Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018, Ron Howard)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Ten years before his encounter with Luke Skywalker in a cantina, Han Solo becomes embroiled in a job to steal a valuable fuel source for a gangster…

WHICH VERSION? There’s only one.

GOOD GUYS:

* When we first meet him, Han (Alden Ehrenreich) is hot-wiring a land-speeder in a rusty, rundown city on his home planet of Corellia. It’s a place dominated by crime lords, even though the fascistic Empire are technically in command. Han – a young man in his late 20s – is scratching out a living for himself and girlfriend Qi’ra. He’s accumulated enough cash to buy their way out of the ‘control zone’, but while attempting to escape the planet Qi’ra is arrested by the authorities. Needing to hide, Han hits upon the idea of joining the Imperial military. When the recruiting officer asks his name, Han admits he doesn’t have a family and therefore no surname, so the officer plucks one out of the air: ‘Han… Solo.’ Three years later, Han is an unhappy grunt in the Imperial infantry. However, backchat to superior officers leads to him being thrown into a punishment pit with a ‘beast’. The monster actually turns out to be a sympathetic creature called Chewbacca, and rather than fight to the death the pair collude to escape their prison. (Handily, Han speaks a bit Chewy’s language.) Fleeing the army, Han and his new pal hook up with a criminal called Beckett, whose crew are planning to steal some valuable fuel from a speeding train. This opportunity pleases Han because his long-term goal is to earn enough money to get home to Corellia and save Qi’ra. However, despite Han getting to show off his piloting skills, the heist goes wrong: Beckett’s lieutenants are killed and the loot is snatched by a third party. So Beckett and Han must go cap in hand to Drydon Vos, the crime lord who hired them and the leader of a terrorist organisation called Crimson Dawn. On board Vos’s palatial Art Deco yacht, Han is stunned to bump into Qi’ra – she escaped Corellia on her own, and now works for Crimson Dawn. He then cuts a deal with Vos to steal the loot from somewhere else. This involves travelling down a dangerous space route known as the Kessel Run (take a gulp if you’re playing the drinking game), but for this they need a fast ship. Luckily Qi’ra knows a guy who has one. At first, Han attempts to win the craft in a card game – but the cad with the transport, a slick fella called Lando, beats him and insists on a cut of the take for the use of his ship. When Han then sees Lando’s vehicle – the Millennium Falcon, a disc-shaped Corellian YT-1300 – he goes all misty-eyed and mentions that his father helped build this brand of spaceship. The gang travel to the planet Kessel, where they steal the coaxium Vos wants, then flee via the Kessel Run. Lando’s pilot was killed during the job, though, so Han must take the controls of the Millennium Falcon – he actually completes the run faster than anyone ever before. Meeting up with Vos, Han is betrayed by both Beckett – who attempts to steal the loot for himself – and Qi’ra, who chooses a dark path. So as the film winds down, Han and Chewy seek out Lando again, and Han wins the Falcon from him in a rigged card game. They then head for the planet Tatooine, where they’ve heard a crime lord is putting together a new job… Charged with the task of taking over such a venerated character, Ehrenreich is absolutely terrific. He brilliantly evokes Harrison Ford’s smirky charisma but never resorts to a hollow impression. Actor and script capture the tone of the Han Solo we know – the swashbuckling heroics, the playful cheek, the romantic streak, the hubris and failure – but as this is a younger Han, he’s also more optimistic and idealistic. (Fun fact: Alden Ehrenreich was given his first name in honour of family friend Phil Alden Robinson, the director of Sneakers and Field of Dreams.)

* Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) seems initially to be an infantry officer in the Imperial Army, but soldier Han quickly deduces that he’s an imposter: a thief for hire who pulls off jobs with a couple of cohorts. After allowing him to join his crew, Beckett becomes a kind of father-figure type for Han – offering advise, encouraging him, all that. This doesn’t stop him betraying his protégé, however, when he steals the coaxium for himself. Han gives chase and, before Beckett can talk his way out of it, shoots him dead. (Han shoots first, you see.) Harrelson is typically watchable.

* Rio Durant (voiced by Jon Favreau) is Beckett’s pilot: a small, monkey-sized, multi-armed Ardenian with a sarcastic manner and a New York accent. The character is *in no way* a blatant rip-off of Bradley Cooper’s Rocket from the Guardians of the Galaxy series. He dies during the train heist.

* Val (Thandie Newton) is Beckett’s partner, both professionally and personally. A spiky, entertainingly rude character, she also dies attempting to steal the fuel – which is a real shame, as Newton is a fun presence while she lasts.

* Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) is a 190-year-old Wookie – a seven-foot-tall, furry alien – and has been locked up by the Empire, who are treating him like a savage animal. When we first see him, his fur is matted and he’s in an understandably bad mood. Han soon wins him round, though, especially by speaking to him in his own language, and the pair not only escape the Empire but become quick pals. During the Kessel Run, Chewy jumps into the Millennium Falcon’s co-pilot seat, establishing a spaceship-flying partnership with Han. At one point, we also learn that Chewbacca is searching for his lost family. Presumably, he’s referring to the Wookies seen in the 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special. (A sad side note: I was doing a final pass on this blog when I heard the news that Peter Mayhew had died at the age of 74. He played Chewbacca in five Star Wars movies from 1977 until 2015 before passing the baton on to Suotamo.)

* Enfys Nest (Erin Kellyman) initially seems to be the leader of a gang of pirates. She and her pals – one of whom is Warwick Davis’s Weazel, a character who first appeared in 1999’s The Phantom Menace – beat Beckett and co to the loot during the train heist. They must be crims, then? No, when Nest shows up near the end of the story we discover that she’s actually the leader of a nascent rebellion against the evil Empire. She asks Han to join their cause, but he declines. Kellyman, who only appears without a facemask in the final third of the film, is a bit earnest.

* Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) is said to be the best smuggler around, and is a dashing, louche, cape-wearing smoothie who enjoys cheating at card games and being economical with the truth. He signs up to Beckett’s mission to steal some coaxium, but wants 25 per cent of the take. However, after completing the job and running into more trouble, Lando leaves his new comrades behind and sneaks away with his ship. Later, Han tracks him down and suggests another game of Sabaac… Glover is tremendous value, echoing original actor Billy Dee Williams but bringing his own brand of swagger. (He also pronounces Han’s name with a short A, to match Williams in The Empire Strikes Back.)

* Droid L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) is Lando’s first mate. She’s a vaguely human-shaped robot with an oversized head (all the better for containing, as Lando points out, the best navigational database in the galaxy). She’s also a fierce defender of ‘droid rights’, and is first seen pleading with other mechanical life to stand up for themselves. Despite being in a permanent bad mood, she has a thing for Lando (‘How would that work?’ asks a dubious Qi’ra) and maybe he has one for her too… On Kessel, she’s movingly upset by the sight of droids being held as slaves so incites a revolution – but then is fatally shot during the ensuing combat. Lando is *distraught*. (So are we.) L3’s navigational database is then uploaded into the Millennium Falcon’s computer… She might be a CGI creation, but you wouldn’t know that from the absolutely seamless way the character interacts with the actors and the physical sets. (Technology has moved on A LOT since Jar-Jar Binks, hasn’t it?) Waller-Bridge’s voice work is really brilliant: very funny and full of sass.

BAD GUYS:

* When Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) returns to the story on Crimson Dawn’s luxury yacht, she’s clearly a changed woman. She’s harsher, colder, and now a gangster’s moll-cum-advisor. But she’s also genuinely pleased to see Han again, and when the old flames travel to Kessel together they actually share a kiss in Lando’s cape room. (Yes, Lando has an entire room to store his capes. He’s *that* cool.) ‘Am I interrupting something?’ says a cockblocking Beckett, who’s not sure his new protégé should be cosying up to Drydon Vos’s aide. Qi’ra helps on the Kessel Run scam, pretending to be an Imperial official with Han as her shackled prisoner – then late in the film she turns into a samurai-sword-wielding badass, kills her boss and takes over his criminal empire. She then contacts his shadowy benefactor… This is a tough role for Clarke, who filmed Solo in-between seasons of Game of Thrones. Qi’ra may as well have a neon sign above her exceedingly pretty head that reads ‘I’m not who Han thinks I am’, but the actress disguises it as much as she can by using natural charm.

* Lady Promixa (voiced by Linda Hunt) is a giant slug-type creature who rules the underworld of Corellia with an iron tentacle. Early in the film, Han is taken to see her when it becomes clear he’s been ripping her off. The character is a nice reminder that the original Star Wars movies were no strangers to bizarre and even risible aliens. Nevertheless, it’s quite a relief that she doesn’t last very long in the story. To escape her oily clutches, Han pretends to have a thermal detonator (a grenade, essentially). Proxima is not fooled: ‘That’s a rock!’ she says. ‘And you just made a clinking sound with your mouth.’ (More than a decade of story time later, Princess Leia will use the same gag in an attempt to save Han from a different alien gangster.)

* One of the Imperial officers in the warzone scenes looks suspiciously like the late actor Don Henderson. Presumably he’s meant to be a younger version of Henderson’s character in the original Star Wars film.

* Drydon Vos (Paul Bettany) is the leader of Crimson Dawn, so therefore is the man Qi’ra now works for. He’s an arrogant, maniacal loon with a violent streak, a love of pithy threats and a scarred face. He also makes an obscure reference to having a sinister boss… After Beckett and co have brought him the coaxium he wants, Vos suffers a double-cross as Qi’ra kills him and takes over his organisation… Michael K Williams was cast in the role, but was then unavailable for some reshoots so Bettany took over. At the same time, the character went through a rethink: he was originally a CG creation resembling a humanoid lion. Whatever the visuals, he’s a bit of a rent-a-bad-guy.

* In a shock twist held back from all the publicity and trailers, Darth Maul (Ray Park; voiced by Sam Witwer) appears late on. He’s the real power behind Crimson Dawn – oh no! We only see Maul as a hologram when he FaceTimes Qi’ra, but we can tell he has robotic legs (in his last appearance, remember, he was cut in half by Obi-Wan Kenobi). Maul summons Qi’ra to come and see him and tells her they’ll be working more closely from now on… This is just a cameo, meant to set the character up for a sequel that will now probably never happen because Solo “only” took $392 million at the box office (ie, the smallest gross of any live-action Star Wars film). Peter Serafinowicz was originally hired to reprise the voice of Maul from The Phantom Menace, but then the strange decision was made to use someone else.

BEST ACTION SEQUENCE: The action is uniformly great in this movie, whether it’s the chaotic trench warfare scenes, or the slick, wind-machined train heist, or the multi-character punch-up on the planet Kessel. Especially impressive is the dieselpunk chase sequence on Corellia with Han and Qi’ra in a land-speeder, a kind of floating car. Unlike most CG-heavy action scenes, this one feels totally real and heavy and locked into gravity. Solid, metallic vehicles career round corners and skirt past palpable obstacles. You feel the speed and the thrill and the danger. It’s like something from a Mad Max film.

BEST COMEDY MOMENT: Solo’s original directors were Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the team behind the far-better-than-you-think-it’s-going-to-be comedy 21 Jump Street and the everything-is-awesome Lego Movie. But they were fired during production – reportedly for trying to make the film too much of a comedy. Nevertheless, even with the more serious-minded Ron Howard taking over, Solo is still often very funny. L3 is a hoot (‘Is there anything you need?’ ‘Equal rights?’), meaning this is the second Star Wars spin-off running with a comedic droid (cf Alan Tudyk’s K-2SO in Rogue One). Lando as played by Donald Glover is so watchable he *needs* a film all of his own (check out the throwaway moment when we glimpse him recording a vainglorious diary entry). Geeks all over the world will have smirked when the infamous Imperial March music cue is used in-story, as the Empire’s army-recruitment theme tune.

MUSIC: The score is utterly superb, feeling thoroughly and joyfully Star Wars-esque but having a life of its own too. Whether the scene is action or romance or melancholy or humour, John Powell’s incidental music adds a huge amount. Old John Williams themes are quoted if appropriate, such as a 1977 motif when Han first sits behind the controls of the Falcon, but the new stuff is always memorable and engaging. (Williams made a contribution too. He wrote a new theme called The Adventures of Han, which Powell then incorporated into his work.)

PERSONAL CONNECTION: I first saw this film on 6 June 2018 at the Everyman Canary Wharf in London with my old pal Fraser Dickson. Unlike the December releases of the previous three Star Wars films, Solo came out in the UK on 24 May. WHY NOT MAY THE 4TH?!

REVIEW: This was a huge ask. Huge. To take such a famous and beloved character and *recast* him could have gone catastrophically wrong. Thankfully, both lead actor and the film as a whole are wonderful, vibrant and entertaining. Not that anyone’s going to claim Solo is rewriting the rules of cinema. Being a prequel, for example, it goes down the predictable route of ticking narrative boxes – we learn how Han gained his surname, how he met Chewbacca, how he met Lando Calrissian, how he first encountered the Millennium Falcon, how he gained his gun, why he claims in the original Star Wars that he did the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs, even how long he’s owned a pair of gold dice that featured beyond fleetingly in the 1977 film then became a plot point in 2017’s The Last Jedi. This kind of dramatised backstory – simply filling out the spaces between established facts – could of course become boring very quickly. Solo, however, has more than enough zip, panache and style to sidestep the issue. It’s full of vivid characters, exiting sequences, humour, romance and adventure. It’s a caper movie, a heist movie, a Western in disguise. It’s enormous fun. It’s Star Wars. 

Nine spice mines of Kessel out of 10

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017, Rian Johnson)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

While Rey attempts to convince Luke Skywalker to return from his exile, her friends in the Resistance are being pursued by the First Order…

WHICH VERSION? There’s only one. The on-screen title is Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi.

GOOD GUYS:

* Commander Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is still the Resistance’s most dashing pilot. As the story begins, he squares up against the evil First Order fleet – on his own, just one small fighter ship against city-sized cruisers. It’s a gutsy delaying tactic, but after he’s bought enough time for his colleagues to escape he can’t resist hammering home the advantage and leading a full-scale assault. While the bulk of the Resistance gets away, they suffer many loses – and Poe is blamed. He’s demoted by his superior, Leia, and then kept out of the loop, which angers him when he believes a new battle plan will lead to the Resistance’s destruction. So he agrees to an idea cooked up by his pal Finn and new character Rose, then relieves Vice Admiral Holdo of command…

* Droid BB-8 is by Poe’s side during the early space battle, then accompanies Finn and Rose on their mission.

* General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) is still in charge of the Resistance. During a space battle, though, the hull of her cruiser is hit and she’s sucked out into space… but because she’s awesome and has vaguely defined Force powers she’s able to survive and fly across space back to the ship. (How much you like this Mary Poppins-ish moment will probably depend on your age, your level of cynicism and how much joy you have left in your soul.) The character then spends a long while recovering. Later, once the Resistance have reached a safe planet and are holed up in a fortified base, Leia’s surprised to see her brother walk in. Leia and Luke share an extremely touching scene together before he leaves to confront Kylo Ren… Very sadly, Carrie Fisher died not long after filming The Last Jedi. The Force will *always* be with her.

* C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) features in a few scenes, interacting with Leia, Poe and Luke, but doesn’t contribute anything beyond nostalgia.

* Finn (John Boyega) is unconscious to begin with, after his injury at the end of the previous film. When he awakens his first thought is, ‘Where’s Rey?’ Later, he decides to leave and find his friend, but is caught in the act by a Resistance engineer called Rose. The two of them bond and come up with a plan to disrupt the First Order’s ability to track the Resistance fleet. However – and here’s where it starts to get convoluted – in order to sneak aboard a First Order ship and do some sabotage, they need a master codebreaker. So with Poe’s sanction, they leave the fleet, travel several parsecs across space, and visit a casino in a city called Canto Bight to find a guy recommended by Finn’s friend Maz . The casino section is the film’s biggest flaw: it’s frivolous, throwaway and – with its Art Deco stylings, naff gags, simplistic politics and crummy CGI – an unwelcome reminder of the Star Wars prequels. (It does, however, contain an elaborate tracking shot that’s a reference to the 1927 film Wings, which pleased this film-geek blogger.) After much titting about, Finn and Rose don’t find Maz’s mate, but do stumble across another codebreaker called DJ who agrees to help them. Later, while the Resistance are defending their base on a planet with a crust of red salt, Finn leads a mission to destroy the First Order’s biggest gun.

* Having found Luke at the end of The Force Awakens, Rey (Daisy Ridley) refuses to leave his remote island. She wants him to come and help the Resistance; they need the resurgence of the Jedi order to defeat the First Order. Luke is initially grumpy and says he’s not interested, but Rey perseveres. In part, it’s because she recognises the island from her dreams. Soon, a teacher-pupil relationship develops, though he’s not impressed by her understanding of the Force (“It’s a power that Jedi have that allows them to control people and make things float.”). It’s clear, though, that Rey has huge, untamed power… and seems unconsciously drawn to the dark side. She also begins to have psychic conversations with the First Order’s Kylo Ren, who is Leia’s son and Luke’s former pupil. (The conversations are really well staged and played. The two actors are filmed on their respective sets and simply cut together as if they were talking to each other.) One night, Rey’s drawn to a murky cave where she experiences a nightmarish hallucination – she sees multiple versions of herself and is given a tantalising glimpse of her long-lost parents. Soon after, she leaves to find Kylo and turn him back from the dark side. But he wants her to join him in villainy. He also draws out a truth she’s always instinctively known: her parents were no one special and simply abandoned her. Rey resists the temptation to become evil and escapes…

* Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has been found. Following on directly from the monumentally wonderful cliffhanger ending to The Force Awakens, Rey reverentially passes him his old lightsaber… which he then just dismissively tosses away! (Great gag. Great mission statement.) Luke’s in a bad way, wracked with guilt for his failure to help his student Ben Solo aka Kylo Ren. He’s living a basic, prehistoric-like existence on a rocky outcrop, sharing it with a strange mixture of creatures, and initially doesn’t want to listen to Rey. He finally agrees to teach her in the ways of the Jedi, but she leaves when she comes to believe that Luke tried to murder Kylo. Later, Luke apparently shows up on the Resistance’s planet. But he’s not really there: he’s projecting his body across space using his Force powers. He squares off against the entire First Order battalion, then Kylo in person – all as a stalling tactic to allow his friends to escape. The enormous effort proves too much and, back on his island, the real Luke fades away from existence. The last thing he sees before he dies are twin suns in the sky… With his greying beard, shaggy hair and cantankerous maturity, this is a career-best performance from Hamill, who in this series has believably progressed from a naïve, young upstart to a wise yet grizzled elder statesman.

* Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo, taking over the role from Peter Mayhew) accompanied Rey to Luke’s island, so the two old pals now meet. Briefly. Chewy then spends his time hanging around on the Millennium Falcon.

* R2-D2 (Jimmy Vee) is aboard the Millennium Falcon, so Luke sees him when he explores the ship. He tells the droid that he’s not coming back and nothing will change his mind. So R2 replays the famous hologram message of Princess Leia recorded more than 30 years previously. “That was a cheap move,” says Luke wryly.

* Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) takes over running the Resistance when Leia is incapacitated. As with most Laura Dern characters, she has a folksy quality, but she’s a steely military leader. She also has purple hair. Holdo doesn’t seem to like Poe very much, especially when he questions her odd tactical decisions. It’s eventually revealed that she knows what she’s doing, her actions will save the Resistance, and she’s willing to sacrifice her life for the greater good. Quite why she kept this plan to herself is another matter.

* Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) is a young woman who works for the Resistance as an engineer. When we meet her, she’s mourning her sister Paige (Veronica Ngo), who was killed in a battle with the First Order. Then she rumbles Finn in the act of running away and electrocutes him. When Finn reveals that the First Order can now track the Resistance through hyperspace, Rose suggests a plan to scupper this ability – and the pair head off to the casino city. Later, on the planet with the Resistance base, she saves Finn’s life because she loves him… Rose is a great addition to the regular cast and it’s a good, likeable performance. Rather astonishingly, while publicising this movie, Kelly Marie Tran became the first Asian woman to ever appear on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine.

* Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o) returns from The Force Awakens in a cameo. Finn and Poe phone her up to ask for some advice and she talks to them while in the middle of a gun fight.

* Yoda (Frank Oz) appears as a ghost when Luke’s at a low ebb and offers him some kind, good-natured guidance. In a move that makes a geek’s heart sing, the character is back to being a puppet after his drift to CGI in the early noughties.

BAD GUYS:

* Among several First Order officers and lackeys are characters played by Vyvyan from The Young Ones, Lysa Arryn from Game of Thrones and Finchy from The Office.

* General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) is still in operational command of the First Order and is still a prick.

* Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) is not happy when the Resistance escape his clutches and takes his anger out on Hux. We finally see him for real – as opposed to a hologrammatic projection – when we visit his throne room. So we can now confirm that he’s a disfigured alien who’s about six feet tall. He still doesn’t make much impression, though.

* Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is a changed man. He’s still evil; he’s still kneeling before Snoke. But you can see the doubt in his eyes caused by his encounters with Rey in the previous film. The two characters also start to talk to each other via a psychic connection, which affects each in interesting ways. We’re told conflicting versions of what happened years previously between Kylo and Luke – that Kylo rebelled and murdered his fellow students, or that Luke grew paranoid and decided to kill Kylo before he grew too powerful. The truth lies somewhere in the middle and there’s a wonderful emotional depth to the whole storyline. After killing Supreme Leader Snoke, Kylo takes his place at the head of the First Order… Driver is again absolutely fantastic in this role, turning what could be a cartoon villain into the most complex character in the movie.

* DJ (Benicio del Toro) is a master codebreaker who Finn and Rose are conveniently imprisoned with just as they’re looking for a master codebreaker. A louche scoundrel with an odd speech impediment, the character is clearly shifty so it’s not the biggest shock in Star Wars history when he betrays his new friends for a stash of cash. Del Toro is a bit irritating.

* Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) returns from The Force Awakens and has a fight with her old nemesis Finn. During which, her metallic helmet is cracked open and we see a terrified look in her eye before she dies.

BEST ACTION SEQUENCE: Kylo takes Rey to see Snoke in his theatrically designed throne room. A massive open space with a shiny floor and blood-red walls, it looks like the set of a dream sequence from a 1950s Hollywood musical. Snoke taunts Rey but also arrogantly ridicules Kylo, who snaps and murders his master. Kylo and Rey then team up to take on Snoke’s bodyguards in a beautifully choreographed and wonderfully filmed fight that’s full of invention and excitement and violence.

BEST COMEDY MOMENT: The humour isn’t always successful in this film and a handful of gags fall flat. But there are still many chucklesome moments. There’s Poe speaking to Hux over a radio and pretending not to recognise his voice… Finn stumbling around in a space suit that’s leaking fluid everywhere… Rey saying she’s from nowhere, Luke replying that ‘no one is from nowhere’, Rey telling him she’s from Jakku, and Luke deadpanning, ‘All right, that is pretty much nowhere’… Chewbacca and the cute little porgs… Luke ridiculing Rey’s naivety about the Force… BB-8 mimicking a First Order droid… But the best laugh comes after Kylo has ordered every weapon in the First Order arsenal to fire at Luke Skywalker. Miraculously, Luke seems to survive the battery intact. The way Mark Hamill then archly flicks away some dust from his shoulder may very well be the greatest ‘fuck you’ in cinema history.

MUSIC: It’s by John Williams so of course it’s *superb*.

PERSONAL CONNECTION: My first viewing of The Last Jedi was at the Everyman Baker Street cinema in London on 19 December 2017. I went with my great friend and former colleague Fraser Dickson; going to that cinema to see a new Star Wars movie has become an annual tradition for us.

REVIEW: In one half of this film some characters are doggedly chased by the bad guys, while in the other half the young lead travels off to a mysterious planet to learn about the Force from a grumpy old Jedi. This bifurcated storytelling was used so well in The Empire Strikes Back, of course, but here it’s more of a problem. And that’s a big shame because in many, many ways The Last Jedi is *wonderful*. All the scenes featuring Rey, Luke and/or Kylo are knock-it-out-of-the-park successful… The main series characters – Rey, Poe and Finn – now feel just as integral to Star Wars as Luke, Leia and Han, which really is an astonishing achievement… There are plenty of cute echoes of previous Star Wars situations, but the film is also bold enough to push the mythology into dramatically interesting territory (Luke has flaws, Rey’s heritage is just a red herring, the villain is sympathetic)… The crosscutting between scenes and subplots is fluid and pacey… The action sequences are exactly what you’d want from this type of movie: exciting, meaningful, inventive and easy to follow… The look of the film is marvellous, both in the art of the design and the craft of its realisation… The sound mix is staggeringly impressive… However, the half of the story that focuses on Poe, Finn and the others has several issues. Frankly, after an exciting opening, it starts to feel like vamping; like ‘stuff’ to pad out the running time. The plot is built around a chase sequence and the threat is that the First Order will catch up with the Resistance. But it’s not a chase where characters are sprinting or racing at full speed. It’s played more like ocean liners chugging along through space, which doesn’t exactly help with the tension. It’s also a chase where a pair of characters can pop off on a separate, self-contained and rather silly subplot for *hours*. And while they’re gone, there’s a naff bit of superficial drama back at the fleet. There’s no reason why Holdo doesn’t reveal her plan to Poe (or we viewers), other than to set up a reveal when we find out what it is. It’s artificial and unsatisfying. But, as irksome as they are, these gripes shouldn’t distract from how entertaining the rest of The Last Jedi is. It’s not as good as The Force Awakens – very few things in life are – but it’s still a movie to cherish.

Nine and a half beards that are grey when Luke is real but darker when he’s a Force projection and I’ve genuinely only just spotted that on my third viewing of the film out of 10

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016, Gareth Edwards)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The evil Galactic Empire is building a planet-killing weapon, so the Rebel Alliance sends a young woman called Jyn Erso to talk to her father: the man who designed it…

WHICH VERSION? There’s only one. The on-screen title is simply Rogue One.

GOOD GUYS:

* Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is a young woman who can handle herself in a fight and has an independent spirit. As a child she saw her father arrested and her mother killed, so went on the run. Now, 15 years later, she’s a prisoner of the Empire. She’s soon rescued by the Rebel Alliance, who convince her to find her estranged father. He designed the Death Star, an enormous space station capable of destroying entire planets, and they want to know its weaknesses. Joining forces with a Rebel captain and a few others, Jyn eventually tracks down her dad on the planet Eadu, but he’s then killed in front of her. Helpfully, she’d earlier seen a message he pre-recorded which explains how the Death Star can be destroyed. So Jyn tries to rally the pessimistic Rebels: she pitches that they steal the station’s blueprints from a heavily guarded Imperial planet. When the Rebel bosses say no, she goes anyway with her newly formed gang, giving some rousing motivational speeches along the way… Sadly, Jyn is a character who’s very difficult to care about. Actress Felicity Jones is one-note, remorselessly dour and barely shows any emotion other than frustration. This might be relevant for a woman who’s living a harsh life, but it hardly makes for engaging viewing. Compare her with Luke and Leia from the original Star Wars or Rey and Finn from The Force Awakens, characters full of vim and verve and energy and charisma and likeability. They feel so much more alive because they attack each scene full on and have dynamic emotional journeys. They also drive their own stories: they have desires and goals, and we experience their adventures with them. Jyn, meanwhile, takes about half the film to show *any* fight. It’s only after her father dies that she starts being pro-active; before then, she simply gets dragged along by circumstances outside of her control. The character nominally carries the whole story, yet coupled with a boringly introverted performance, her early passiveness means there’s a big, blank hole where our heroine should be.

* Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) used to work for the Empire as an engineer. At the start of the film he’s hiding on a farm with wife Lyra and daughter Jyn, but the Empire soon come looking. They coerce him into finishing work on the Death Star, a project he once headed before feeling guilty about, you know, building a WMD. So, because he knows they’ll go ahead with or without him, he deliberately adds a design flaw into the blueprints then sends word to the Rebels that they can destroy it. (Yes, that’s right: the narrative thrust of this film is based on explaining away a plot hole from the original Star Wars movie. Ever wonder why the Empire’s most important weapon self-destructs after a laser bolt is fired down a small exhaust port? Now you can find out!) The character doesn’t actually appear that much – just the prologue, a hologram message, a quick flashback, and his death scene – but Mikkelsen is good value and implies a lot with little screentime.

* Lyra Erso (Valene Kane) is Jyn’s mother. She’s killed by the bad guys early on.

* Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) is a Rebel who helps the young Jyn escape in the prologue scene. He then raises her (off-screen) before a parting of the ways. When he returns to the story – as a stepping stone on Jyn’s quest to find her dad – he’s in a bad way. He has mechanical legs and wheezes into an oxygen mask at regular intervals; he’s also broken from the Rebel Alliance and gone solo (and a bit loopy). It’s been rumoured that Gerrera was originally going to have a much bigger role in the story, but reshoots watered his contribution down. He certainly feels like an underdeveloped character who’s more of a diversion than a vital bit of storytelling. Whitaker opts for an irritating, raspy-voiced performance. (The character previously appeared in the animated TV show Star Wars: The Clone Wars, where he was voiced by Andrew Kishino.)

* Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) rescues Jyn from the Empire and takes her to a Rebel Alliance powwow to discuss the crisis. He’s a no-nonsense soldier who’s willing to kill an ally for the greater good. He then leads the mission to track down Galen – but unbeknown to Jyn, he’s been ordered to murder her father not rescue him. He later helps Jyn steal the Death Star plans. This theft involves playing a Crystal Maze skill game where he has to operate a mechanical arm in a giant multi-stack archive. Andor is the film’s Han Solo equivalent, though – like Jyn – is a relentlessly sombre character. The actor plays every scene, every moment, with the same level of energy. “You seem awfully tense all of a sudden,” Jyn says to him at one point. It’s an odd comment to make given that his behaviour and demeanour haven’t changed one iota since she met him. There’s no charm in the performance, no charisma, no irony, no fun.

* Tivik (Daniel Mays) is a nervous Rebel informant who doesn’t last very long: Luna executes him rather than risk him giving them away to some Stormtroopers.

* Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) is an Imperial pilot who defects to the Rebels, bringing with him a message from Galen that explains all about the Death Star’s in-built weakness. He’s initially held by Saw Gererra, who treats him like an ISIS hostage (and exposes him to a slobbering monster with tentacles that can shred his mind; thankfully for Bodhi, it leaves him compos mentis). After Gererra is killed, Bodhi joins the missions to find Galen and steal the blueprints. He also gets to name the film when he improvises a call sign for the team: rogue one. It’s a fun, jittery performance from Ahmed. It deserves more focus.

* K-2SO (voice and mo-cap performance by Alan Tudyk) is Andor’s sidekick, a former Imperial droid who’s been reprogrammed by the Rebels. He’s humanoid but about eight feet tall and very strong; his specialty is strategic analysis; and he says what he thinks. In a film populated by po-faced characters, K-2SO sticks out like a hilariously sore thumb with his deadpan humour and comedy timing. A CG creation, he’s voiced by Alan Tudyk with an English-ish accent. The actor has form for this kind of work – he also played a likeable android in 2004 film I, Robot.

* A number of Rebels attend an executive meeting at their Yavin IV base – ie, the one seen in the original Star Wars movie. Ooh, look, there’s the guy with a white beard who gives the briefing in the 1977 film (he’s been recast, of course). Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly) and Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits) crop up too and are cutely played by the actors who played them in the early 2000s Star Wars prequels. It’s a neat way to connect that trilogy with this new phase of movies.

* Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) is a blind mystic who Jyn and Andor meet on the planet Jedha. He seems drawn to Jyn, helps her evade some Stormtroopers, then joins the gang. He has a mantra (“I am one with the Force and the Force is with me”) and is very handy in a punch-up or gunfight. He also says he’s one of the guardians of the Whills, which is an obscure reference to early drafts of the original Star Wars script. The character is an interesting addition to the team, giving this muscular war movie a nice dose of mysticism and ambiguity.

* Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) is Chirrut’s mate, a dryly funny mercenary who carries around a huge backpack like he’s a Ghostbuster. He also joins the gang.

* C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (Jimmy Vee) share a throwaway cameo. It’s there solely to maintain the characters’ record of appearing in every Star Wars film. They play no role in the story.

* Gold Leader (Angus MacInnes) and Red Leader (Drewe Henley) are fighter pilots seen when the Rebels attack Scarif, the planet that contains the Imperial archive. The footage of these characters was actually filmed during the 1976 shoot for the first Star Wars movie. New backgrounds have been added to shots intended for that film’s climax. It’s a fun, subtle way of reinforcing that we’re in the same time period as the original trilogy. Drewe Henley coincidentally died while Rogue One was being filmed.

* Princess Leia (Ingvild Deila; voiced by an archive clip of Carrie Fisher) only appears in the final few seconds of the film and takes possession of the stolen Death Star plans on behalf of the Rebels. Because the scene is set literally minutes before the opening moments of the original Star Wars, Leia needed to look as she looked in that film. Therefore, CGI has been used to recreate a 19-year-old Carrie Fisher’s face and superimpose it onto a body double. It’s emblematic of Rogue One’s biggest problem: it’s so desperately eager to make references and connections to previous films that it doesn’t stop to consider that less is sometimes more. The moment smacks of over-explaining a joke or underlining the subtext, and Leia suddenly cropping up, having only been obliquely referred to, is pretty meaningless in the context of this story. (Admittedly, the overwhelming majority of viewers will still know who she is – but she’s played no role in Rogue One’s story at all.) Also, while the CG work is an astonishing achievement, it’s a tad unnerving too. The character’s baby-fat face glistens like she’s had plastic surgery, and the fact Fisher died while this film was on general release only adds to the sense that this well-intentioned idea should have been shelved.

BAD GUYS:

* Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) is the Imperial officer in charge of the Death Star construction. He forces Galen to work for him, then later demonstrates the station’s capabilities by destroying the city of Jedha. But Krennic is royally pissed off when his colleague Tarkin takes all the credit for the project’s success. So he kills his engineers, including Galen, out of spite. He’s a terrifically nasty character, who snarls his way through the movie. Mendelsohn is very watchable.

* Governor Tarkin (Guy Henry) is the officer in charge of the Imperial forces, reporting directly to the unseen Emperor. He clashes with Krennic and, in a rather strange decision, chooses to destroy his own archive *after* the Death Star plans have been stolen. (Hope they had everything else backed up.) Obviously, the character was one of the main baddies of the original Star Wars, so – as with Princess Leia – CG technology has been used to recreate how he looked in 1977. Holby City actor Guy Henry played the role on set, mimicking the late Peter Cushing’s voice and posture very entertainingly. Then a digital reconstruction of Cushing’s head has been superimposed onto his body in post-production. This kind of thing has been done before in the Terminator series and a recent X-Men film, but never for a character with so much dialogue and so nuanced a performance. It’s a really brave attempt at something genuinely ground-breaking (and something that will presumably now be done more and more in these kinds of films). But because it’s only 95-per-cent photorealistic – it’s the lip-sync that lets the side down – you do question whether they’d have been better off just having Guy Henry play the full role.

* Darth Vader (Spencer Wilding and Daniel Naprous; voiced by James Earl Jones) is the Emperor’s hatchet man. He lives on the planet Mustafar (last seen in Revenge of the Sith) – and when we first meet him he’s out of his famous battle suit and submerged in a tank. He’s summoned Krennic to a meeting to make sure he knows that the Emperor wants results. At first, the scene appears to be little more than a fan-pleasing cameo – it ratchets up the pressure on Krennic a bit, but could be deleted with no damage to the story – then you realise it’s also seeding the character for his role in the climax (see Best Action Sequence below)…

BEST ACTION SEQUENCE: The final few minutes of the film knock your socks off. For its third act, Rogue One becomes a full-on action movie and the intensity levels rise significantly. The Death Star plans have been stolen and the Rebels are attempting to flee the archive with them. However, Darth Vader is on their tail. He boards the Rebel ship and savagely, relentlessly cuts soldiers down with his lightsaber and Force powers: it’s a violent, intense sequence. The plans are finally smuggled on board another ship – which of course we recognise from the opening scene of Star Wars – and it flies away, Vader watching on… Run Rogue One and Star Wars back to back and the action flows across the two movies brilliantly.

BEST COMEDY MOMENT: K-2SO gets more funny lines than the rest of the script put together (and by some distance). A random gag: “I’ll be there for you,” he says to Jyn at one point. “Cassian said I had to.”

MUSIC: Not being part of the main Star Wars series, Rogue One doesn’t feel obligated to have a score by house composer John Williams. In his place comes Michael Giacchino (Lost, Jurassic World, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the Star Trek reboots). He provides some very John Williams-ish incidental music, which quotes and echoes the original trilogy a fair bit. The main theme is a bit underwhelming, but generally the music is very effective.

PERSONAL CONNECTION: I first saw Rogue One on Thursday 15 December 2016 at the Everyman Baker Street in London. I went with my pal Fraser Dickson and it was a significant day for us both. We’d just completed the final ever issue of All About Soap, a magazine we’d worked on for the previous 10 years.

REVIEW: This movie has a significantly different tone from the original Star Wars films or 2015’s series relaunch, The Force Awakens. It’s a tougher, harsher, less fun world populated by earnest characters dealing in life-and-death situations, and the swashbuckling zip of those earlier movies has gone missing. So has a sense of joy. Rogue One has regularly been called a war movie, so it was never going to be a laugh-a-minute. But that doesn’t mean everything has to be humourless or that the lead characters have to be so bland. Compare Rogue One with, for example, Aliens (1986). Both are science-fiction war movies, but Aliens is full of vibrancy and attitude and gallows humour and characters who grow and develop and who you care about. In contrast, Rogue One is disappointingly one-dimensional. The second half of the film is exciting and engaging, but before we reach the assault on the Imperial archive there’s over an hour of scenes where our heroes achieve little and learn even less. The story happens to them, rather than them being in control of events. Jyn is captured by the Rebels, blackmailed into going on a mission, stumbles across Saw Gererra by accident, can’t save her father… She’s not so much a character as a piece on a chess board, being moved around simply to keep the game going. (The reason the second half of the plot is more entertaining is because Jyn and Andor *decide to do things*.) Perhaps it would work better if those heroes were more interesting people, but the leads lack any personality beyond being moody and sullen. Some of the secondary characters fare better, especially the droll K-2SO and the twinkle-smiled Churrit, but they get little screen time in comparison. Another huge issue is the movie’s dogged obsession with other films. Rogue One is the cinematic equivalent of a tie-in novel, where providing cheeky in-jokes and dropping hints for fans is more important than telling a decent story. The connections to other Star Wars films (especially the 1977 original) soon mount up: a prop bottle full of blue milk, a pointless cameo for the bully who squares up to Luke Skywalker in the first film, a hologram of Jabba the Hutt’s dancing girl, an oblique mention of Obi-Wan Kenobi, a pointless appearance for C-3PO and R2-D2, repeated shots and sets and lines… Some people have criticised The Force Awakens for aping the earlier Star Wars films, but that movie was reusing themes and motifs, not shamelessly nodding and winking to the audience. And as well as specific postmodern nods, Rogue One is also hamstrung by being as prequel-y as a prequel can be. The plot is as much dictated by what needs to be in place for the ‘next’ film as it is by character choices – more, in fact. We can’t see the Death Star destroy a planet because the weapon’s use in Star Wars is its first ever, so here it just levels cities. The story’s heroes have to all die because otherwise literal-minded viewers would ask why they’re not in the 1977 movie. Tarkin has to take over running the Death Star so he’s there for the next film. It’s far from organic or breezy drama. But despite all that, there is a lot to admire in this movie. It’s never boring and has a real polish to its visuals. There’s a fantastic fidelity to the design work of the original Star Wars and also numerous striking images along the way: the barren, windswept planet seen in the prologue, an enormous collapsed statue of a Jedi in a desert, the apocalyptic finale. CGI is used with great discretion. The action scenes are often busy and well staged. The sound design is excellent. And the cast is the most culturally diverse yet in the Star Wars series. It’s just a shame it doesn’t have more heart.

Seven Kyber crystals out of 10

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015, JJ Abrams)

ForceAwakens

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Thirty years after the events of Return of the Jedi, resistance figurehead Luke Skywalker has gone missing. When a map of his location falls into the hands of a scavenger, she’s hunted down by the evil First Order…

WHICH VERSION? There’s only one. The on-screen title is Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens.

GOOD GUYS:

* BB-8 is a cute, very emotive, football-sized droid with a free-moving head that seems to defy the laws of gravity. His owner, Poe Dameron, gives him a map leading to Luke Skywalker’s whereabouts, but BB is then separated from Poe and meets a young woman called Rey… Creating a droid that could match the popularity of C-3PO and R2-D2 was an enormous challenge. BB-8 is an enormous success.

* Lor San Tekka (Max von Sydow) is an elderly man living on the planet Jakku who has information about Luke. He passes it on to Poe before being killed by the First Order, the fascist military organisation that has replaced the Empire defeated in the original trilogy. You can’t shake the feeling that Tekka should be more important than he probably is.

* Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is a pilot working for the resistance movement. He’s a boys’-own-adventure hero with a cool jacket and a winsome smirk. At the start of the film he’s collecting a zip drive from Tekka, but then the First Order attack. To keep it safe, Poe gives the information to BB-8 and is then captured. He later escapes with the help of a defecting stormtrooper called FN-2187, who Poe renames Finn… But Poe is seemingly killed when they crash back on Jakku (boo). Later, it’s revealed that he survived (yay) and we next see him leading a fleet of X-wings in to save our heroes from the bad guys. He also leads the resistance’s assault on the First Order’s base.

* Finn (John Boyega) is introduced as a stormtrooper called FN-2187. During his first ever mission, a colleague smears blood on his helmet so we can see which one he is (helpful!), but FN recoils at the horror of having to kill innocent people so decides to go AWOL. He helps prisoner Poe escape (because, he admits, he needs a pilot) and they quickly form a bond of friendship; Poe even suggests a new name: Finn. After Poe apparently dies, Finn wanders the desert planet of Jakku then bumps into BB-8 and a young scavenger girl called Rey. Together the trio do a runner when the First Order arrive looking for the droid. Embarrassed about his past, Finn lies and says he’s from the resistance. He fancies Rey but is scared of being caught, so soon decides to leave for a distant star system. However, when the First Order activate a weapon that can destroy entire planets, he chooses to stay and fight. He’s soon reunited with Poe, who didn’t die, and their manly hug is… sorry, there’s something in my eye. Teaming up with two legends from the old rebellion, Han Solo and Chewbacca, Finn heads off to rescue Rey, who’s been captured by the bad guys. During a final confrontation with lead baddie Kylo Ren, Finn is badly injured.

* Rey (Daisy Ridley) is a young, feisty, brave and resourceful woman living alone on Jakku. She survives by scavenging junk from crashed star destroyers; she lives in a derelict AT-AT walker; and she has a homemade doll of a rebel pilot. (She sure likes things from the original trilogy.) We learn that she’s been waiting on Jakku for her family to return, but it’s been a very long time since they abandoned her there. Joining forces with Finn and BB-8, who are on the run from the First Order, she suggests they steal an old, decrepit star ship to flee the planet. (The moment when the camera pans left and shows us the ship she means – the Millennium Falcon – made my cock surge when I first saw this film.) However, after leaving Jakku they’re very quickly captured by – how’s this for a coincidence?! – Han Solo and Chewbacca, the Falcon’s old owners. Han is soon impressed with Rey’s know-how and attitude so offers her a job. Later, while hiding in a friendly bar, Rey is drawn into a basement by distant voices. She finds a lightsabre in a chest, touches it and hallucinates: she sees a First Order ship, a hooded figure with a droid, bad guy Kylo Ren, and herself as a child being left on Jakku. (She also hears voices, which we recognise as Yoda, Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi – the first two are clips from old films but Ewan McGregor recorded new material as Kenobi.) The bar’s sage owner, Maz, explains that the lightsabre belonged to both Anakin Skywalker and his son, Luke. Presumably it was found on Bespin after Luke lost it in The Empire Strikes Back. (Maz says that’s a question for another film– I mean, time.) Freaked out, Rey runs off but is captured by Kylo Ren. She uses her nascent Force powers to resist his telepathy-rape, then to trick a stormtrooper into letting her go. She ends up fighting Kylo with Luke’s lightsabre; because she’s awesome she wins. (Oh, how John Williams’s music swells when she uses her telekinesis powers to pulls the weapon into her hand!) After the resistance’s victory over the First Order, Rey sets off with Chewbacca in the Millennium Falcon to find Luke Skywalker…

* Han Solo (Harrison Ford) has, since we last saw him, lost three of the loves of his life – he separated from Leia, his son turned evil, and someone stole the Millennium Falcon. At least Chewbacca is still at his side. When he finds the Falcon again, Han meets Rey and Finn, who recognise him as a smuggler, a general and a war hero. He’s about to throw them off his massive freighter when they let slip they’re on a mission for the resistance. At the mention of his old friend Luke Skywalker, Han confirms that all the myths about him are true. He tells us Luke’s star pupil defected to the bad guys, so Luke fled in shame – reportedly to find the first Jedi temple. Later, Han is reunited with Leia Organa – they clearly still love each other – and together with the rest of the resistance they plan an attack on the First Order base. Han leads the team sent to deactivate the planet’s shield (well, he did the job so well in Return of the Jedi) and the mission brings him into contact with his son – Kylo Ren. Han tries to get through to him, but Kylo kills him with a lightsabre. (I was just numb with shock when I first watched the death of my childhood hero – I had no idea it was coming.)

* Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) is still hanging out with Han. He’s injured in a fight with two rival gangs who want BB-8, then is later enraged when Han is murdered.

* Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o) is a short alien with sphincter-like eyes hidden behind massive glasses. She runs an out-of-the-way bar on a planet called Takodana. When Rey, Finn, Han, Chewy and BB-8 arrive, two customers of the bar clock the important droid – one reports back to the resistance, the other to the First Order. Maz is a CGI creation, but there’s no Jar Jar Binks dislocation here. She fits in with the real actors splendidly.

* General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) arrives on Takodana to rescue our heroes when the First Order attacks. There’s a touching reunion with Han and Chewy, who she clearly hasn’t seen for ages. Leia is more world-weary than the last time we saw her, but still a bad-ass leader: she ably co-ordinates the resistance’s attack on the First Order planet. When Han is killed, she senses his death via the Force and has to sit down. When Rey returns from the mission, they share their grief with a wordless hug. (Chewbacca, meanwhile, wanders off unnoticed. JJ Abrams has since admitted that Leia’s apparent lack of interest in him was a mistake.)

* C-3PO (Anthony Daniels, the only actor to be in all seven Star Wars movies) has lost an arm at some point since we last saw him. Its replacement is red for some reason. He hangs out with Leia at the resistance’s base. Also there is R2-D2, but he’s been in a low-power mode since Luke left. He switches back on near the end of the film to complete the map. (Now in his eighties, Kenny Baker couldn’t play R2 this time. He’s credited as a consultant.)

* Kalonia (Harriet Walter – yes, they cast Harriet Walter for a nine-word role) plays a dryly funny doctor who tends to an injured Chewbacca.

* Temmin ‘Snap’ Wexley (Greg Grunberg) is an X-wing pilot we see a couple of times. Grunberg is an old pal of JJ Abrams, who has cast him in many TV shows and films.

* Admiral Ackbar (Tim Rose) is still helping out the resistance, as is Nien Nunb (Mike Quinn). Both characters were in Return of the Jedi.

* Statura (Ken Leung) is another member of the resistance’s executive committee.

* Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill)… I’ve thought long and hard about this and have concluded that my single favourite moment in all of cinema – the most emotionally affecting, the most audacious, the most successful – is the final scene of this film. Rey uses the map to track down the planet where Luke Skywalker is in exile. The Millennium Falcon lands on a rocky island, and Rey begins to climb a steep footpath. There’s no dialogue, just bewilderingly emotive music. She climbs and climbs until finally she reaches the plateau, and standing on the cliff is a man in a hooded cloak. Slowly, he turns round to face her (and us) and pulls down his hood… Now, I’ve known who Mark Hamill is since I was a toddler. I’ve seen masses of behind-the-scenes footage and read many interviews; he was probably the first actor I knew by name. But when the character on the cliff turns round, it’s not Mark Hamill standing there. It’s *Luke Skywalker*. I can’t find a better way to explain this. In the moment I first saw this scene I was totally transported into the fiction: the real world didn’t exist. There was LUKE SKYWALKER, a hero of my childhood back after more than 30 years. Bear in mind that Luke had been absent from all the trailers and TV spots and promotional posters. And they’d held him back until the last few seconds of the film. He looks at Rey as she holds up his old lightsabre. Neither of them says anything… And roll credits. A stunning bit of storytelling.

BAD GUYS:

* Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) dresses all in black, wears a scary helmet and speaks in a deep, synthesised voice: he might be the film’s villain. There are early references to him having a mystery past, and then later we learn that he’s the son of Han Solo and Leia Organa. He looks about 30, so perhaps he was conceived on Endor after his parents first got some alone time. They called their child Ben. Yes, he was named after the pseudonym used by Obi-Wan Kenobi – a bloke Leia never met and Han knew for an afternoon. Luke tried training the lad in the ways of the Force, but it went wrong and Ben turned evil; he renamed himself Kylo Ren and rose to be a bigwig with the fascist First Order. He gets angry very easily and talks to the burnt helmet of his grandfather Darth Vader: FRUITLOOP. After capturing Rey, who has seen the map leading to Luke, Kylo is frustrated when she resists him. He then encounters his dad, Han, for the first time in a long while. After a heart-to-heart, Kylo kills him, which pretty much guarantees that the character can never be redeemed a la Anakin Skywalker. (Some things you can’t forgive.) He then confronts Rey and Finn, injuring them both before Rey fights back.

* Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) is a silver-suited stormtrooper leader. She’s basically Guard #1.

* General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) is the military leader of the First Order, who butts heads with Kylo Ren. They seem to be of equal rank. He later gives a foaming-mouth, Hitler-like speech to thousands of soldiers.

* Colonel Kaplan (Pip Torrens) gets a line or two. Another First Order officer-type is played by Thomas Brodie-Sangster, while Daniel Craig did an uncredited cameo as a stormtrooper.

* Supreme Leader Snoke… or possible Snote? Smote? Snate? Spoke? Spote? Stoke-on-Trent? Why can’t I lock this name in my head? …(Andy Serkis via motion-capture-driven CGI) is the shadowy boss of the First Order. We only ever see this alien creature via a hologram projection, so we don’t know if he’s actually 50 feet tall or whether he has his communicator’s settings too high.

BEST ACTION SEQUENCE: How to pick just one? For the sheer elation it creates, the X-wings gliding across the water is worth mentioning. But the action is uniformly excellent.

BEST COMEDY MOMENT: Oh, so many choices. Finn not being able to find a specific tool (Rey: “No. No. No. The one I’m pointing to!”). Finn colluding with BB-8. Almost anything BB-8 does, in fact. Finn giving Chewbacca medical attention. Kalonia giving Chewbacca medical attention. Han and Leia’s good-natured bickering (thank you, the universe, for letting me live long enough to see more of this). The hynoptised stormtrooper dropping his gun. The stormtroopers turning round and walking away when they hear Kylo Ren throwing a tantrum. Finn taunting Captain Phasma. And much more. It’s the funniest Star Wars film yet.

MUSIC: Well, it was never going to be shit, was it? John Williams continues his monopoly of scoring Star Wars. The use of classic themes from the original trilogy works sensationally well.

PERSONAL CONNECTION: I first saw this movie on Friday 18 December 2015 at the Everyman Baker Street in London with Fraser Dickson. The film had been released the day before and I’d spent 24 hours avoiding spoilers. It was worth it. Seeing this film knowing next to nothing about the plot was one of *the* joys of my adult life.

REVIEW: As soon as it starts you know you’re in safe hands. The standard Star Wars opening – logos, burst of music, crawl of text with full-cap words and ellipsis – is in place, and it’s followed by an opening shot full of scale. This movie looks like Star Wars, it sounds like Star Wars, and it feels like Star Wars. Part of the reason for that is because the film deliberately echoes elements from the 1970s/80s trilogy. The story, the dialogue, the character types, the production design, the cinematography, the locations… I won’t attempt to list all the specific correlations between this film and the originals, but there are many. (A Google search throws up numerous lists.) It’s in keeping with the storytelling formula used by George Lucas, the former creative boss. Similar things happen to different generations. And this new generation – courageous Rey, headstrong Finn, dashing Poe, adorable BB-8 – are charismatic, fun, interesting and worthy successors to Luke, Leia, Han and co. Speaking of those characters, what a brave choice it is to hold them back. Han and Chewy don’t appear until the 38-minute mark; Leia and C-3PO not until 76 minutes, Luke not until after 121 minutes. It’s amazing chutzpah to resist showing Luke Skywalker for over two hours. It builds a wonderful tension in the plot, and brilliantly the classic characters are not just meaningless cameos. They’re integral to the story, and are found in instantly interesting situations. In the 1990s there were Star Wars spin-off novels set years after Return of the Jedi. Han and Leia were happily married with twins on the way; the Empire had been defeated; everyone had puppies. This film wisely ignores all that. *Of course* Han and Leia wouldn’t last, it says. *Of course* Han would go back to smuggling. *Of course* there’d still be bad guys in the universe. The Force Awakens might be a love letter to the first three movies, but it’s still a drama. On a technical level, the film is even more impressive. For a start, it’s just so wonderfully *there*. It feels physical, palpable, with heft and weight and a sense of reality. After the cartoony artifice of the prequels, this makes a geek’s heart sing. Also, like in the films directed by Abrams’s hero Steven Spielberg, the frame is often packed full of detail yet – crucially – never feels cluttered. There’s great energy in the direction, but it’s always controlled and focused. The camera moves for good reasons: to tell us about character, to develop the story, to sell a gag. As good as many recent genre films have been, this is just a more polished style of filmmaking. Many shots take your breath away with either their audacity or their economy – or both – but the film is never showing off. It’s a film where the focus-pulling is impressive, for pity’s sake. Are there flaws? Probably. There’s too much quoting of old Star Wars movies. The First Order’s planet-destroying weapon is Abrams plagiarising himself (see 2009’s Star Trek). It’s sometimes not clear where planets are in relation to each other. Snoke doesn’t fit with the tone of the rest of the film. But do I care? Not in the slightest.

Ten moof-milkers out of 10