New faces, but familiar foes, battle to find a long-since disappeared Luke Skywalker.
In the weeks leading up to the release of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace in 1999, a teenage me decided to treat his family to pre-booked tickets for the opening night. Yet even with that memory fresh in my mind as I sat down to watch Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, it was hard to shake the nervous excitement that resonated within. Many Star Wars fans around the world probably share similar experiences.
And then the familiar John Williams theme roars to life and the classic text crawl begins, setting the scene for what is in store. In the years that followed the fall of the Empire, The First Order emerged and once again battles for control of the galaxy against the Resistance. And one Jedi, a certain Luke Skywalker, who could tilt the balance has disappeared, but both sides are searching for him.
The original trilogy spawned multiple fan theories, including one that the Empire was the good guy in the saga. The First Order, on the other hand, nails its colours to the mast, ensuring that no such confusion can occur. Its first appearance on-screen is as chilling as it is brutal, while Kylo Ren, who has spearheaded the Dark Side's appearance in promotional material, is an intimidating presence, complete with some impressive Force powers and a distinctive crossguard lightsaber.
To detail too much of The Force Awakens' plot would detract from the movie. There has been an air of mystery surrounding the film's promotional material, and even cast interviews, and it's clear why. All we will say is that it fits in with the Star Wars universe, harkens back to the original trilogy, and isn't afraid to surprise at times.
Kylo Ren is not the only memorable character in The Force Awakens. Daisy Ridley puts in an outstanding performance as Rey, while John Boyega brings plenty of energy and enthusiasm to the role of Finn. It has to be said that Harrison Ford manages to steal the show at times with his gruff, yet lovable uncle-like Han Solo. That's not to diminish the efforts and appearances of the rest of the cast, which includes Oscar Isaac, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Gwendoline Christie, Domhnall Gleeson, and many more. Throughout the film, there are some wonderful exchanges and the cast as a whole does a fantastic job of bringing the story to life.
At times, the humour and tone would sit just as naturally in one of Marvel's recent blockbusters. But it is handled well and never feels out of place or forced, even catching you off-guard at times.
Of course, it would be an oversight not to mention the BB-8 droid that could have been just a throw-in to sell toys. It is a character in its own right and is wonderfully expressive despite an inability to communicate coherently with the audience. Film technology has done wonders for the anthropomorphisation of droids. And this is a side character that kids and adults will enjoy, unlike he who must not be named.
Star Wars has always been known for its distinctive settings, and it's no different here. Over the course of the adventure, a variety of planets and systems are featured, each with their own impressive sights and landscapes. Even Jakku, though it is predominantly desert, is full of visual treats such as crashed Star Destroyers and TIE fighters. This makes the universe feel more alive; there is history, though what happened on Jakku is never referenced.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a visual masterpiece, full of stunning shots of environments that provide an incredible sense of perspective. Often it is clear that this is grander than anything we've seen before, as characters are dwarfed by the aforementioned ships or the locales themselves.
Star Wars fans have waited ten years for the return of a beloved franchise and it was more than worth the wait. J.J. Abrams has worked his magic once again, restoring Star Wars' good name and producing a fantastic film that not only stands on its own merit, but pays tribute to what has gone before and sets a rough outline of what is to come. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is, quite simply, a must see.
- Mark O'Beirne