"To paraphrase a line from A New Hope, The Force Awakens is the Star Wars saga's first step into a larger world."
The Star Wars universe may have been created by George Lucas 40 or so years ago but it belongs to all of us now, and with our shared ownership of something so precious there are certain expectations. Give us the thrill of discovery and the excitement of experiencing something new, by all means, but don't forget to provide the comfort of familiarity.
Delivering the best of both worlds is no easy task. But it's a task JJ Abrams and the new brains trust behind the revitalised Star Wars saga accomplish with tremendous flair with their first chapter, The Force Awakens.
As a standalone Star Wars adventure, it's quite good. As a reintroduction to the saga's universe and its characters, it's very good. And as an exercise in expanding that universe and setting the scene for future adventures, it's great. Put it this way: The Force Awakens is like a Star Wars cover version, but one played with reverence and energy, not to mention just enough invention and ingenuity to leave audiences wanting more.
It has been a few decades since the evil Empire's stranglehold on the galaxy was ended by the Rebellion headed by Jedi Knight Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), but in the years since then, the nefarious First Order has risen from the Empire's ashes. And Luke, who went into self-imposed exile after his efforts to train a new generation of Jedi ended disastrously, is nowhere to be found.
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Luke's sister, Leia (Carrie Fisher), desperately needs his help, and has dispatched ace pilot Poe (Oscar Isaac) to secure a clue to his whereabouts, especially since the First Order has a fearsome new planet-destroying weapon.
When Poe and his adorable android BB-8 run afoul of hot-tempered First Order operative Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a disciple of the dark side of the Force (that mystical energy field that binds the universe together, remember), it seems all hope is lost. But Poe finds some unexpected allies in the form of ex-Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) and plucky scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley), not to mention everyone's favourite space scoundrel Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and his hairy offsider Chewbacca.
If you've ever seen a Star Wars movie (or even just the first Star Wars movie, the one subtitled A New Hope), you may be experiencing deja vu reading that recap of The Force Awakens' story. There are a fair few elements from the original Star Wars trilogy that have been revived or repurposed for this new movie and given a polish or adjustment by Abrams and his team.
But without wishing to take anything from Abrams, that's where his true talent may lie — he's a gifted arranger, perhaps more adept at assembling than creating from scratch.
That's not to say he's a so-so director — he keeps The Force Awakens moving at a brisk pace, and populates it with new characters it's a pleasure to meet and get to know. These new characters have traces of the personality traits Star Wars fans love, but with just enough tweaks and twists to differentiate them, and Abrams has cast them superbly.
Boyega and Isaac have brio, swagger and sly humour to spare. Driver's villain is marvellously, malevolently unpredictable. And newcomer Ridley is the real deal, wonderfully scrappy and spirited. Perhaps best of all, Ford is thoroughly Ford as Han Solo in a performance that reminds you of his movie star bona fides.
To steal a line from a rival space-faring franchise, The Force Awakens doesn't boldly go where no one has gone before. But to paraphrase a line from A New Hope, The Force Awakens is the Star Wars saga's first step into a larger world.