Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a triumph of storytelling
Given that advent is intended to be the season of anticipation, the release today of Star Wars: The Force Awakens is aptly timed.
There's no universal scale for movie anticipation. But if such a thing existed, Episode VII would have just broken all its records. It's hard to think of another film in history that has been quite so looked forward to.
For weeks fans, corporate brands and the Disney promotional machine have all been gradually adding to the extraordinary sense of hype around its release. We've seen the trailers; we've bought the toys. Every media outlet and cinema chain, and a vast number of high street stores, are fully engaged in Star Wars Fever.
And yet as the film finally hits screens across the UK, with an almost-certain guarantee of breaking all box office records, there's one question we're all a little afraid to ask and it's lurking at the back of every movie fan's mind.
What if it isn't very good?
This isn't the first shot Hollywood has taken at rebooting Star Wars, the most commercially successful sci-fi franchise of all time. In 1999, George Lucas rebooted his own pet project with three 'prequel' films now regarded as vastly inferior to the original trilogy. However much we sought to defend it at the time, The Phantom Menace in particular exchanged the ground-breaking mechanical effects of the first three films for over-cooked CGI and simple straightforward storytelling for highly complicated plot lines that turned out to be about intergalactic trade and taxation. The magic was never truly recaptured.
We've been hurt before.
This time, however, all the signs were good. Lucas, much-derided for his film-making in recent years, is no longer directly involved in the series, and the hiring of director JJ Abrams (the man behind respected films and TV shows including Lost, Cloverfield and the recent Star Trek reboots) provided a genuine sign of hope that we'd be getting the quality film we all dreamed of.
From there, things got progressively more exciting. Former cast members including Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill signed on again and then, perhaps most spine-tinglingly of all, the footage began to emerge – first in teaser images, then finally in the increasingly phenomenal trailers. From what we'd seen before today – and of course, trailers can be incredibly deceiving – it appeared we were about to get a Star Wars movie that really felt like Star Wars.
And as it turned out, that's exactly what we've got. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is pretty much everything you could have hoped it would be.
Abrams has managed to create a new slice of the saga which thrusts us back into the same universe as the original trilogy. The over-elaborate CGI and heavy-handed writing of the prequels are nowhere to be seen; instead we're returned to a proper story about real people whom we actually care about.
The witty script – co-authored by the original trilogy's Lawrence Kasdan – sees a return to the simple, well-structured, nicely paced storytelling of the original films. The characters speak in plain English instead of the George Lucas gobbledegook of their forefathers, and that makes it an awful lot easier for the audience to connect with them.
The acting's good too. Newcomers John Boyega and Daisy Ridley are both outstanding in their central roles, and a supporting cast of old and new faces – and Ford in particular – do a great job of populating the galaxy with likeable heroes.
On the other side of the great titular battle at the film's heart, Andy Serkis and Domnhall Gleeson are deliciously nasty additions to the Star Wars universe, while Adam Driver threatens to steal the show with his portrayal of uber-baddy Kylo Ren.
Ren is exactly what the film needs: a truly malevolent heir to Darth Vader as an almost all-poweful representative of The Dark Side. The obligatory mask and voice, which could have gone so wrong, are both executed to perfection and the depths of evil explored in character, and his evil army First Order is a step up from what we've ever seen before.
It's also worth noting at this point that the film didn't get its 12A rating by accident. There's a fair amount of violence in the film, but there are also some sinister moments, particularly around Ren (and a couple of genuinely terrifying new monsters too). Driver's character isn't just a simplistic baddie for Boyega, Ridley and co to defeat; he's a proper exploration of what happens when a man embraces evil.
Like the previous six films, The Force Awakens is chiefly concerned with the natural and supernatural struggle between darkness and light. It also delves into a number of other themes though, including gender equality, fatherhood and what it means to come home. As such it's interesting and entertaining throughout, so that when the often exhilarating action sequences calm down you're still left watching a story that engages the intellect and imagination.
Abrams clearly has great affection for Lucas' original trilogy. If there's one major criticism to level at the film though, it's that the lines between homage and reboot sometimes become blurred. The Force Awakens is littered with gags and references for the fans to enjoy, but at times it tips into the retreading of old ground. Classic scenes from the 1977 original aren't just alluded to, they're practically replayed, leaving the audience both punching the air with a sense of nostalgia and wondering whether the writers lacked the imagination to create something really new.
It certainly doesn't spoil the film, though. All in all, and considering the enormous pressure on the film-makers to get it right, The Force Awakens is a triumph. Of course many of us said that after The Phantom Menace, but the biggest compliment you can pay Abrams is that this feels like a genuine addition to the original trilogy.
In the cold light of day, the turn-of-the-century prequels ended up being a disappointing blot on the Star Wars legacy. By thrilling contrast, the Force is strong in this one.