By Jake Winwood (Wolverhampton)
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It’s been a decade since George Lucas concluded his Star Wars prequel trilogy with Revenge of the Sith, but for many it’s been at least 32 years since the last satisfying instalment in the series. Star Wars rather lost its way between 1999 and 2005 as fans slammed the prequels. Despite previous disappointments, expectation levels could not have been higher ahead of the seventh instalment in the saga. Indeed, The Force Awakens has experienced an unparalleled level of hype, at the time of writing the movies trailer has 74,220,113 views on YouTube with the film making $50 million from pre-sales alone. Consequently, J. J. Abrams faces the formidable task of delivering a movie which can meet unbelievably high expectations and banish memories of the ill-received sequels. You’d be forgiven then, for thinking The Force Awakens was destined to fail. Thankfully, that is not the case as The Force Awakens proves to be an exhilarating return to form for a franchise that had previously gone off the rails.

“Where is Luke?” has been the question on the lips of many a Star Wars fans in the months leading up to the movies release, with Mark Hamill mysteriously absent from both the movies trailer and official poster. The answer? Well, nobody knows. The classic opening crawl, sure to bring a smile to fans of the series, informs us that the Jedi Knight has vanished. It does not take long to establish that the very question the fans have been asking is in fact the central theme of The Force Awakens. On one side the First Order, which has emerged from the remnants of the Galactic Empire, are determined to find and destroy Skywalker. Meanwhile, the resistance led by Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) are desperate to find him first.

One of the biggest successes of The Force Awakens is how it links each of its new characters together in order to make them feel relevant. The first new face that we meet is that of Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), a resistance X-wing pilot, who’s reminiscent of Han Solo in the original trilogy. We see Poe conceal a segment of a map leading to Skywalker’s location in a droid named BB-8. The spherical droid, which has featured heavily in the films marketing campaign, is much more than just an excuse for merchandise. Viewers are sure to warm to the quirky droid who makes up for the limited screen time series favourite R2-D2 receives.

The movie is also quick to introduce its main villain Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who arrives seeking the map which will lead him to Skywalker. Accompanied by a new army of Stormtroopers, Ren is as imposing as you’d expect. There are obvious similarities to Darth Vader, as Ren emerges in his all black outfit. However, there is plenty to set him apart from Vader. The first thing to say is that Ren’s voice has been absolutely nailed and makes him sound suitability menacing. Ren’s cross guard lightsaber also makes him stand out, as it’s unlike anything we’ve seen in the saga up to this point. What quickly becomes clear is that Ren is a far more complex character than Vader ever was. While the complexities of Vader’s character were not really explored until Return of the Jedi, The Force Awakens is quick to develop Ren. Driver should of course take credit for a truly convincing performance which makes Ren both imposing and intriguing.

Among the invading Stormtrooper is Finn (John Boyega), who decides that he no longer wants to conform to the First Order. Finn subsequently decides to turn his back on the dark side and join the fight against the First Order. No one was quite sure what to expect from his character but he’s easy to side with despite his past. Again, the character development is satisfying as Finn initially tries to keep his true identity a secret from his resistance allies. The last of the new leading characters to be introduced is Rey (Daisy Ridley) a scavenger on the planet of Jakku who is still waiting for her parents to return home. Rey is drawn into the resistance fight when she meets BB-8, still holding the map that the First Order is determined to find. Soon after Finn arrives on the scene, the three of them are chased off the planet by a squadron of Stormtroopers.

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After spending the first thirty minutes introducing the new cast we get our first moment of nostalgia with the exquisitely executed reveal of the Millennium Falcon. Once the classic spaceship is away it’s apparent that it’s just a matter of time before some familiar faces turn up. While it’s no surprise when Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) arrive, I challenge you not to smile at their first appearance. Ford’s performance is excellent, as he delivers some classic lines and his interactions with Chewbacca are as good as ever. The Solo we meet here, may be ageing and more accepting of the powers of the force but there’s still enough of the Han of old to satisfy fans. Crucially though the presence of Solo and Chewbacca does not overwhelm the new cast. Star Wars fans will obviously be delighted to see two iconic characters feature so prominently but it’s good to see that it’s not done at the expense of the newbies.

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J. J. Abrams was clearly on a mission to satisfy fans of the original trilogy with this latest instalment. Along with the returning cast there are also plenty of nods to adventures of yesteryear. Though some of the more subtle references may go unappreciated by younger viewers, devote fans should find themselves feeling nostalgic. The humour is also refreshing to see. While watching the prequels often felt like a chore, the comedic elements of The Force Awakens make it an absolute joy to watch. C-3PO’s (Anthony Daniels) intentionally awkward reveal stands out as one of the funniest moments of the movie. Indeed, you will probably not expect to find yourself laughing so much at a Star Wars movie, sure the originals had plenty of wise-cracks but this has taken it to another level. It never feels forced though and the writers should take huge credit for the genuine humour that they have incorporated.

Of course there are also a few blips if I was being overly critical. Some will hold these minor flaws against the movie while others will choose to ignore them and simply enjoy what is otherwise an outstanding movie. First on the agenda is Princess Leia, whose return isn’t quite as satisfying as that of Solo and Chewbacca. Yes she’s there, but there’s an argument to say she could have featured more. Supreme Leader Snoke is also certain to split opinion. The leader of the First Order appears as a towering hologram. For the most part The Force Awakens uses practical effects but Snoke is rendered using CGI. As a result Snoke looks somewhat out of place if you’re looking to pick faults. You may also feel that you wanted to know more about the character, but this is something certain to be explored in future instalments. There are also a few plot holes, though you may not notice them as they do little to damage the movie. What is never made explicitly clear is how the First Order came into existence meaning fans will have to be satisfied with the explanation that it emerged from the “ashes” of the Empire.

Possibly J. J. Abrams’ greatest achievement is how well the plot to The Force Awakens has been concealed. Trailers have managed to whet people’s appetite without giving away the entirety of the plot, something too many movies are guilt of these days. If audiences have avoided online spoilers then they will likely go into the movie with many unanswered questions. While The Force Awakens answers the central question of “Where is Luke?” in a satisfying manner, there are many questions not answered during the 2 hours 16 minutes running time that encourage fans to come back for Episode VIII, rather than making them feel frustrated.

Let’s face it The Force Awakens is going to be a global hit regardless of what is written and said about it. Episode VII is already on course to be the most successful movie of all time and that is really no surprise. Yet, the movie is also destined to split opinion as it cannot possibly satisfy everyone. In this era it is easy to pick apart a movie and blow its minor flaws out of proportion and that is exactly what will happen with The Force Awakens. Some will have demanded it have the aura of the originals then blast it’s similarities to A New Hope, while others will analyse each and every plot hole. Some people will flat out refuse to enjoy this movie, and that in my opinion is their loss. The Force Awakens is not perfection but it’s undoubtedly a stunning return for a franchise which had gone dramatically downhill. The Force Awakens finds a great balance between pleasing fans both old and new. It maintains the feel of the originals while being glossier and introducing genuinely interesting new characters. Ultimately The Force Awakens left me wanting more and that is perhaps the best indicator that J. J. Abrams got this one right.

Rating: 9/10

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