They did it, folks. You’ll see this movie regardless of what any review says, but rest assured – you won’t be wasting your time, and this won’t lead to any prequel-style critical backtracking once the excitement’s dust has settled.
Where to begin with a film whose opening titles can reduce grumpy old farts to tears? Perhaps with the fact that if you grew up with the original trilogy, then were disappointed by the debaculous prequel trilogy, then those tears may well be justified – JJ Abrams may have not reinvented the wheel here, but he’s remixed the wheel with enough storytelling pep and emotional heft to remind you why that wheel turned right through your childhood.
That remixing is paradoxically Episode VII’s greatest strength and weakness: it feels like a Star Wars film, but is so clearly the work of an awe-struck fan rather than an innovator that you find yourself totting up the references and parallels likes a franchise scorekeeper.
The weird neo-feudal idea that a single bloodline determines the fate of the galaxy persists, as do countless riffs off familiar lines, from trench runs to bad feelings to Admiral Ackbar.
Summarising the plot risks either spoilers or clearly indicating what can be spoiled, so let’s keep it brief: Luke Skywalker is missing, and both the Empire’s successor, the even more Nazi-ish First Order, and its successor adversary, the Resistance, want to find him.
The map for how to get to him is hidden on the super-cute spherical droid BB-8, and the dark side and the light struggle with each other to get it. The light side is represented by desert planet scavenger Daisy Ridley and stormtrooper deserter John Boyega, and the dark is led by Adam Driver (yes, the guy from Girls). All are superb, the unknown Ridley displaying self-possession Katharine Hepburn would be proud of, Boyega proving himself as up for a gag as a ruck, and Driver challenging Tom Hardy’s mask-acting throne.
The newcomers, dealt a daunting hand, handle it all with a light touch – but for all their prominence in the marketing, this is Harrison Ford’s film. It makes sense that he carry the show, given he’s the only one of the original trio who people have actually seen in movies since 1983, but it’s still pleasantly surprising to see the old warhorse actually try – and try far harder than when he revisited Indiana Jones.
The cast is crowded, no doubt due to Abrams' TV roots and the need to set up future films, but Ford/Solo’s agenda is the emotional crux of the goodies’ familiar pan of uncovering some plans and blowing up a superweapon.
The veteran actor manages to both recover his capacity for a one-liner and harness the gravitas the years have given him, and it couldn’t be more pleasurable if Ford personally gave the audience shoulder massages throughout.
To tell you any more detail about the plot would provoke the spoiler police, but aside from a few key reveals – all handled surprisingly offhandedly – the chief feeling is that this film is in one hell of a rush.
Between letting us know where most of the key figures of the original trilogy are and introducing some more for the trilogy to come, there is a lot of ground to cover, and the at times frenetic pace can obscure a few leaps of logic here and there.
We are in the hands of pros here, though, who know when to slow things down, and for every unaccounted-for blueprint and under-explained character absence, there is a moment to breathe with a movie icon, or moment of gold with Chewbacca.
And it’s these moments that save the film, for all its excessive repurposing of imagery and moments from the original trilogy, from being merely a tribute act to the franchise’s glory days.
OG Star Wars was itself a look back, but it was trading in currency that was known and understood to be pretty general – 32 years on, we care about Han, Chewie et al as invidividuals, not archetypes, so when one takes a flesh wound that hurts, it actually impacts.
For all these films’ pulpy roots, Abrams gets that these people are as real to us as any family member, and that when they bleed, we cry. Paradoxically, he’s introduced both modern corporate slickness and real heart that goes beyond just not wanting to see that nice people (or robots) suffer.
Add to that the coming-of-age of someone likely to be central to the story’s future, and you have a class act of a film, one that is hard to discuss without spoiling, but one that redeems the hope fans have had for three decades now.
You’ll see this movie whatever this review says, but you won’t be wasting your time. You’ll be present at what is genuinely the opening of a new chapter in film history.
And no, we won’t tell you what Luke’s been up to.