Because of spoilers, most of this post is blacked out. If you want to post spoilers in your own comments, please use the redaction feature in the comment editing bar, or ROT13 them or something.
The only non-spoilered thing I have to say is this: They did not screw it up. That may sound like damming the movie with faint praise, but screwing it up was a distinct possibility and JJ Abram’s failure to screw it up is worthy of note and kudos. If you liked the original trilogy you will find The Force Awakens at least satisfactory. If you don’t like Star Wars movies, this one will not change your mind.Spoilers begin below:
The new heroes all worked for me at least a little. You can see bits of the original characters in each of them but arranged differently to create new people. Oscar Isaacs does a great turn as Poe Dameron. Rey is still a little bit too much of a cipher for me to have a strong opinion of her at this point but I liked what I saw of her. But my stand-out favourite was Finn. His reactions to the unfamiliar situations he found himself in were great, but my favourite thing about him was that he was a defector stormtrooper. So far the stormtroopers have been portrayed as a homogeneous, faceless (literally) foe who did little but attack and occasionally hit. It’s not often in an action movie that soldiers are portrayed as having doubts and fears and Finn’s mere existence does a lot to humanise the stormtroopers (although i think it would have worked better if Finn has been a bit less gung-ho about fighting once he left the First Order). I like that Finn and Rey made some mistakes in the early part of the movie
The old heroes were used judiciously, which was a good idea. Luke was barely in the movie, and Leia was in support. Only Han was doing much, which made sense since it was to be his last movie. Bringing the old crew back was good, perhaps even essential, but they needed to give the new characters room to breathe, and I think they did that well.
The new villains were pretty promising. Captain Phamsa is very Boba Fett, in that she looks cool but basically doesn’t do anything. I really hope to see that change in later instalments, I want to see Gwendoline Christie in some fully-fledged action scenes. Kylo Ren is basically what Anakin Skywalker should have been in Episode 3, powerful but uncontrolled, less angst and more unfocused rage. The scene where he stops Poe’s blaster bolt mid-flight did a very good job of setting him up as someone dangerous (as well as being visually engaging) – even without his light sabre he doesn’t care about your puny weapons.
The new setting elements were interesting, but under-developed (admittedly setting is the thing I tend to pay the most attention to in a work, so others may be bothered less by this than I am). How did the Rebellion manage to bring down the Empire, and at least partly restore the Republic, but yet still be the plucky underdog to the First Order who almost have to be less powerful than the Empire was? How did the First Order get the resources to rebuild a planet as a Doomsday Device? And what was the plan once it had used up its local star? Did they have a way to move it near another star to reload? And who is this mysterious Snoak, and how did he come to be part of the First Order? Who trained him? Later movies may answer some or all of these questions, but until they do it’s a little hard to judge how well these setting elements work. I am glad to see though that the First Order is smart enough to A) Design a Doomsday Device that can’t be disabled by a purely external attack and B) Equip and train some stormtroopers to deal with Jedi.
The weakest element was the plot, which was just a straightforward re-telling of A New Hope. I can understand by Abrams and the House of Mouse wanted to play it conservatively, but they’ll need to up their game for Episode 8. Still, its clear that the franchise is back in competent hands now and that augurs well for the future.