It’s here — the real Episode Four! From the first few minutes, or even the first few frames, JJ Abrams’s exciting, spectacular and seductively innocent Star Wars: The Force Awakens shows itself a movie in the spirit of the original trilogy, which ended with Return of the Jedi in 1983. (This one takes up the story 30 years later.)
Technically, of course, that was reconfigured as Episode Six, but The Force Awakens makes you forget about the redundancy and pedantry of the prequel-trilogy that came 15 years later. It restores the comedy that Phantom Menace abandoned. The Force Awakens is in touch with the force of action-adventure and fun. My only tiny reservation, which I will get out of the way now, is with a tiny new droid who has a bit of a Scrappy-Doo vibe about him.
The Force Awakens re-awoke my love of the first movie and turned my inner fanboy into my outer fanboy. There are very few films which leave me facially exhausted after grinning for 135 minutes, but this is one. And when Han Solo and Chewie come on, I had a feeling in the cinema I haven’t had since I was 16: not knowing whether to burst into tears or into applause.
JJ Abrams and veteran co-writer Lawrence Kasdan have created a film which is both a narrative progression from the earlier three films and a shrewdly affectionate next-gen reboot of the original 1977 Star Wars — rather in the style of his tremendous re-imagining of the Kirk/Spock Star Trek. Familiar personae, situations and weapons will appear like covers or remixes, and meshed in with new storylines. This notice will be a safe space, incidentally, with a trigger warning only for basic plot points and material already in the public domain.
The original movies were always based on the most extraordinary nexus of personal and family dysfunction: a motor of guilt, shame and conflict. Luke was driven by an increasingly complex Freudian animus against Darth Vader; Han Solo referred to the Millennium Falcon as “she”; male audiences were encouraged both to identify with Luke and to lech over Princess Leia in her outrageous gold slave bikini – and then, with exquisite narrative sadism, we were told they were brother and sister. All this agony is reborn in The Force Awakens: new contortions of fear and black-comic absurdity amidst the romance and excitement.
Luke has been famously absent from the poster for this film, which led me to fear at first that over the past 30 years, like Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman, he had gone over to the dark side. Suffice it to say that Luke, played by a now grizzled Mark Hamill, is a potent but unwontedly enigmatic presence.
Princess Leia is now a General and still the warrior queen of the resistance – a tougher and more grandmotherly figure. The dark force is resurgent in the form of the First Order, intent on re-establishing a more candidly fascist control, with quasi-Nuremberg rallies. Ranged against them are new fighters for good. There is Rey, a resourceful survivor on the remote planet of Jakku, who feels destiny within her: she is played by newcomer Daisy Ridley with the brittle determination of a young Keira Knightley. British actor John Boyega plays Finn, a former storm trooper who seeks redemption through betraying his evil masters.
This brings me to the terrific performance from Adam Driver as Kylo Ren, the new Dark Lord with a terrible secret. He is gorgeously cruel, spiteful and capricious – and unlike the Vader of old, he is given to petulant temper tantrums, with his lightsaber drawn, when uniformed subordinates have the unwelcome task of telling him of some new, temporary victory for the Resistance. Driver’s almost unreadably droll facial expression is very suited to Kylo Ren’s fastidious and amused contempt for his enemies’ weakness and compassion. There is a brilliant moment when he uses the telekinetic power of the Force against a laser shot.
The lightsaber contests themselves are of course more athletic than in the 70s and 80s but also somehow more humanly interesting: Rey herself needs no condescending advice from men either on unarmed combat or flying the Millennium Falcon.
JJ Abrams has an instinctive sympathy for the classic Star Wars landscapes and lays them out with élan: the switch from galaxies to shadowy forests and of course vast rippling deserts. In almost her first appearance, Rey is seen tobogganing down a huge dune on a sled made of rope. For me it’s a reminder that though the first Star Wars was avowedly inspired by Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, I think it originally derived its look from David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia or even the dreamscapes of Dalí.
But of course this film is part of an entertainment world so huge it need refer only to itself. The Force Awakens does not, in the way of other franchises, feel the need to be “dark” – having of course repudiated the dark side. It basically powers along on a great surging riptide of idealism and optimism, that family-movie ethic which some have derided for killing off the dystopian tradition of sci-fi. In fact, Star Wars has now gone beyond the sci-fi genre to its own kind of intergalactic quasi-Arthurian romance: that and a return to the world of Saturday morning pictures. The Force Awakens is ridiculous and melodramatic and sentimental of course, but exciting and brimming with energy and its own kind of generosity. What a Christmas present.
• Star Wars: The Force Awakens is released in the UK and Australia on 17 December and in the US on 18 December
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