Never before have I felt quite so deliriously happy leaving a movie theatre. The Force Awakens is a fabulous entertainment that vividly reminds us why we go to the cinema in the first place. Simply put, director J.J Abrams and his terrific crew have knocked it out of the galaxy and several star systems beyond. The most thrilling thing about it? This is only the opening act.
As a moviegoer who scrupulously evaded every article of the film’s promotional campaign, it would be terribly hypocritical of me to recount anything more than the story’s barest essentials. We begin on the desert world of Jaaku where Rey, a resourceful scrounger, encounters a droid couriering information of the utmost sensitivity to the First Order, an offshoot from the totalitarian Galactic Empire which loomed heavily on the original trilogy. Finn, secretly a Stormtrooper deserter, offers to help Rey deliver the message to the Resistance, an underground rebellion led by one General Leia Organa.
And so the stage is set for this dizzyingly exciting and genuinely artful film. The general thrust of the story may sound dreadfully familiar, but to treat that as a criticism is to ultimately miss the point. George Lucas’ saga has remained so eternally resonant because it is essentially The Iliad with starships, renovating the mythical foundations of storytelling itself; good and evil, temptation and redemption. Abrams understands that simplicity is the key, and what’s to say the journey isn’t paved with a few subversive surprises anyways?
This classical approach is also evident in the film’s tactile visual style, which harks back to an era of interplanetary film-making which relied more on the ingenuity of a location manager than the efficiency of a computer rendering farm. We tour many exciting worlds, and not a single pebble remotely resembles the smoothed-over confections of a computer programme, all appearing as if they were the gradual product of natural forces; that’s mostly because they were. The production shot scenes in real locations whenever possible, including the picturesque wastes of Abu Dhabi for Jaaku , an inspired creative decision that grounds the breathtaking fantasy in a universe which is as gorgeous as it is believable.
Spectacle is what you chiefly demand of the Star Wars brand, and the rapturous sight of X-Wings somersaulting across the wispy clouds certainly delivers upon our expectations. However, the acting is equally impressive, particularly Daisy Ridley, a television bit player previously unknown to mainstream cinema. This is very much her story, and Ridley imbues every second of it with a plucky heroism which is entirely her own. Think Ellen Ripley meets Luke Skywalker. John Boyega is also fantastic as the everyman who helps to keep this earthshaking epic in a delightfully witty perspective.
We’ve all glimpsed Kylo Ren, the visual figurehead for the movie and the terrifying symbol of the First Order’s galactic conquest. As portrayed by Adam Driver, Ren is a dark warrior whose sealed armour is iconographic of unspeakable personal tragedy. Driver is a fiercely conflicted villain, summoning emotional depths which lesser actors might have plastered over with melodramatic posturing. It’s a genuinely gripping performance.
Perhaps the most astonishing achievement of the screenplay (Which features contributions from Empire Strikes Back scribe Lawrence Kasdan) is that it successfully manages to make this much-documented universe seem as tantalisingly mysterious as it felt in 1977, the year of the original film’s release . Like everyone who has seen The Force Awakens, I have my own theories, specifically about Rey’s parentage and the identity of those strange, quadrupeds I spotted lumbering in a gliding wide shot. The first enigma shall be doubtlessly dealt with by the following adventures; the singular triumph of Star Wars is that the solution to the second shall always belong to my imagination.
Very few franchises can claim to inspire such creativity in its followers. The term ‘franchise’ even begins to feel inappropriate or even reductive in the shadow of a film this consistently awe-inspiring. I think a more truthful term would be a “tradition”, a rare cultural heritage that will be just as relevant tomorrow as it was yesterday. If Looper director Rian Johnson’s second movement is set to descend into darkness, then The Force Awakens is a jubilant blockbuster which redefines what wonder really means.