I went into this with high hopes, and while this movie didn't meet them, it accomplished enough for me to respect the direction Disney is taking LucasArts and hold excitement for future releases. Is "Force Awakens" a good movie? Sure. Is it a good Star Wars movie? Debatable. Lets investigate, minus "spoilers".
What works best in this film is the focus on a strong friendship from the get-go. Luke, Leia and Han didn't really like or trust each other much in the 1st film. Neither did Anakin, Ben and Padme in the 1st prequel. In this 1st reboot, we have a great bond formed quickly between Rey/Finn and Finn/Poe. Also, Han forms a great bond with both Finn and Rey, which really won me over as a longtime fan. Our heroes are established and sympathetic and we want to root for them.
What didn't work was the relative ease that the characters have in getting out of problems. There just isn't much drama or suspense had. There's a lot of welcome comedy, but then there's too much yukking and cheap laughs for my taste. It didn't feel like Star Wars when Stormtroopers are getting laughs and everyone is trading one-liners instead of engaging in conversation. There's a lot of weak dialogue, particularly given to the female characters. Which is shocking when one reflects on the roles Padme and Leia had as very dimensional, intelligent and mature people from the start. Rey, Leia and the little alien played by Lupita N'yongo were very flat and just moved the action forward. I know Rey is a young and inexperienced loner, but Luke and Anakin had way more to say, think and do. Rey fights and escapes, but also needs to be rescued. She doesn't show the heroics that our previous protagonists did. Also, many characters did too many illogical cartoonishly dumb things. Thats where the Disney aspect came through in negative capacity.
What else worked? Disney's massive budget allowed for a lot of scope and on-screen flair that wouldn't be possible if the original Star Wars studio (20th Century Fox) released a Star Wars in 2015. The plot ping-pongs from beautiful and elaborate alien worlds and ships more than any non-prequel in the series. The effects, practical and digital, were beautifully rendered, even if I wasn't impressed with the designs of the aliens and architecture as much as I was with previous Star Wars films (and other media). I'll excuse this because neither George Lucas nor Jim Henson was there to provide the signature Star Wars style. So we are given lots of new aliens, new technology and new fashion statements. None of it is anything amazing, but it works. It gave all the action and adventure modern audiences expect from a movie.
What else didn't work? The action was kind of flat and lost in the scenery and storytelling. Things explode and lots of characters fight on screen, but JJ Abrams doesn't give it any life or excitement of tension. Nor room to breathe so the characters can really prepare for whats next and connect to the audience. He seems more interested in making sure its pretty and light and fun and things explode or shine. It lacks the drama, mystery and coldness that are synonymous with the Star Wars feel. Where as the prequels were heavy on story and light on action, the originals mixed story and action seamlessly. Ep 7 is light on story and full of action. But going this route doesn't allow for one big memorable action sequence. Past films had a long action-filled saber duel or pod race or Tie Fighter fight or ground war. This had lots of shootouts and ships bombing and a short saber battle. No big Star Wars moments.
What did I like best about Episode 7? Really?? The shallow parts. The casting of young attractive actors and actresses. The fashion sense. The gorgeous cinematography. The expensive effects. Lots of recognizable elements like Chewbacca and Stormtroopers. And the speedy, light feeling of the plot. It all felt like Star Wars on the shell. But that leaves it being a bit hollow. It suffers by sticking too closely to what we've already seen and never trying anything new or risky besides the expected death of a famous character. The twists are predictable and given away too quickly. Its the same old tired, once-fresh Star Wars formula with a new polish. Some are praising it for its familiarity, but I'm offended that Disney is making billions giving us the same thing we've already had. They know that they're getting lots of fans anyway, so they could've been less conservative. I'm not saying bring back Jar Jar Binks, but at least something we've never seen before. Actually, yeah. Bring back Jar Jar!
The film is a beat-for-beat remake of Episode 4, which is the film's strength and downfall. Episode 1 was a clever remake too, but it added so many twists and unexpected turns and new elements, that it shot life into series. This film is more of a remix with new characters doing the same things the old characters did. The new characters are just old characters played by new people. And the old characters don't resemble themselves. Their only purpose is to pass on the torch. Except for Harrison Ford, who is splendid. But this could be an undoing in future installments. And it doesn't come off as an intentional parallel or ironic twist of fate. It comes off as lazy storytelling and a cash-grab to dump the old and get with the new. Especially when the big "surprises" came right out of decades old Star Wars novels that Disney has conveniently made non-canon. So there's nothing really new here, which makes me rank it so low in the Star Wars canon. They didn't take many chances, besides the casting of an interracial boy and girl team of protagonists and some bit parts for the original cast. And despite claiming to bring a lot of knowledge of the Star Wars mythology to the new chapter, we didn't get much. All we get is Admiral Ackbar and Nien Nunb having small cameos and we see an AT-ST walker (on a desert planet, why?). I feel like Ep 7 was made by people who don't like Star Wars toooo much, but want the Star Wars fans' respect. I didn't go for it.
In summary, I will say it is a great reboot for people who like Star Wars, but don't love it. Not a great sequel or a great Star Wars movie, but a great re-introduction for the uninitiated. If you know the previous 6 movies, you won't be too impressed. I talked to a few diehard fans afterward who were letdown and offended by the cynical business-y filmmaking of it all. Its to be expected in a year where Jurassic World made record sales, but an original, serious and daring James Bond film went ignored.
I will say, that if the hardcore Star Wars fans are vocal and the already bought Episode 7 fans return, that Episode 8 may be the new Star Wars I was hoping for. This wasn't it. But the 1st installment of the previous Star Wars trilogies were the weakest. And Ep 7 is maybe better than Ep 1. So I will give Disney the benefit of the doubt on this. I hope I'm not wrong. I went in expecting Ep 7 to fit right in the middle of my rankings of the Star Wars films. I think its the weakest of all 7 films. It lacks the focus, innovation and novelty of Episode 1. But it makes up in fun, spectacle and a great cast what Episode 1 did not have. As a big fan of all previous Star Wars films, the weakest Star Wars movie is still a good movie.
EDIT: I've raised my rating from a 7.5 to 8.1 upon a second viewing. While I am still letdown the predictable parallelism, flat plotting and favor of glossy action over political drama, the film puts in effort. The characterization is great for Han, Rey, Kylo and Finn, even if Leia, Threepio and everyone else is rather stale. The drama is there too. Its just cliche and overly sentimental, especially compared with the vibrant and motivated heroism of The Originals and the psychological, political and melodramatic soap opera of The Prequels. This was the Emo "DeGrassi" Date Night version of drama. But you won't find anything better for that audience.
And most importantly, what makes this a great film while not a great Star Wars film is the EXCELLENT direction by JJ Abrams. The film is so full of energy and outstanding camerawork and lush eye candy that you forget the rather boring story and characters. Abrams did an ace job for Disney and Star Wars owes him a great deal in making this the success it is. Out of all 7 Star Wars, this is the most FUN ride, even if thats about all it is.