe. By the end, it’s given us a reason to be excited about Star Wars’ future as well.
The story begins with Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), “General Organa’s most daring pilot”, sent to recover a clue to the whereabouts of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) on the desert planet of Jakku. Luke is, at first, the MacGuffin of this movie, the lure that gets everyone else moving. But Poe’s mission is interrupted by First Order forces led by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and Poe is taken prisoner — though not before he hides the necessary information inside his BB-8 unit, which duly escapes into the desert. BB-8 soon meets scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley), stranded on the planet as an infant and still waiting for her parents to return for her.
Meanwhile, a stormtrooper involved in the attack where Poe was captured is having a crisis of conscience. FN-2187, soon rechristened Finn (John Boyega), sees an opportunity in this battered pilot and with his help hopes to escape the First Order Star Destroyer on which he serves. But when their ship crashes back on Jakku he’s forced to work with Rey instead, while enemy forces close in on BB-8. Luckily there’s a “garbage” old Corellian YT model freighter nearby that they can use to escape — and soon its old owner comes to check out its familiar flight signature...
It is unbelievably good to see Han (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) back together again — and later rejoin Leia (Carrie Fisher), C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and the rest. There’s a sense of weight to those relationships that is impossible to fake because the audience is part of the love — to cite a rival franchise, it’s the difference between the emotional heft of The Wrath Of Khan and the emotionless waft of Star Trek Into Darkness. Here too there’s a sense of decades passed and battles lost and won, of old arguments half-healed and old love still simmering.
The new characters don’t all get quite as much development as they should to match the existing titans. Finn is the most rounded, with Boyega retaining all the charisma he displayed in Attack The Block but upping his humour levels considerably. He’s clearly battle-shocked in his first taste of combat, and even in armour his body-language howls his terror and moral uncertainty. His growing confidence in his own capability is a glory to behold. Rey, however, is stuck in the goody two-shoes Luke role and underserved by a script that makes her tough but a little unfocused. She does grow during the adventure, maturing from childhood (look out for a homemade X-wing pilot doll in her home) towards a more powerful, more influential destiny. Poe has more fun than either, whooping with glee while executing some astonishing aerial moves and looking good doing it. Still, he’s not hugely nuanced; he’s basically just an awesome, awesome guy. Perhaps that’s enough.
Kylo Ren is the best villain that the franchise has ever produced.
Against them there is Kylo Ren, the best villain that the franchise has ever produced. He’s not just a worthy heir to Vader; he may be more interesting. Rangy to the point of being gangly, there’s the sense of adolescence still clinging to him, his rages coming across as petulant rather than showing Vader’s cold fury. This, you sense, is one messed-up kid — an impression reinforced by his struggle with the “seduction” of the light side. “The First Order rose from the dark side,” says Max von Sydow’s wise man, Lor San Tekka. “You did not.” And yet Ren is casually formidable, freezing a blaster bolt with a wave of his hand and halting opposition with a thought. He has the most interesting arc in the film, even more so than Boyega, and while he will most decidedly not be a fan favourite, he is an astonishing bad guy.
Ren stands alongside Domhnall Gleeson’s General Hux, a sneer given human form, and commands the ruthless Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie). We don’t see a huge amount of Ren’s leader and mentor, the immensely awful Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), but it’s clear that he is a bigger threat than the Emperor was, and carries a much bigger stick. As Tekka says early on, “Without the Jedi, there can be no balance in the Force” — and without Luke, there are no remaining Jedi. If Snoke is the universe’s reaction to that, we’re going to need a new Academy established quick-smart.
In the meantime there are battles to win and fancy flying to be done. You’ll see the Millennium Falcon in action again, crash-landing and also crash-taking-off, which is a new one. For the bigger battles, Abrams largely resists the urge to amp up the speed of the X-wing/TIE Fighter dogfights as much as modern technology allows, and maintains a stately rush that the eye can still follow. His storytelling isn’t always quite so clear: the balance of power between Republic, Resistance and First Order is left vague, and the First Order’s aims are opaque even by the standards of evil megalomania.
Sometimes, too, the adherence to Star Wars past grates. Parts of the first half hour feel like a remix, from the plans hidden in a small, feisty droid to the rescue of a tortured but still witty prisoner from an evil authoritarian regime. It’s all beautifully crafted, just a little too deferential to what has gone before. But then the new characters take shape and new elements emerge. By the end, this finds fresh ingredients to add to the Star Wars formula, strengthening and deepening it. The prequels this ain’t. We can all breathe again.