Not only expert homage for the fans but a first-rate, energised piece of mega-Hollywood adventure, the hugely anticipated 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' stirs more to life than just The Force. The rollicking, space-opera spirit of George Lucas’s original trilogy (you can safely forget the second trio of cynical, tricked-up prequels) emanates from every frame of JJ Abrams's euphoric sequel. It’s also got an infusion of modern-day humour that sometimes steers the movie this close to self-parody – but never sarcastically, nor at the expense of a terrific time.
The wheel need not be reinvented: virtually every plot point and action beat comes from 1977’s 'Star Wars' or 1980’s 'The Empire Strikes Back' (you even get a dormant lightsaber shivering in the snow), yet that’s perfectly fine when the vigour is this electric. Life is still a drag on arid desert planets like Jakku, where scrappy Rey (Daisy Ridley, a strong-jawed find) sells scavenged parts of old battle destroyers. Crash-landing onto her world is Finn (John Boyega), a Stormtrooper shocked out of his violent path serving the evil First Order by an impulse to do the right thing. On the run, they hijack the decrepit Millennium Falcon – 'The garbage will do,' says Rey in the first of many exhilarating reveals – and take off toward a radicalising destiny in the Resistance.
Abrams ('Star Trek', 'Super 8'), a master mimic unafraid to revive Lucas’s old-school wipes and frame-gobbling spaceships, brings a light touch to the performances: there’s better acting in 'The Force Awakens' than in all the Star Wars movies combined. BB-8, a whirling football-like droid that plays like WALL-E’s mouthier cousin, might be best of the bunch – he’s a new high for cinema’s expressive machines (and a nod to Lucas’s love for gearhead invention). Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher bring unexpected pathos to roles they sometimes used to drift through. The greying hair helps.
But once again, a black-clad villain steals the show: mystical Dark Sider Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) wears the robes, face-obscuring helmet and ferocious demeanour of you-know-who, with a distorted basso bark that actually improves on the breathy squawk of James Earl Jones. Fortunately, the actor gets to do more than menace, steering the movie towards a heartbreaking scene of personal confusion that plays like a franchise high. Elsewhere – and hilariously – the film is crammed with those effete British-accented middle managers, gulping down fear in his presence. Quibblers who can’t recognise a labour of love will point to how the film repeats the same old space fascism: a bigger Death Star, a scummier cantina. But it’s wonderful to be back at the bar.