Returning to your childhood, especially when it comes to the movies and TV shows the defined it, can be a fraught activity.
There is an excitement certainly, how can there not be, but there’s also a sense that this nostalgic excursion may not be quite the enjoyable embrace with an old friend that you were expecting.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens spectacularly banishes any such fears far into the Outer Rim from the word go when the majestic John Williams fanfare sounds and we are treated, as always, to the setting of the story to come with the iconic giant yellow text scrolling up the screen.
Like Bond, Star Wars has a look and feel, and it faithfully employs this, providing not simply a quick recitation of the narrative’s starting point, but also a grand sense of occasion, the feeling that you are about to witness something epic and overpoweringly immersive.
It was there in 1977 when Star Wars: A New Hope began the franchise’s venerated saga, one tarnished only a little by the flawed prequels, and it is there most certainly with the J. J. Abrams directed The Force Awakens.
But even though they make use of the talents of Lawrence Kasdan – who penned the screenplay along with Abrams and Michael Arndt – one of the writers of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, they are not utterly enthralled to the past, content to use iconic touchstones when needed but happy to move the franchise along to new and boldly exciting places.
For instance, while the story begins on a backwater desert planet (Jakku, not Tatooine) with an old man (Lor San Tekka played by Max Von Sydow, not Alec Guinness’s Obi-Wan Kenobi) imparting valuable information to an eager young man, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), The Force Awakens takes those elements and runs with them, or blasts far out into space as the case may be, and fashions something altogether different with them.
This may look like the Star Wars from your childhood, and in many ways it is in ways that the prequels can never hope to be, but it does not simply repeat the energy and spirit of the original trilogy in the hope audiences will stick around out of nostalgia alone.
Rather, we are dramatically shown in ways big and small that the universe has moved on, and while we are treated to the return of Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), and of course Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), they have been affected by the passage of time, and the victories of the past do not guarantee success in a wholly different though familiar present.
For the Empire, now known as the First Order and led by the Emperor-like Supereme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) in its vanguard, is on the ascendant taking the fight back to the resistance who is nominally in control but stretched thin and struggling to rein in a sprawling galaxy with a mind of its own.
And as is often the way when two sides line up for battle, people with no experience of machinations beyond their own daily struggle for survival such as the main protagonist Rey (Daisy Ridley) who comes across BB-8, containing an important message that cannot fall into the hands of the First Order are drawn into the battle, their lives irrevocably as they discover a destiny far different than anything they might have imagined.
While others at the heart of the sparring groups such as disillusioned stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) who joins forces with Rey to get BB-8 to safety find themselves asking hard questions about who they are and where their allegiances lie.
The stage is set, and on the vast and expansive scale that only Star Wars seems to pull off to great effect, for a titanic battle once again between good and evil that for all its impressive sweep never loses sight of the humanity at its heart.
But this time, the violence, perhaps taking a leaf out of franchises like Game of Thrones and the far more visceral modern action and fantasy movies, has a far more modern sensibility, a willingness to show people being hurt, attacked and even killed in ways the original trilogy didn’t countenance.
But less you think this means some sort of anti-idealistic bloodbath of the sort that George Lucas would never have entertained, all this inclination to show the true colours of the violence that erupts when evil steps forward and those that oppose must take it on simply brings forth the battle for hearts and minds that was always at the heart of the original trilogy.
People struggled with which side of the Force they would embrace, innocents became caught dangerously in the middle and the fate of the universe hung in the balance; this is all still very much in place in The Force Awakens but with an added air of real malevolence, any idea that it is not a life and death struggle banished to the margins in favour of real, gritty action that shares the stage with some tender heartfelt moments without dropping one iota of impact.
The nods to the past but eye fixed firmly on the present is noticeable too in the visual aesthetic that pervades the film.
The ships, the planets, the people all recall the look and feel of the films that went before, a ’70s sensibility very much in place, but now everything comes with an added sleek muscularity – the stormtroopers for instance look the same but the lines are curvier, the armour less clunky, the ships less tinny and far more dark and dangerous, the urban settings every bit as exotic but far more real, and more lived-in.
The most glorious thing for anyone who loves the films of the Star Wars universe, and this matters whether you first saw the first movie in 1977 or just recently on Blu-Ray, is that the soaring sense that you are witnessing a marvellous, otherworldly spectacle is still very much in place.
So pronounced is it in fact that it’s hard not to feel like an excitable kid again, to feel like cinema is a grand thing once again and not simply sitting in a darkened room with the occasional cell phone blipping and people talking.
In fact, the buzz around the cinema was palpable, the sense that we were witnessing some far beyond ordinary cinema profoundly in evidence in ways that even frequent moviegoers would be hard pressed to find at any other blockbuster.
The good news is that the hype and expectation are more than justified with The Force Awakens giving us richly-wrought characters in a compelling, engrossing narrative set against the backdrop of worlds and stars far beyond our own, the sense of giddy, uplifting adventure, of goodies versus baddies on a galactic scale still very much in place.
But it’s also not a creature of its past, confined to repeating the tropes of the past; they’re there of course with nods to everything from the famous Mos Eisley Cantina scene, the trench run along the Death Star and even the Death Star itself (sort of) most firmly in place and hard to miss.
But they are part of a new whole, one that respects and captures the spirit and gee whiz energy of the original films while setting a course to a bold and exciting future that will no doubt keep people coming back to the cinema in droves, eager to experience once again what it feels like to be part of something much larger and more magnificent (and still all too relatably human) than yourself.