My inner 10-year-old and I review 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens'

CNET's Rich Trenholm calls on his loquacious younger self to see if "Star Wars: The Force Awakens", a galactic greatest-hits, lives up to the film's endless hype.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
Expertise Films, TV, Movies, Television, Technology
Richard Trenholm
5 min read
Watch this: 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' spoiler-free review

The Millennium Falcon goes upside down and the screen goes upside down! BB-8 is the cutest! New Star Wars is the best! Pew pew!

Um, sorry. My inner 10-year-old is just a little bit excited right now because I just saw "Star Wars: The Force Awakens". Few things make you feel like a kid the way Star Wars does, so as the film finally zooms into theatres, I took my younger self along to help review it. What did 10-year-old Rich think of the new film, and did jaded adult Rich agree?

Directed by J.J. Abrams, "The Force Awakens" is the first Star Wars film in a new trilogy set some years after "Return of the Jedi" brought the curtain down on the original series. The film sees new characters Rey, Finn and Poe teaming up to take on the evil First Order, risen from the ashes of the Empire and led by the dastardly Kylo Ren. Along the way they meet...

10-year-old Rich: No spoilers!

Adult Rich: Oh right, sorry. We've avoided spoilers, but if you want to see the film with entirely fresh eyes, come back to this review afterwards. Anyway, the good news is that Abrams has obviously learned from the much-maligned CGI-heavy Star Wars prequels and returns instead to the practical effects of the classic trilogy. "Force Awakens" is anchored in lush, concrete locations, teeming with very real-feeling creatures of all shapes and sizes. It's pretty glorious after the bobbing video game sprites of the prequels.

10-year-old Rich: The aliens are so cool. They're better when they look real.

Adult Rich: The jarring exception is when one major character, not seen in the trailers, turns out to be an all-CGI creation that really stands out from the satisfyingly physical beings seen elsewhere in the film. It's a shame the CGI undermines the gravity of a crucial character.

But while it's harking back to the feel of the original films, "The Force Awakens" also comes down to earth rather than lingering in the rarified setting of the Jedi council and the Galactic Senate like the prequels. "The Force Awakens" hangs out in the dusty, junky underbelly of the galaxy, filled with clunker spaceships and the scummy, villainous dregs of galactic society.

10-year-old Rich: There's smugglers and space pirates and monsters! There's running around and shooting stuff and blowing stuff up and fighting and chasing. It's not like those other ones where they're all just talking.

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Adult Rich: The prequels, yes. Thankfully, Abrams clearly gets Star Wars in a way he doesn't get Star Trek, the other venerable series he recently took charge of. This is, after all, the guy who took the adventures of the Starship Enterprise and casually threw in a way for people to travel without starships. Oh, and he cured death. We can all breathe a sigh of relief that there are no such clanging missteps in his vision for the Star Wars universe. Well, apart from the bit where someone who isn't a Jedi manages to successfully use a lightsaber, which doesn't feel quite right.

Abrams does follow his Star Trek formula though. In his Trek reboot, Abrams reinvented the familiar characters and stories with a 21st-century face-lift, and he's basically done the same thing here -- only instead of the torturous time-travel nonsense that holed "Star Trek" and "Star Trek into Darkness" below the waterline, he simply dumps a load of information in the introductory title crawl and cracks on with it before you can ask too many questions. For instance, the rebels are the rebels again, even though they won last time.

10-year-old Rich: They're called the Resistance now, so it's different.

Adult Rich: I see. The bad guys are snooty, sneering uniformed types, but they're called the First Order now so that's different too. TIE fighters and X-Wings do dogfights but it's totally different because they're not in space. There's lots of Stormtroopers too but apparently they're different because some of them are silver.

A plucky little droid holds the key to defeating the baddies. A masked black-clad devotee of the Dark Side kneels before a shadowy master. The Force is awakened by...

10-year-old Rich: Oooh, here's a funny bit with Chewbacca!

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Adult Rich: Quite. Basically, "The Force Awakens" feels like a Star Wars greatest hits. The backdrops even echo the original trilogy as the story zips from a desert planet, as seen in "A New Hope", to forest and ice worlds, like those of "Return of the Jedi" and "The Empire Strikes Back", stopping in on a bustling bar filled with weird and wonderful aliens just like in the very first film. And it builds to an ending that seems tacked on because that's how Star Wars movies end, not because it fits with the rest of the story.

Fans will spot that Abrams delves into the archives of George Lucas' creation, throwing in the name Starkiller -- Luke Skywalker's name in early drafts of "Star Wars" -- and an angry Scottish man chasing Han Solo over a business deal, which was the original vision for Jabba the Hutt.

In its defence, however, it's a greatest-hits cranked up to 11.

10-year-old Rich: The Millennium Falcon spins and the TIE fighters blow up! There's Stormtroopers and Star Destroyers and X-Wings and everything! Chewie is funny and Han shoots people without even looking! The baddies are really evil. Captain Phasma is the best Stormtrooper, although she doesn't really do anything actually. Finn is funny. Rey does loads, she's brilliant.

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Adult Rich: Yes, playing Rey, Daisy Ridley carries most of the story as the lonely scavenger torn from her family. Rey is, essentially, a Star Wars fangirl. She lives amid the relics of the original movies, playing with X-Wing pilot dolls and delighting in the legends of the rebel alliance.

10-year-old Rich: Rey doesn't let anyone scare her and she doesn't need anybody to help her. She's like Leia.

Adult Rich: That's right, and Leia returns too, with Carrie Fisher giving the orders and once again showing the burden of balancing duty and love. Harrison Ford takes to playing the careworn but still roguish Han Solo as if he's been thawed out specially for the occasion, and the scenes between Fisher and Harrison Ford are heartbreaking.

On the baddie side, Domhnall Gleeson gives it his best Nazi lip curl as the ginger general in charge of the Stormtroopers, although he doesn't look old enough -- Gleeson is 32 -- to command an army.

10-year-old Rich: 32 is ooooold.

Adult Rich: The standout performance comes from Adam Driver as the hunched, stalking Kylo Ren, his lightsaber spitting and his command of the Dark Side reaching heights of villainy that challenge Darth Vader himself.

10-year-old Rich: Kylo Ren is like Darth Vader, he's bad but he's also sort of the best. I like Rey and Finn too, it's sad that they're all orphans so it's good that they find each other. It's like a fairy tale or a myth or something.

Adult Rich: So did you like "The Force Awakens"?

10-year-old Rich: Well, yeah. It's Star Wars!

Adult Rich: It is. It really is.

"Star Wars: The Force Awakens" opens in the UK and Australia on December 17 and the US on December 18.

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