NOTE: Mild spoilers for the film follow. If you haven't watched and wish to stay completely spoiler-free, don't read on.
Even watching The Force Awakens the first time, it was clear to notice several elements of the plot that were extremely familiar; my second viewing only confirmed that further. A lot of what happens in the newest Star Wars we've seen before, mostly originating from A New Hope. But that's far from a problem.
In fact, the film embraces that fact, and for long-time fans, it provides some great moments. Even for those who aren't huge fans of the franchise, or have never watched a Star Wars film before, there are some powerful and entertaining moments scattered about in a tight, interesting and captivating story.
Set thirty years after Return of the Jedi, The Force Awakens opens with the First Order, an organisation inspired by the Galactic Empire, attempting to crush the Resistance and take control of the galaxy, Leia is a General and leads the Resistance, while Luke has long since disappeared. The basic narrative of the film revolves around both parties' search for Skywalker, but things quickly split in different directions, and it does so at great pace. There is little opportunity for the long, drawn out conversations akin to those from The Phantom Menace.
The story is self-contained, and much like A New Hope, very little in terms of main plot carries over into the next film, though there are threads left hanging which leave you wanting more.
While the story is mostly predictable, there are a couple of twists that should leave you pretty surprised. Nothing quite like "I am your father", though. The film doesn't make a huge deal out of the reveal of the first twist in particular; rather choosing to focus on the fallout, which is much more effective.
I was impressed by John Boyega, who does a great job as Finn. Boyega really sells the transformation from the beginning of the film to the end, and it's intriguing to watch the character undergo this shift. Adam Driver's Kylo Ren comes across as intimidating and dangerous, but doesn't quite terrify like Darth Vader did. Domnhall Gleeson plays General Hux, this film's Grand Moff Tarkin, and similarly to Ren, doesn't quite reach the heights of Tarkin. That said, he's great and provides a nice additional antagonist.
Han and Chewie are of course back, and they share some great moments. Harrison Ford continues to be excellent, delivering lines as well as he always did - a reminder of his achievement on the Kessel Run being one of his highlights. It's great seeing the Millennium Falcon once again, particularly given the way it's re-introduced. That'll be the first actual scene that provokes a nostalgic smile/cheer for you.
While I'll refrain from commenting at all on the nature of the ending, it's arguably the most powerful moment of the entire film. John Williams' score is absolutely perfect throughout, but particularly in the final scene, it's difficult not to get emotional.
Director J.J. Abrams makes some great choices in his first attempt in the franchise; among the best were the way the opening scene was shot as well as the upside down shot of the Falcon (featured in the very first trailer). Other shots used to look good and establish a scene rather than be a part of one, such as a range of extreme long shots of various characters or ships, particularly one with a setting sun in the background, are fantastic and don't feel out of place. Also, the lack of any noticeable CGI makes the film a much more enjoyable experience overall, and reverting back to realistic sets and designs is perhaps one of the film's strongest assets.
No film is flawless however, and The Force Awakens is no exception.
Daisy Ridley grew on me as my second viewing went on, but her acting wasn't the best (though, given that Abrams told her on the first day that her "performance was wooden", she did a decent job). That said, I liked Rey's storyline, and given her gradual improvement, I'm prepared to let it go to an extent.
Finn's subplot, which does, mostly, drive the events of the last hour or so of the film, does fall somewhat flat as the development of it seems quite forced. For spoiler reasons, I won't divulge exactly what that storyline is.
Frustratingly, both Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) are criminally underused. Phasma, in particular, gets very little screentime and has virtually no impact on the overall storyline, which is a shame. Poe is given more of a role but I feel that he could have been utilised more. Still, there's always the next one.
Also less than stellar is the humour. While there are times at which it works, there are times when things grow old quickly, and the film prolongs them far beyond what it should. Namely, Finn's repeated suggestion that he is a part of the Resistance becomes boring pretty fast, and it feels like this type of humour is targeted more at the younger children in the audience than anyone else. Still, Jar-Jar Binks is nowhere to be seen, so that's a plus.
All that being said, this is a very good Star Wars film. It doesn't quite hit the heights of the original trilogy, but it's considerably better than the prequels. There's enough set-up for Episode VIII that the idea of a sequel doesn't come entirely out of nowhere, but The Force Awakens is self-contained enough that it doesn't come off as just a starting point.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens is released in the United States on December 18th, and is now showing in the UK and other territories.