An in-depth guide to Star Wars: The Force Awakens

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AS Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford prepare to revisit the Star Wars universe, Alistair Harkness offers a seven part guide to the new film

A New Hope

Daisy Ridley in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Daisy Ridley in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

It’s unlikely anyone feels the force of intergenerational Star Wars fandom more intensely than JJ Abrams. The director in charge of re-launching cinema’s most feverishly obsessed-over sci-fi saga was so terrified of screwing up something he’s loved since he was 11 years old he turned The Force Awakens down initially, its potentially poisoned-chalice-status exacerbated, perhaps, by George Lucas’s own much maligned prequels. But there was never going to be a more appropriate candidate than Abrams either – and not just because his Star Trek films proved he could reinvigorate a beloved sci-fi franchise that had gone off the boil. As a 15-year-old auteur of his own backyard blockbusters, Abrams was hired to restore Steven Spielberg’s home movies by Kathleen Kennedy, who at the time was Spielberg’s producer but is now the president of Lucasfilm and thus the current overseer of all things Star Wars. Look, it was his destiny, OK?

The Empire Strikes Back

Rumours of a sequel trilogy to the original Star Wars films have been circulating since the first movie broke all box-office records in 1977. Ironically nothing concrete came to light until creator George Lucas announced his retirement in 2012 by selling off Lucasfilm and the Star Wars franchise to Disney. Memes featuring the Death Star with Mickey Mouse ears immediately went viral as fans vented about the possible “Disneyfication” of the Star Wars universe, conveniently ignoring that Disney had already incorporated Pixar and Marvel into its fold without cramping either’s style. But having paid $4.05 billion for Lucas’s wares, there was no way they weren’t going make more Star Wars movies.

Return of the Jedi

Director JJ Abrams on the set of Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Director JJ Abrams on the set of Star Wars: The Force Awakens

One of the key things Lucas did before selling up was convince Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford to reprise their iconic roles as Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia and Han Solo. Though Abrams and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan (who co-wrote The Empire Strikes Back) didn’t use Lucas’s story treatments, they seized upon his casting coup, opting to set the new film three decades on from the demise of Darth Vader. Rejoining the saga in real time as new political organisation the First Order begins to reveal more than a passing admiration for the ways of the old Galactic Empire, what hooked Abrams was the idea of telling this story from the perspective of a younger generation who’ve grown up hearing all the old tales of Luke Skywalker not knowing if they were true. He reassured prequel-haters too, with those trailer shots of Han Solo and Chewbacca once again at the helm of the Millennium Falcon.

The Phantom Menace

One of the chief beefs with the prequels was their over-reliance on CGI. For the new film, Abrams wanted to evoke the tactile feel of the original trilogy by mixing digital technology with practical effects, real locations, actor-in-suit aliens, animatronics and working robots. The spherical BB8 – the R2D2-esque robot glimpsed in the trailers (R2 and C-3P0 are back too by the way) – is just one of the many new creations that had a physical presence on set. Not all the new creatures were done old school, though. Andy Serkis has brought his motion capture skills to bear on Supreme Leader Snoke, reportedly the Emperor Palpatine of this series, and 12 Years A Slave Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o plays a mo-capped alien pirate by the name of Maz Kanata. But those fearing Jar Jar Binks-style overload needn’t worry. Abrams has already distanced himself from the real menace of the Star Wars saga by hinting at the symbolic inclusion of a background shot of the aforementioned Gungan’s grave.

Attack of the Clones

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

The trick of any reboot is to replicate without repeating: everyone wants Star Wars to feel like Star Wars, but no one wants it to be a clone of what’s come before. The Force Awakens takes care of the emotional nostalgia with the returning cast and the John Williams score, but Abrams seems determined to subvert expectations in order to keep things fresh, setting those X-Wing/Tie-Fighter dogfights in broad daylight, for instance, or giving the stormtroopers – led by towering Game of Thrones star Gwendoline Christie’s chrome-plated Captain Phasma – a sleeker design more in keeping with our own Apple-dominated tech world. As for the new leads, Attack the Block’s John Boyega has said his character, Finn, has a real kinship with Han Solo, but he’s also an AWOL stormtrooper with perhaps a larger significance to the Star Wars universe. And at the centre of the saga, Daisy Ridley’s desert scavenger Rey has a distinctive Skywalker vibe about her. Might it be her Luke Skywalker is addressing when he says in the trailer: “The Force is strong in my family… ”? Maybe.

Revenge of the Sith

Or maybe it’s Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren. The While We’re Young star’s casting as a Darth Vader fanboy who sees the fallen Sith Lord as something of a martyr sent the internet into meltdown when the first teaser – depicting him wielding a cross-guard lightsaber – appeared a year ago. Given that Star Wars movies have always emerged during periods of intense real-world strife (post Vietnam, post-9/11…) it’s hardly surprising that the dark side of the Force seems so prominent in the new film given what’s going on in the world.

The Force Awakens

John Boyega in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

John Boyega in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Also being reawakened is the full force of the hype machine. Memories of the prequels haven’t dampened pre-release excitement and speculation is rife about whether or not this will top Avatar to become the highest grossing film of all time (William Hill is currently offering 12/5 odds that it will). Regardless of what Episode VII eventually earns, Episode VIII (directed by Looper’s Rian Johnson) and Episode IX (directed by Jurassic World’s Colin Trevorrow) will be in cinemas in 2017 and 2019. Godzilla director Gareth Edwards, meanwhile, is already in production on Rogue One, the first of what could be an endless stream of so-called standalone “anthology” films. Star Wars may already have a been constant part of pop culture for much of the last 38 years, but its presence is going to be felt for a very long time to come.

• Star Wars: The Force Awakens is on general release from 17 December

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca and Harrison Ford as Han Solo

Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca and Harrison Ford as Han Solo

Adam Driver as Kylo Ren

Adam Driver as Kylo Ren

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