For better or worse, it hewed pretty close to ANH and TESB – notably including the plot elements of a droid with secret information stuck on a desert world, and a big round planet buster that needs to be destroyed. Knowing about some of these elements before seeing it, I was afraid that it would seem like a retread, but actually it didn't; I think the saving grace is that the attack on Starkiller is not the central focus of the movie, as the Death Star run was in ANH, but rather a backdrop for some very engaging human drama. (I actually enjoyed the self-aware flippancy with which they dealt with the mission, as if to say, "Eh, fine, how do we destroy this one?") Some commentators have been saying that the movie should have been more aggressive in treading new ground, but I'm not sure that this franchise had the esthetic capital, so to speak, to pull it off. Lucas tried interesting new things in the prequels, and it was fucking terrible. Star Wars is the equivalent of a chef who tried to make an overwrought pièce de résistance and failed miserably, and now needs to prove that they can make an omelet. But that said, I hope the new trilogy breaks out of its shell at least somewhat in episodes VIII and IX. For example, the levels of fanservice in TFA stayed just within the realm of tolerability (to some extent it's a necessary evil), but I'd prefer less going forward. Star Trek Into Darkness is an example of what not to do in this regard – and Abrams, to his credit, has been open about what went wrong with that movie.
The new characters and actors were really good. I'd say that the casting choices were inspired – especially in the case of Daisy Ridley, who was plucked from almost total obscurity and turned in an amazing performance. John Boyega was excellent too, and had great chemistry with both Ridley and Isaac. Oscar Isaac was charming, and I knew that he could act from having seem him in other things; in my mind the only issue with him is that he was somewhat underutilized. Note, of course, that good actors can only take you so far. The cast of the prequels included some fine actors like Neeson, McGregor and Portman, but they were given shit lines and shit direction, so the result was shit.
And Kylo Ren's character was surprisingly good too. I wasn't sure what approach they were going to take with him, but I enjoyed what we saw: an unsure and unstable young villain who's afraid that he can't live up to his hero. It's so refreshing to have a bad guy who's not a masterful, self-assured badass, someone who's finding his way just as much as the good guys are. His crackling lightsaber is emblematic of his incomplete development, and his mask – which he uses only as a prop – demonstrates his insecurity. In his own way he's pathetic, but the writing and Adam Driver's performance make him compelling. He's the sort of character that Anakin should have been in the prequels.
Also I love Gwendoline Christie, but she was basically a non-presence here. I hope we see more of her in the following movies. But even with her few lines she was light years ahead of Darth Maul, the most overrated and childishly designed villain in the whole franchise.
Harrison Ford did really well – unlike in some recent movies where he's given an impression of phoning things in. He's said in the past that he wanted Han to die in ROTJ and has no continuing interest in the character, so I suspect that they were only able to get him back, with a committed performance to boot, if they promised to give him a good death scene. I like that things didn't work out between him and Leia, because that's totally what would happen – he is a scoundrel.
And BB-8 was adorable, managing not to fall into obnoxious territory. Despite what Lucas may think, it's possible to have a cute character that appeals to both children and adults.
Another strength of TFA was the humor. It had many legitimately funny moments, and was probably the most successfully funny movie in the franchise. "That's not how the Force works!" And I loved the moment when two Stormtroopers hear Ren throwing a lightsaber tantrum and immediately turn in the other direction.
And on that topic, I enjoyed the humanization of the
Imperial First Order characters, which was reminiscent of the deleted scenes with Jerjerrod in ROTJ. Finn's transformation is the prime example of this – and the Stormtroopers in general seemed at once scarier and more relatable than in previous movies. The officer on Starkiller Base who basically says "fuck it, I'm outta here!" was a nice touch as well.
One other thing I loved was the physicality of the movie. Things in TFA have weight and texture to them – like BB-8, who makes such a pronounced thunk when he slams against the floor of the Falcon. The blaster bolts and lightsaber blades feel dangerous and inflict real damage, and the fight scenes have a visceral simplicity to them. This is in total opposition to the prequels, which took place in a shiny toyland, and in which the saber duels consisted of silly choreographed dancing. In fact, at a couple points during TFA I was struck by the thought that it can't possibly take place in the same esthetic or dramatic universe as the prequels – and the contrast is entirely to the new movie's credit. I love that Episode VII opens with my favorite tortured Swede intoning, "This will begin to make things right."
I do have two main criticisms of the movie. One is that it was very fast-paced, and very dense (in storytelling terms, not in Rick McCallum terms). I had been wondering for some time how the movie would manage to take so many characters and put them in their proper places; the answer is about as well as could be hoped, but as a result we had very little time to pause and take things in. (Game of Thrones has been dealing with the same issue lately.) Now that the world of the sequel trilogy has been set up, I hope that the following movies will be able to slow down somewhat.
The other thing was the score. It was serviceable and included some nice new material like Rey's Theme – but overall it didn't leave much of an impression on me, lacking anything with the sweeping memorability of TESB's Asteroid Theme, ROTJ's The Battle of Endor II, or TPM's Corn on the Cob, Corn on the Kebab. I've seen some say that Williams has "lost it", others that the script simply left little room for surpassing music. (Maybe they're just saving the exciting stuff for later.) Part of me thinks he should pass the torch to someone like Giacchino. Eh, we'll see.