Rest easy: Star Wars: The Force Awakens is significantly better than all of the prequel trilogy. If you are at all on the fence about seeing it, then put that fear out of mind and go to the cinema.
This is my spoiler-free review. From the next paragraph until the end of the article I will mention a couple of plot points from early in the film, talk about some of the characters, and point out some of the nods to the original trilogy. If you want to avoid all of that then you should turn back now.
The Force Awakens is a film with a lot on its mind: it has six film's worth of backstory in its audience’s mind, it has a new cast of characters to introduce and grow over the course of two hours, and it has to establish relationships that are going to develop over two more films. It’s a testament to everyone working on the film that this weight rarely shows.
Taking place 30 years after Return of the Jedi is set, the galaxy does not seem too changed a place. Out of the ashes of the Empire came a new enemy, The First Order. Opposing this army of Stormtroopers, TIE fighters, and Star Destroyers, is the Resistance. Like the rebels before it the Resistance are spread thin across the galaxy with few bases to their name and only a clutch of X-Wings with which they can fight back against the First Order. Luke Skywalker vanished soon after the war and there are still no new Jedi.
It is as though the stage has been reset.
The film even opens in an homage to the opening of A New Hope: with a Star Destroyer blotting out our view of a planet and then an assault on a rebel force by a division of stormtroopers. That scene ends with an important member of the Resistance being taken hostage by a black-robed dark Jedi and a droid making off with information that could bring down The First Order.
There is one key difference: the violence of the opening shocks one Stormtrooper to his senses.
I’m not going to spoil the plot but Abrams does this throughout the film: he has filled The Force Awakens with references to the original trilogy, from plot points, to settings, to the composition of shots. There are familiar lines, costumes, characters – major and minor. Much of the movie is reminiscent of those films and its key set pieces, but the action regularly introduces a new element that deviates, subverts, or mirrors the events we’re familiar with. It’s deeply compelling to watch.
The film is centred around the awoken Stormtrooper, Finn, and Rey, a scavenger he runs into on Jakku while escaping the First Order. The pair are trying to get the droid carrying the information for the Resistance back to the rebels. Their mission takes them to other planets and puts them into the path of Han, Chewbacca, and Leia. Played by John Boyega and Daisy Ridley, Finn and Rey respectively, the pair’s images have dominated the trailers and pre-release imagery but those clips didn’t carry how much charm and humour the two bring to the film. Their relationship energises the screen in a way that no characters in the prequel trilogy managed to. They are a joy to watch, too, because they’re not new versions of Han, Luke, and Leia but something different, something we’ve not seen in Star Wars protagonists before. Rey is cautious but thrilled by the world beyond Jakku, Finn is scared by it but fiercely devoted to following Rey and BB8, the Resistance’s droid.
The best performance, though, is given by Adam Driver. He plays Kylo Ren, the dark Jedi who leads the First Order – an exquisitely threatening villain. Living in the shadow of Vader’s legacy, Ren is young and eager to live up to the legend of Vader’s power. Unlike the Emperor and Vader, however, Ren cannot hide his rage. When Rey and Finn slip through his grasp he takes his lightsaber and attacks the room, carving deep scorch-marks into the walls and floor.
Whenever Driver is in a scene he steals the screen.
It wasn’t going to be too difficult to better the prequel trilogy but The Force Awakens does that with ease, sitting as a confident successor to Return of the Jedi. Abrams has created a rich new addition to the series that rewards being pored over and picked apart.