Variations on a signature shot appear about half-a-dozen times in JJ Abrams's absurdly hyped addition to the Star Wars cycle. The camera pauses for several seconds to examine an unoccupied corner of a quiet corridor (or forest or bulkhead or whatever). What's going on? We are, of course, awaiting the arrival of some veteran from the first trilogy. We can't have Han Solo or General Leia (as she now is) just blundering on like any old schlub. Reverence must be accorded.
The Force Awakens works quite well considering it is lumbered with an unshakable neurosis throughout. The film can never allow itself to be just another space opera. Abrams's romp must maintain the tone of Geoge Lucas's creation and find constant opportunities for old friends to slip in. The director was never going to be permitted the licence he was accorded when rebooting Star Trek.
Working with co-writers Michael Andt and Laurence Kasdan, Abrams has made the canny decision to rework structures from the very first film. The Force Awakens concerns a young outsider from a remote world whose life changes when she encounters a wandering droid with an important message from rebel forces. Sound familiar? Daisy Ridley kicks dust and ass as Rey, a desert scavenger who, one baking afternoon, rescues BB-8, a robot composed of two orange spheres, from less forgiving competitors. We already know that BB-8 is carrying an electronic map that will lead the finder to Luke Skywalker's secret hermitage (in a maritime corner of Munster, we're betting). Later, she meets up with Finn (John Boyega), a former stormtrooper who has seen the light, and they flee the planet in a familiar, bashed-up spaceship. Han Solo and Chewbacca hitch a ride soon after.
Although it's nice to welcome bits of our childhood back on to the screen, The Force Awakens is at its best when moving among its young heroes. Kicking back against Star Wars' patriarchal roots, the script allows Rey to emerge as senior partner in the relationship with Finn. Beginning the film as a borderline-coward, he constantly makes pathetic attempts to take her hand protectively during moments of high violence. Early on, we learn that Rey is likely to be handier with a light sabre. Both actors are charming throughout.
The villains are more problematic. Adam Driver is stuck with an impossible role as the archetypically evil Kylo Ren. When not wearing his sub-Vader helmet, he comes across like a Brooklyn flautist failing to convince as the Sheriff of Nottingham. With pot on, he looks like a giant bicycle pump in an anorak. Domhnall Gleeson, accent clipped in the Sandhurst style, has more fun as a ginger Nazi with no apparent sense of humour.
Han Solo and Chewbacca aside, the returning characters from the opening trilogy – The Force Awakens is set 30 years after Return of the Jedi - are asked to settle for little more than extended cameos. Carrie Fisher is decidedly underpowered as an older, sadder Leia. R2-D2 and C-3PO no longer aspire even to the status of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Further links with the past are secured via a score by John Williams that lavishes variations on the old themes without finding any fresh songs to sing.
Indeed, you could argue that there isn't a single original idea in The Force Awakens. Lucas's borrowings from Flash Gordon (many duelling spacecraft), Joseph Campbell (every major character is corralled by destiny) and Akira Kurosawa (the samurai as Jedi) are passed on to a new generation with few significant alterations. The most amusing scenes are variations on very familiar themes: a motion-captured, sweetly voiced Lupita Nyong'o is terrific as the owner of a tavern that recalls the Mos Eisley Cantina in the first film.
Fair enough. Abrams was not asked to reboot or remodel the franchise. His job was to rediscover the ancient energy that ebbed away during the sorry passage from The Phantom Menace to Revenge of the Sith. A slack middle period aside, the film pretty much meets those expectations. Oh and, as we expected, Star Wars Island (formerly Skellig Michael) makes only a brief appearance, but it acquits itself quite brilliantly. No computer-generated image could have satisfactorily replaced the location shots. We look forward to its return.