To say the bar was set high in terms of expectation for this movie would be an understatement. Yet in my opinion J.J. and Kasdan cleared the bar and then some.
Off the bat I'd like to address the critics so far that have knocked the film for "re-mixing" the O.T. On the one hand I feel it's a little underhanded; writing negative reviews for a movie that is getting so much positive buzz is a great way to get clicks --but more importantly I feel that that particular criticism is essentially a compliment. Let's be honest, the prequels tread new ground, tried to break out of the O.T. "formula" and ultimately did not deliver what we as fans deemed a Star Wars experience. The most important goal that this movie needed to achieve was to deliver a genuine SW experience, and in my mind it did and a little more.
The Force Awakens is a perfect mix of nostalgia, fan service and establishing the foundation for a brand new story to be told. For all the complaints of a re-hash, Kylo Ren is not a character that we have ever come across in any of the previous films. Finn is no Han Solo, while he may have some of his humor he shows his moral compass is set straight from the very beginning. The one moment where he could pull a Han and hightail it off Takodana, he rushes back to protect Rey. Rey may be a Luke archetype but she lacks his naivete and the fear that was inherent in him.
When we see Rey brandish the Force later in the film it is believable because we see her survive in the harsh living conditions of Jakku. We are shown a character who builds a survivable life by the bits and pieces she gathers around her. By the time she takes on Kylo Ren, we don't need to see her undergo rigorous physical training -- we know she can handle herself in a scrap. But her use of the Force, in my mind is made believable by the fact that in her life she's had to scramble hard to figure out making a whole out of bits lest she not survive. In a way it's a classic Star Wars origin but at the same time it's not and it leaves you not just rooting for Rey but hopeful in seeing her become a fully realized Jedi. Poe is another great new character who has elements of previous characters but is clearly his own man and one I'm eager to learn more about in future installments.
Overall the pacing of this movie was perfect. Some might disagree, but from the crawl to the last magnificent shot, the movie is able to touch on events in the intervening 30 years since Jedi without having to stop the clock for extended exposition. For example, we can understand how the "loss" of their son, strained Han and Leia's marriage and led them to grieve said loss by jumping into what was familiar to them even if it drove them apart, in a string of dialogue that probably runs two or three sentences long. There are no real lulls, pod-racing scenese, or extended chases in the woods. Your hooked and transported from scene to scene expertly.
Han's death is another key note that was struck perfectly in TFA. It wasn't simply a nod to the Luke and Vader scene of Episode V in a cheap attempt at homage. There is a sense of poetry to it, seeing the inverse of the earlier incident play out in this new installment. Rather than the father beckoning his son to join the Darkside, and the torn youth rejecting it at the risk of sacrificing his own life, Han knowingly gives up his life in an attempt to save his son, holding on to that hope until the very second he falls down the ventilation shaft.
I know many think that Leia isn't "grieve-y" enough, but I think that is intentional. Leia has seen so much in her life, she's such a broken down character up to this point that while it temporarily benches her ala Luke in ANH after Ben's death, the urgency of the moment and developing situation rally her back into duty. So I don't see it as lazy writing or unbelievable, this is how Leia grieves, she told us as much when talking about how she dealt with the grief of losing her son.
While there are many other key moments in this movie that hit the right notes while propelling us forward at lightspeed, the final shot truly is golden. Yes I too would have loved to have heard at the very least a line from Luke. But the way he looks at Rey while his eyes water answers and poses so many questions that it leaves you longing for Episode VIII, while at the same time if no more films were to be made, would still be an acceptable capstone to the franchise.
In the end, in the weeks, months, and years ahead plotholes will be found, nits to be picked, and more. But stripping away the particulars of a fan, and asking did this movie transport me to a galaxy far far away for two hours, did I care about these new characters, mourn the old, and hope for the future? Abso-FORCE-inglutely. And that to me is the spirit of Star Wars which this movie has captured and delivered on. Thank you George for the creation of this universe and thank you J.J. for bringing balance to it.