Film review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens is bold but beautiful, nostalgic but new

What really surprises in the film, however, is the powerful emotion of it all. Hearing C-3PO chatter away or watching a lightsaber ignite brings an automatic lump to the throat.

New characters Rey (Daisy Ridley) and BB-8 make their debut with Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens. Film Frame / Lucasfilm / Disney
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Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens

Director: J J Abrams

Starring: Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac

Five stars

When Disney bought Lucasfilm and the George Lucas-created Star Wars franchise, you could have been be forgiven for echoing the sci-fi saga’s much-used phrase: “I have a bad feeling about this.”

But fans can rest easy – Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens marks a sensational return to that galaxy far, far away. Directed by J J Abrams, Episode VII is the Star Wars film you're looking for: bold but beautiful, nostalgic but new.

Set 30 years after the events of 1983's Episode VI – Return of the Jedi, a new militaristic organisation, The First Order, has risen from the ashes of the defeated Empire. Luke Skywalker, the young hero of the original trilogy, played by Mark Hamill, has vanished. And the mysterious Jedi knights, of which he is the last, have once again slipped into myth and legend.

Where is Luke? That's a question that drives much of the plot of The Force Awakens, as his sister Leia (Carrie Fisher) – the one-time princess, now a general leading of the resistance – sends her most daring pilot, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), to the desert planet of Jakku – the scenes set on which were filmed in Abu Dhabi – to pick up his trail. There, he meets an old ally – played by the venerable veteran actor Max von Sydow, whose presence immediately echoes Luke's encounter with Alec Guinness in 1977's Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope.

Accompanied by BB-8 – the new, spherical Droid that rivals series stalwart R2-D2 in the cuteness stakes – Dameron’s mission introduces an array of new characters. The main pair are scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley), who has been abandoned on Jakku by her parents, and Finn (John Boyega), a stormtrooper with a conscience who goes rogue after finding the goodness inside himself.

Standing opposite them is Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), The First Order’s masked apprentice who leads the charge to find and destroy Luke Skywalker.

But the real emotion in the film comes with the return of space pirate Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and his 7ft-tall Wookie sidekick Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), who instantly restore to the series the humour and warmth that was missing from Lucas’ disastrous 1999-2005 prequel trilogy.

Abrams, who already rescued the Star Trek franchise from limbo with two credible reboot movies, innately understands the key elements that make a Star Wars movie. Boasting the talents of screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, who co-wrote the saga's high-point, 1980's Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back, the film revisits the father-son theme of the original trilogy, albeit with a smart twist.

Locations, props, characters and set-ups also deliberately recall past adventures.

The action is visceral and vivid – not least an early sequence in which Ridley’s Rey takes control of Han Solo’s “hunk of junk” spacecraft The Millennium Falcon, flying it in and out of the wreckage of Star Destroyers in Jakku’s desert, with The First Order’s TIE Fighters in hot pursuit.

But it's the texture of the film that really impresses: this is a Star Wars film you feel you can touch – another thing that was missing from Lucas' CGI-heavy prequels.

What really surprises, however, is the powerful emotion of it all. Yes, hearing C-3PO chatter away or watching a lightsaber ignite brings an automatic lump to the throat.

But this Star Wars earns its tears, with killer character arcs and a final shot that is arguably the best the series has delivered in all its 38 years. The force is most certainly strong in this one.