I held this post a few days both to let my own thoughts settle and to prevent any accidental spoilage, but at this point, consider what follows to be filled with tons of spoilers. I'm writing this assuming you've seen the movie already. If you haven't, and don't want to be spoiled, don't read below the image.
So there's a new Star Wars movie out now, and that's pretty awesome. Sitting in a theater, the LucasFilm Ltd. logo shimmering to life followed by "a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away" heralding the blast of the main theme and the title card, well, that's the experience all other movies aspire towards for me, and I'd be lying if I said I didn't get a little teared up the first time, just knowing that I was experiencing something I never thought I'd get to experience again, an experience I'll be able to share with my son someday (because now they're going to keep making these movies til long after we're all dead).
But beyond that, the movie was also pretty good. I have some nitpicks, some things I wish they'd done differently, but for the most part, it was a very enjoyable Star Wars movie, on par with the rest of the films in the saga.
Some Things I Didn't Like
I know Abrams and company wanted to do everything they could to lure in forty-something fans of the Original Trilogy who were jaded by the Prequels (and if you're one of those fans, and you didn't like this...I dunno, maybe Star Wars isn't your thing after all?), but I could have done with a little less rigid adherence to the structure of A New Hope, specifically the Empire-like organization building another planet killing superweapon that needs to be destroyed by flying down a trench and blowing up its weak spot, after Han does something on the ground that lowers the shields (obviously, that last bit is recycled from Jedi). Yes, Han hung a lampshade on it during the briefing scene, which helps, but still, they could have followed the basic structure of A New Hope and still varied those details a bit more.
In terms of structure, I also wasn't too wild about the Han/death gangs/Rathtar showdown sequence - of all the action scenes in the movie, it felt the most gratuitous and Abrams-esque (it reminded me a lot of the "Kirk is chased by a monster on Hoth" sequence from Star Trek). Han gets plenty of other opportunities to shine, and while it did a little to build Rey and Finn's characters, it probably could have been cut without sacrificing too much of that development.
For as many callbacks to the Original Trilogy that were put in (stuff like Luke's training remote and the Dejerik board aboard the Falcon), I would have liked at least one or two pre-existing worlds (like Coruscant) mentioned, at least, and it would have been nice if the new cantina scene had included a few pre-existing alien species from the original cantina, Jabba's palace, or the old Expanded Universe, just to help make the film feel more like a part of that larger world.
Two things the Prequels did really well that this movie needed: first, the Prequels were very clear about what the state of the galaxy, politically-speaking, was throughout the story, the relationship between the Republic, the Trade Federation and the Separatists, as well as the role of the Jedi within those governmental frameworks. Whereas in The Force Awakens, the relationship between the First Order, the Resistance and the New Republic, and how they relate to the former Empire and Rebel Alliance, is extremely muddy (at best). Reading the visual dictionary for this movie (published by DK) sheds some much needed light on this, which helps a lot, but while A New Hope had it easy (the bad guys are in charge) and nobody (except maybe me) wants a Prequels-style sentatorial debate over the nature of democracy in the galaxy, a little more clarity on the relationship of the new political entities would have been nice.
Secondly, the thing the Prequels did best was lightsaber fights. Revenge of the Sith was lousy with them, they more or less salvaged Attack of the Clones, and arguably the best one ever is in The Phantom Menance. The one we got in The Force Awakens was pretty cool, but I wanted more. You can never have enough laser sword fights involving superhuman warrior monks!
(And I understand this was a structural limitation made by the decision to chronicle the awakening of new Force sensitive individuals, but at the same time, the story Han told of Luke training a new generation of Jedi only to run afoul of a bad apprentice is something I'd very much like to see on film, even if, understandably, Abrams and company didn't want to kickoff their new film series by telling that story).
The Things I Did Like
As a vehicle for introducing a new generation of Star Wars heroes, the movie succeeded astonishingly well (even if, ultimately, Kylo Ren turned out to be kind of a chump). Rey, in particular, was tons of fun to watch, moreso than I was anticipating, and I'm legitimately excited to see what happens to the character next. Also, for as much as the plot of the film borrowed its structure liberally from A New Hope, the creators did a masterful job of making sure the central three heroes (Rey, Finn and Poe) weren't just straight analogs of Luke, Han, and Leia. Poe starts off as Leia (delivering secret plans in a droid, captured & tortured, only to be rescued by someone in Stormtrooper attire), but by the end, he's Luke at the end of A New Hope, blowing up the Death Star, with a touch of Han in his cocky bravado. Finn is Luke for awhile, rescuing Poe and wielding Luke's lightsaber, but he's also Han, the former Imperial cadet-turned-traitor, defusing tension with humor. Rey is obviously most like Luke, another Force sensitive laborer on a backwater, desert planet yearning for more, and an accomplished pilot in her own right, but like Han, she shows an affinity for the Millennium Falcon, both in terms of flight and mechanical aptitude, and like Leia, she does a pretty effective job of rescuing herself when the boys come up short.
Hands down my single favorite moment of the film was when Rey Force summoned Luke's lightsaber away from Kylo Ren as the Force theme burst to life.
Similarly, my favorite single image from the movie is the shot of Rey and Kylo Ren forming a slash of lightsaber blades, as Rey forces his blade down while extending her's upward.
Chewie's bowcaster! I'm pretty sure that's the first time we've actually seen the dang thing fire in a movie - all throughout the OT, he usually ended up using a confiscated weapon (we also saw him use his fingers in detail, for the first time, I believe).
I honestly wasn't sure if we'd get any familial revelations this movie, but it turns out that they gave us at least one (and to their credit, it wasn't held until the climax). So one half of the "Rey and Kylo Ren are the Solo twins" theory is intact, with Kylo revealed to be Ben Solo (thus keeping the Ben Skywalker and Jacen Solo of EU fame alive, sort of). The Star Wars saga is, ultimately, a saga about family, and just as the Anakin/Luke dynamic drove much of the first two trilogies, it looks like the Solo family is going to be the main relationship of the new one (I'm still not sure if Rey is Kylo's sister or his cousin; given the way everyone, from Han to Leia to Kylo, seemed to give her the side-eye upon meeting her, it seems likely she's someone's kid or relative).
Han's death - well-executed, I'm really glad he tried to bring back his son, and Adam Driver did a great job selling the conflict in Kylo Ren in that moment without saying a word. Plus, with Han gone, there's more room for Luke awesomeness in subsequent films.
Speaking of Luke, I'm really glad he showed up wearing Jedi robes at the end there - one of the only overt references to something from the Prequel Trilogy in the film.
The sound design work whenever Kylo Ren used the Force was really impressive - it sounded raw and jagged, reinforcing the notion that he's powerful but largely untrained.
The montage of images Rey experienced when she first held Luke's lightsaber was not only a neat tease of backstory and, presumably, plotlines for future movies to explore, but it also featured the voices of Ewan McGregor & Alec Guiness as Obi-Wan, and it represents a unique stylistic departure for the series, which usually tells its stories in real time, without flashbacks or flashforwards (for example, Luke's Force vision of his friends in danger on Cloud City in Empire is depicted via his words, as the audience watches him, rather than showing the audience what he's seeing).
I love that the Empire's complete disregard for personal safety carried over into the First Order's design aesthetic; there's barely a railing in sight on Starkiller Base!
It took me until my second viewing to really appreciate it, but the
score for this movie really is fantastic, some of Williams' best work in
recent years. In addition to the familiar cues like the Force theme and
Princess Leia's theme, the new theme for Rey particularly resonated,
filled with both the playfulness of Yoda's theme and the yearning of the
main Force theme/Luke's theme.