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The Force is strong in this one
THERE is a signature moment early on in Star Wars: The Force Awakens when - after he is reunited with his rustbucket of a spaceship the Millennium Falcon - Han Solo (Harrison Ford) turns to his trusty Wookiee sidekick Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and says with undisguised affection: "Chewie, we're home." For millions of Star Wars fans across this galaxy and beyond, the feeling is entirely mutual.
It may have been a long time coming - and more than 30 years since Episode VI (Return of the Jedi, 1983) - but after the collective aberration of Episodes I, II and III (The Phantom Menace, 1999; Attack of the Clones, 2002 and Revenge of the Sith, 2005) Episode VII, or The Force Awakens, signals a welcome return to form for the epic space adventure series that features some of the most beloved characters in movie history.
Three years after Star Wars creator George Lucas sold Lucasfilm to Disney for just over US$4 billion, the first return (not counting the billions earned by merchandising tie-ins) on what figures to be a highly lucrative investment arrives in the form of Episode VII, directed by JJ Abrams and written by Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt.
Abrams is an unreserved Star Wars fanboy and his decision to deliver an uncomplicated story that takes its cue from episodes IV, V and VI - stocked with thrilling aerial battles, near-misses, light humour and the familiar sound of lightsabers being activated - gives viewers what they have been craving: an old-fashioned action-adventure, laced with a good measure of fun.
The lines between good and evil are clearly drawn and we're given the opportunity to simply root for old friends - and a crop of appealing new ones too.
The latest episode, which takes place about 30 years after Return of the Jedi, bears more than a passing resemblance to the original trilogy - only updated, upsized and improved by modern technology.
The desert-like planet Tatooine is now called Jakku, the bad-guys have morphed from the Galactic Empire into the First Order and their HQ is not the Death Star but Starkiller Base. Meanwhile, the spirit of a young Luke Skywalker is channelled through Rey (Daisy Ridley), a feisty, independent-minded scavenger of scrap metal with a mysterious past. It turns out The Force is strong in her as well.
She crosses paths with Finn (John Boyega), a disaffected Stormtrooper who has escaped the First Order with help from Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), an ace X-wing pilot for the resistance. Poe's droid BB-8 (subbing nicely for R2-D2) holds the secret to finding the missing Luke (Mark Hamill) and when Rey and Finn team up with Han and Chewie to return the droid to the resistance - led by General Leia (Carrie Fisher) - it's just like old times.
The Dark Side of the ledger is represented by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a First Order Commander and Darth Vader-wannabe who is given to throwing tantrums and trashing rooms with his lightsaber when things don't go his way.
He and General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) report directly to Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), a wrinkly, plus-sized hologram who resides in a darkened room and is given to the usual pronouncements about wreaking death and destruction.
The old gang may be creaky but it holds its own while Boyega, and especially Ridley, breathe vibrant new life into the storied franchise. The Force Awakens drags in parts but the spirit of the original is present and its incredible fan base will surely overlook some minor missteps and send this film into the box-office stratosphere.
When Poe plans a climactic attack on the First Order Base, calling for resistance fighters to "disable shields, take out the oscillator and blow up their big gun", an unmistakable air of anticipation fills the cinema.
Then John Williams' all-conquering score swells - a sure indication that all will be right in the world again. Let the next countdown begin: only 18 months to go until Episode VIII.