Star Wars gets a fresh and fun spin at warp speed

STAR Trek and Star Wars are the ponderous giants of the sci-fi franchise world, dragging the weight of multiple movies, TV series and novels. Trying to light a fire under these ageing behemoths can be a blessing or a curse — and director JJ Abrams has now run the gauntlet twice.

With 2009’s Star Trek, he warped the Enterprise into the era of modern film making, lenses flaring and all systems go. That didn’t sit well with long-time fans of Star Trek’s gentler approach to storytelling, yet the movie and its equally action-packed sequel, Star Trek Into Darkness, attracted crucial new audiences.

Abrams played the nostalgia card in the first of those films by featuring Leonard Nimoy’s Spock, and in the second, less successfully, by ripping off the plot of the much-loved Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

Then Disney gave him its $4bn-plus new Star Wars toy and announced he would bring the original cast back. Fans were worried: would Luke and Leia be reimagined as slick action heroes? Would R2-D2 enter battle Transformers-style?

Even the unpleasant aftertaste of George Lucas’s overproduced and underacted prequels lingered. Those films drowned in the quicksand of convoluted plots and a disregard for the simple pleasures that entrenched the original trilogy in pop culture. Would layer upon layer of computer-generated imagery keep turning Star Wars into a sad spectacle?

Now we know at last: Abrams got it right by playing it safe. From the moment those iconic yellow letters start flowing across the screen, Star Wars: The Force Awakens jump-starts the shrivelled heart of the franchise.

It’s the good guys versus the Dark Side again, of course, but without the rambling politics, set 30 years after we last saw Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Leia (Carrie Fisher) in Return of the Jedi.

THE Empire is gone but an equally totalitarian force has risen in its place. Luke is missing, Leia is a general leading the struggling revolution and Han is the first original character to make a snappy entrance, debonair despite the grey hair, with loyal Chewbacca by his side — a moment tailor-made for audience cheers.

Newcomers Daisy Ridley and John Boyega respectively play Rea, a feisty scrap collector swept up into a grand adventure, and Finn, a Stormtrooper with a conscience who goes Awol (turns out the white-suited fighting brigades are more than just cannon fodder). These two keep it fresh and light, even if at times they are outdone by the original cast’s star value.

The Dark Side’s main protagonist here is Kylo Ren, a Darth Vader lite with a slimmer build and a smaller mask, but the same penchant for strangling his foes with the Force. He’s a villain with a back story, and once again blood proves thicker than water and a whole lot more trouble too.

From these elements Abrams and co-writer Lawrence Kasdan spin up a terrific space yarn. High-speed laser battles, lightsaber fights and odd alien species abound, yet the film feels controlled and centred, the effects grounded and tight — unlike Episodes I to III.

Even the infamous Death Star makes a comeback of sorts in a storyline that pays tribute to what has gone before, yet somehow doesn’t avoid familiar plot holes. One would think the Dark Side might have devised more secure engineering by now.

The film’s several trailers didn’t show Hamill, leading to much speculation. For much of this film Luke Skywalker remains missing, though his presence is everywhere. R2-D2 has powered down in his absence. His old friends seem unfocused, needing direction. Yet when this plot element resolves, it creates a screen moment of nostalgic magnificence.

IS IT the best Star Wars film of all time? Probably not. It would be hard to knock Episodes IV to VI off their perch after all these years, though one character’s fate in The Force Awakens is as memorable as any of the big moments of the original three films.

Abrams has, however, made it fun again — a perfect popcorn flick. It’s got action, adventure, a touch of romance and plenty of excitement, set against the familiar backdrop of Star Wars of old: grand galaxies, windblown deserts, dense forests and landscapes of all kinds.

It’s not nearly as dark as recent franchises that try to win over modern audiences accustomed to Game of Thrones-type intrigue. And sure, it’s sentimental and cheesy at times, but even that was part of the original winning recipe.

Ultimately, the sheer entertainment value, optimism and cheer with which Abrams has suffused the latest Star Wars adventure is the best Christmas present fans could have wished for. Long may the newly awakened Force be with him.

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