So here it is at last. The biggest film of 2015. The latest instalment in one of the most influential, beloved and box-office-destroying franchises of all time. The nexus of the largest hype vortex in popular entertainment.

Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens arrives creaking under the weight of a super aggressive marketing campaign, reams of articles both in print and online and the anticipation of a fan base numbering in the hundreds of millions. Can it possibly live up to expectations?

In a word, ‘yes’. While the avalanche of publicity is such that some movie-goers may expect the film’s end credits to be accompanied by the sun imploding (it doesn’t), J.J. Abrams has managed to produce a film that will probably be a fan favourite long after the hype hurricane peters out. It’s that good. In fact, it’s the best Star Wars film since A New Hope. Possibly even Empire.

Reviewing The Force Awakens feels like a delicate task, because anyone who sees it basically becomes a walking spoiler factory. It goes without saying that anyone who walks into The Force Awakens knowing as little as possible about the film will probably enjoy it more than those currently seeking out as much information as they can. To that end, htxt.africa is going to assume that if you fall into the former camp, you aren’t reading this review. If you are, one can assume you have watched the trailers, read the articles and followed the rumour mill rigorously.

With that in mind, this review isn’t spoiling much by revealing the following: The Force Awakens is set around 30 years after the end of Return Of The Jedi. The fallen Galactic Empire has regrouped under the banner of The First Order and the Rebel Alliance, who recognise the need to keep them in check, are now called The Resistance. Both factions are seeking… something that will give them an edge in their battle against their enemy and events conspire to plant two young protagonists right in the middle of these two warring groups.

For any further plot revelations, you’ll have to watch the film, but we can reveal the story and screenplay by J.J. Abrams, Michael Amdt and Lawrence Kasdan manages the extraordinary trick of placing Star Wars fans in pretty familiar territory while at the same time making the entire endeavour feel fresh and novel. Certain plot developments will strike fans as a little overly familiar but the energy and humour that pervades throughout The Force Awakens provides a get-out cause for this complaint.

Perhaps the most glowing praise that can be heaped on The Force Awakens is that it feels like vintage Star Wars. The story develops at a galloping pace, although it never once feels hurried or forced. One moment characters are conversing in snappy banter that helps ground the audience in the ‘galaxy far away’ and in the next they’re at the centre of action set-pieces that are simply dazzling. It ticks all the right boxes; lightsaber battles are athletic and desperate, dogfights are breakneck and thrilling and there’s even room for a couple of exchanges that pack a great deal of emotional heft. At times, The Force Awakens even brings back the odd scene that inspires goosebump-inflected dread – similar to the moment when the audience realised the heroes weren’t alone in the trash compactor in A New Hope or when the Mynocks latched themselves onto the Millennium Falcon in Empire.

There is a sense in The Force Awakens that it heralds something of a changing of the guard. As the new characters rub shoulders with the Star Wars veterans – who in the context of this story are walking legends – the story pays homage to the franchise’s lineage while establishing the new generation that is destined to clash in future films. It’s handled respectfully and some scenes may cause long time fans to well up a little.

J.J. Abrams has essentially accomplished what only a fanboy-turned-franchise-director could do; he’s made a movie that will eradicate the bad taste of the prequels, reignite the appeal of Star Wars in old fans and laid out a tantalising first serving in a planned trilogy. The only downside to the film is fans now have to wait to see where the story goes next. The Force Awakens is exciting, melodramatic and an absolute blast to sit through. It’s a film that will have Star Wars fans and newbies alike punching the air as they leave the cinema.

Verdict A glorious return to the galaxy far away 100%