Star Wars: The Force Awakes review - ebullient reboot does not disappoint
When the lights go down, a stirring John Williams score strikes up, and the words 'A long, long time ago, in a galaxy far away…' begin to scroll slowly across the screen, something special happens in the heads of viewers over 40. This is the stuff we grew up on, the dizzy space operas that blew our little minds and made going to the cinema mean something for an entire generation.
The Star Wars films have been blamed for a lot, and sometimes rightly: without them, we might not have wound up with end-to-end summer blockbusters and a Hollywood system obsessed with superheroes and action franchises and scared to death of originality.
The cruellest thing that George Lucas ever did, however, was inflict his trilogy of prequels on us, dire, pompous drudges full of wooden acting (take a bow, Hayden Christensen) and overworked special effects (Jar-Jar Binks, we know where you live).
The last of those was released in 2005, trampling on the cherished fantasies of 1970s veterans and leaving a sour taste in everyone's mouths, even Lucas's, who, in 2012 sold Lucasfilm and the rights to all future Star Wars projects to Disney for $4billion. That huge sum raised eyebrows at the time, but right now is beginning to look like a pretty good deal. Because with old George out of the picture, JJ Abrams has had a free hand to grab the franchise by the scruff of the neck and drag it back to basics. He's already done it with Star Trek, ditching the lofty philosophising of earlier films in favour of action, humour and one overriding emotional focus - the on-off love affair between Spock and Kirk.
Mr Abrams clearly likes a challenge, and must have known how huge a weight of expectation would be draped around his shoulders once he took on the Star Wars mantle. But as usual he knew what he was doing: gone is the lofty space nonsense that cluttered up the plots of those dreaded prequels, also the heavy effects and ensemble of annoying digitised space creatures.
Instead we get everything we always wanted: a simple tale of good and evil, villains, heroes, John Williams, Han, Leia and Luke. But the real star of The Force Awakens turns out to be a total newcomer.
Daisy Didley is Rey, a scavenger on a desert planet who stumbles across a wandering droid that's been stranded after an air crash. And she quickly discovers it contains a very valuable piece of information - a map showing the whereabouts of the legendary Luke Skywalker. The Jedi knight has been in hiding for decades, and meanwhile a strutting and fascistic new gang called the First Order has usurped the Empire by being even more merciless.
Soon they're after her, led by a helmet-wearing thug called Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) who clearly reckons he's the next Vader. But when Rey escapes from her planet in a rusty old space freighter, she doesn't realise she's stolen the Millennium Falcon, an iconic craft that will lead her straight to Han Solo, and the Rebellion.
The presence of Harrison Ford is hugely reassuring. Han Solo was always the secret weapon of the original films, a sneering, cynical antidote to all that mystical mumbo-jumbo: his appearance here, and the inclusion of Lawrence Kasdan among the writing team, ensure that The Force Awakens is full of humour. Ford interacts charmingly with the charismatic and capable Ms Ridley, and there are a lot of other good actors - John Boyega, Oscar Issac, Domhnall Gleeson - among the cast.
Abrams keeps his story pelting along, and never misses a chance to pay loving tribute to the original films, right down to those strange keyhole fades from scene to scene. His plot mirrors that of A New Hope, but deliberately so: it will charm old fans, win many new ones, and make everyone an awful lot of money.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (12A, 135mins)