Andy Markham returns to a galaxy far, far away.
It wasn't so very long ago that it seemed Star Wars was at its end. The story was complete, the world had moved on to other stories, and for Star Wars fans, all we could do was remember, and share a quiet hope that one day, Star Wars would return once more. In 2012, our wish was granted - and ever since, movie-goers everywhere have been waiting with baited breath. The questions on everyone's lips were the same. Could Star Wars return to its former glory? Would it feel like it did all those years ago? And will it be any good? The answer on all counts is a resounding yes. With The Force Awakens, Star Wars comes roaring back onto screens, dazzling, poignant and utterly triumphant.
32 years have passed since the original trilogy, and we find ourselves immediately introduced to an array of new characters. First of all, there's the defected stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) who vows to change his ways and do what is right. Helping him on the way to freedom is hotshot X-wing pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), who has found a vital clue to the wherabouts of an old friend. But at the centre of our story is lonely scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley) who dreams of a better life.
And that's just about all I'm going to tell you in terms of plot - for this is a film that is made to gradually pull you back in to the world of Star Wars with its developing story. Its twists are not all that unpredictable, but there is a sense that this is somewhat deliberate. We are in familiar territory with our new trio as they enter into situations we're sure we've seen before, and knowing what's about to occur is a wonderful, nostalgic sensation that truly plunges us back into this galaxy.
Director JJ Abrams makes his mission statement clear from the off. Gone is the ponderous, overblown melodrama of the prequel trilogy. Instead we return to a mixture of childlike innocence, thrills and excitement, and an overwhelming abundance of sheer fun. Abrams knows what he is doing, and makes the most of his opportunities, towing the line deftly between entertainment and indulgence. There's no better example than adorable new droid BB-8 (who by the way, is a highly impressive achievement as a fully practical prop). BB-8 serves as comic relief and something for the little ones, but he never descends into slapstick or lazy humour. We don't laugh at BB-8; we laugh with him and share the fun. This goes for the entertainment and fun of the film in general - Abrams is highly aware of the baggage of Star Wars, and he fully embraces it, never dumbing down for us and always seeking to thrill in the right ways. This is truly a film for fans, by fans.
And of course, one aspect of the film that will have fans most excited is the much-publicised return of the legendary cast of the original trilogy. Amongst them, Harrison Ford is most prominent as everyone's favourite swashbuckler, Han Solo, alongside his faithful companion Chewie. From the moment the pair step on to the screen, it simply feels right. Ford slips back into character with effortless ease, bringing Han back to life before our eyes with incredible style. There is a new dimension to Han, however - he's been through quite a lot since we last saw him, and Han is on a new journey to embrace life's regrets and set right what went wrong.
Along this path with Han, we inevitably are reunited with his one and only, the newly coined General Leia (Carrie Fisher), who once again re-creates her role perfectly with an added sense of a life having been lived, and many stories untold.
Of course, there's also the return of Mark Hamill as our beloved original protagonist, Luke Skywalker. And I'm not saying anything about that whatsoever. Trust me.
With the original cast back on the big screen, you could forgive the newcomers for getting lost in the mix. However, it's the fresh-faced adventurers at the forefront of the film that truly shine and provide The Force Awakens with its enormous heart. Daisy Ridley is a superstar in the making as Rey, imbuing her character with depth, vulnerability and bravery, making for a truly marvellous performance. Similarly, John Boyega makes the most of his heavy amount of material as Finn, and is utterly likeable from start to finish, with some of the broadest smiles of the film provided by Boyega.
But every great blockbuster also needs an imperious villain, and you need look no further than Adam Driver as the fascinating and monstrous Kylo Ren. Kylo may reference his admiration for former dark-sider Darth Vader, but in truth he stands out as something entirely different. Kylo is a petulant, angry ball of angst, with complicated motivations behind his actions. He is easily the most ambiguous and most fascinating character in the film, and Driver deserves very high praise for making such a bold entrance.
It's this mix of the old and new cast that defines what The Force Awakens truly stands for. There's an almighty chunk of nostalgia embedded into almost every scene, but this is mixed with a great wave of new innovation. Rather than act as a re-hash of the same material, The Force Awakens prefers to tip its hat lovingly to the original films whilst pushing on forward in its own new directions. Every aspect of the film reflects this ethos - John Williams' beautiful score combines old and new leitmotifs together along with a deeply atmospheric and reflective tone to acknowledge the bittersweet emotions that come with the changing of the guard. The cinematography and design conjure up instantly recognisable images with thrilling new developments - for example, where there was once a TIE Fighter attack on the Falcon in deep space, there is now a very similar scene, with the Falcon traversing through a wrecked Star Destroyer in one of the film's most inspired set pieces.
And my, are there a lot of those to choose from. To say that this instalment is not short on action would be an understatement. From space battles, to dogfights in the sky, to fistfights with strange creatures, to an electrifying lightsaber duel, Abrams assaults the senses with such regularity that it's almost impossible not to be won over.
It's perhaps with this sense of scope, ambition and a genuine eagerness to entertain the audience throughout that The Force Awakens manages to achieve its relatively light and warmly engaging mood throughout. For the most part, this is the most feel-good and utterly joyous Star Wars film ever, that is very happy to wear its heart on its sleeve.
However, this is not without moments of much greater seriousness. One scene in particular towards the film's climax is one of the bleakest, darkest and most vividly emotional scenes that Star Wars has ever produced, and it adds a real weight to proceedings. If all the talk of cheer and fun has worried you, fear not: the third act packs a mighty punch.
All of this is not to say, though, that The Force Awakens is a perfect film. For all of its wonderful and admirable qualities there are flaws. Some characters are sadly sidelined and are victims of an extremely dynamic and rather brutal edit. Domhnall Gleeson's slimy General Hux comes across as rather one-dimensional, and Lupita Nyong'o's marvellous motion-capture character, mysterious ally Maz Kanata, warrants a greater role. Most unfortunately of all, the striking Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie)'s perfect casting and incredible costuming create one of the characters with the greatest potential, which is sadly somewhat wasted in a very limited appearance.
Some will also feel disappointed that of the many intriguing questions that the film raises, some key ones are deliberately left without an answer, presumably as threads for Episodes VIII and IX to pick up.
Make no mistake, though - these are minor criticisms; small blemishes against a beautiful tapestry. As each minute passes, your smile will grow wider and wider and your sense of wonder and adventure will ignite with a ferocious flame. Without any doubt, this film lives and breathes Star Wars, and perfectly captures what is truly special about the saga. Scarcely a moment is wasted, every shot teems with beauty and possibility, and the characters are rich, likeable and bursting with life.
And as the credits roll on a spine-tingling final scene full of promise for the future, it's impossible not to conclude that Star Wars has never felt more alive, and more ready for the future. To witness this rebirth that once felt so unlikely will for many, be a deeply poignant and life-affirming experience. Star Wars: The Force Awakens satisfies on virtually every level, and will leave you just as you were when you first glimpsed this galaxy far, far away, desperately longing for more.
It's been a long time since we took such a thrilling and majestic ride through this galaxy, and it's Han who sums it all up:
Chewie... we're home.
Andy is a writer, musician, graduate, and super-geek. Ginger
glasses-wearer. Star Wars obsessive and Doctor Who enthusiast.
Specialises in film music and currently writing his first book on the
subject. Follow Andy on Twitter.