I was born in 1981, missing the original 'Star Wars' in the cinema by a few years, and still too young to have seen 'The Return of The Jedi' on the big screen. Regardless, the main pop culture memory of my childhood were those films. From badly worn VHS tapes to the toys, my life revolved around the series and waiting to see more. The late 80s promised me another set of films, but it was a longer wait than I expected.
Writing and producing the prequels was undoubtedly a hard task. Being unable to rely on fan favourites and leading on from known events, Lucas was in the position of producing films for the first time in years and having a huge fanbase on tenterhooks the entire time. It wasn't to be, and even though there are elements from the trilogy that were enjoyable (and I genuinely did enjoy Episode III for finally tying everything together in spite of its massive flaws), the main memory that was left was the disappointment. There seemed to be relief rather than sadness when everything came to an end. Was this the end of Star Wars?
But another decade has passed, and with it has come (pun absolutely intended) a new hope. The hype machine built itself up again, painful memories have been pushed aside, and a barrage of trailers and TV spots was unleashed around the world, all showing another second long glimpse at what was to be offered. Everything was pointing towards this being the film that fans had waited since the mid 80s, it all just felt right.
And from word go, that's how I felt for pretty much the entire runtime of 'The Force Awakens'. Things were slotting into place almost perfectly, and while the wait had been oh so long, it added to both the anticipation and payoff.
Let's just get this out there right now - this is a better film than 'A New Hope' was. That's not to say it doesn't rely on the existence of said film in order to be so good. Plot lines are lifted almost entirely, albeit to little surprise, from the 1977 movie which means a lot of what you see either compares or contrasts to what you know already. Han Solo's early plot revolves around a sequence that would've sunk awfully if it wasn't for the fact that IT'S HAN FREAKING SOLO AND HE CAN DO WHATEVER HE WANTS. JJ's Star Wars knows it's audience, knows what they want to see and knows how fine he can draw the line with making obvious nods to previous events. Old fans will laugh along, while new ones will be enthralled by a plot that everyone already knows works.
The differences between the films are more interesting than the similarities, however. 'A New Hope' is very much a film of the 70s, a grandeur project with a director allowed full reign to do what he wants. And with that came 70s attitudes and characterisation that's paper thin. Luke is a farm boy with higher aspirations, Leia is a kidnapped princess who needs rescuing, Darth Vader is simply a bad guy. 'The Force Awakens' isn't content with keeping things this simple.
Instead, interweaved with familiar faces we get a new set of characters that show depth from the word go. Rey isn't a princess, she's a fighter and she doesn't need rescuing regardless of how people perceive her. She's tough and willing to do all she needs to protect others, but she has a tender side that stops her from being too one dimensional. On the other side is Kylo Ren, who rather than simply being a Vader clone, is complicated and frustrated. Manipulated by powers above him for his raw ability, he's unpredictable, rash, and lashes out when things don't go his way as he desperately tries to impress. He might be styled after the classic villain, but there's so much more to him that Vader pales in comparison. Finn and Poe exude chemistry from the word go, despite the audience knowing barely anything about either of them. It's a film that could have easily succeeded based on this handful of characters, proving that it is capable of standing on it's own feet. It's a distinct difference over 'The Phantom Menace', which struggled to provide audiences with characters that were relatable, or even interesting.
From the moment he was shown in the trailer, BB-8 has been a star. An incredible design that can only have you wondering "How do they do that?" is more than a gimmick to appeal to kids, it's chock full of personality and is the driving force behind 'The Force Awakens'. However, it's a shame there simply isn't enough time to tell everyone's story, but that will come. Captain Phasma is reduced to barely more than a plot point, which is a shame as there's definitely more to her than what we see so far. With a slew of films due from the rejuvenated franchise, now is not the time to worry about what this film doesn't have.
The blend of CG and practical effects are superb, and the scope of the world is incredible. It feels like JJ understood the vision that George Lucas was going for when he re-edited the Original Trilogy in the 90s, without letting anything distract you on first watch. From derelict star destroyers and AT-AT walkers scattered through the planet of Jakku, to the 'new yet familiar' design of the First Order, there's an incredible amount of visual density without going too far. Virtually every frame is stunning, and the restrained 3D cut genuinely adds depth and scale beautifully.
The whole point of 'The Force Awakens' is to bind the original trilogy to the new, and it does a fantastic job. It provides a starting off point for a new story and while it doesn't have to build up the world like most origin tales do, you know the real excitement is going to come in Episode VIII and beyond. It's hard to find criticism when all I want to do is see it again, or even better, see the next chapter. If I could change anything, however, I'd end it one scene earlier. It might have left some disappointed, but it would've been a crisper end to a film that somehow met all expectations otherwise.
It's a roller coaster that provides thrills and laughs for a runtime that flew by, that makes you immediately want to ride again. Emotions of sadness, joy, and nostalgia perfectly blended together to create a film that will be loved by the kids who grew up with the originals, as well as their children who'll be watching the series for the first time.