First, before the spoilers, it's good. A dramatic improvement over the prequels, if perhaps not quite up to the legendary originals. But what could live up to that sort of hype? I tried my hardest to keep expectations in check, and as a result, found myself greatly enjoying this movie. Star Wars is a lot of fun again, which is something that was sorely lacking in the prequels. My biggest complaint, and it's a small one, is that it's too reliant on callbacks to the original trilogy. Everyone's freaking out about this, so spoilers ahead I guess (I'll try to be a little vague about it).
In the behind-the-scenes materials for the prequels (of which there is a lot of footage that was generously released), there's an infamous scene where George Lucas notes that he's trying to establish parallels between the prequels and the original trilogy, saying "You see the echo of where all is gonna go. It's like poetry, they rhyme"
Star Trek Into Darkness). Ironically, J.J. Abrams has evoked a more Lucas-esque feeling than Lucas managed in the prequels!
So there are lots and lots of callbacks. There's a bigger, badder Death Star. There's an assault on that Death Star that evokes the end of the original Star Wars. There's a dark, masked villain that is strong with the dark side of the force. He has a master that only appears in hologram. He also has a surprising familial relationship with someone. BB-8 is basically R2-D2, but he has that cool rolling propulsion. There's a cantina scene. Heck, Han Solo (and Chewbacca), General Leia, and Luke Skywalker all show up in varying degrees.
And it works. Again, there might be too many callbacks, but for the most part, they rhyme, like poetry. Where the movie really shines, though, is with the new characters. Rey (played by Daisy Ridley) is utterly fantastic, a scrappy badass and the best addition to the Star Wars universe since the original trilogy. Finn (John Boyega) is heroic and funny, hitting a note of almost childlike wonder. He's the most openly emotional, but still brave character in the film. Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is charismatic and, well, not quite a rogue, but perhaps dashing. He's a straight arrow, right out of the serials. What's more, these three leads play off each other perfectly and the performances are spot on. One could quibble at the speed with which they develop their deep friendships, but this, too, rhymes with the original Star Wars trio of Luke, Leia, and Han. I love these three characters and cannot wait to see where they go next!
For his part, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is menacing and terrifying, reminiscent of Darth Vader, but by the end he's carved out a wholly different identity. One that's mysterious and vulnerable and intriguing, which softens the impossible comparison between the villains. I'm not quite sure what to make of this character, actually, especially where he ends up, but I'm really excited to see what happens here too. Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) is still in the shadows at this point, but he seems suitably menacing. Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) gets almost nothing to do in this film except look really cool in her snazzy chrome armor. My guess is that some of her stuff wound up on the cutting room floor, but that she'll also get a chance to rebound and establish herself as a name villain in the next film. Nowhere to go but up for her.
Of the returning characters, Han Solo and Chewbacca get the most screentime, perhaps a little too much, but Abrams made it work. Princess (sorry, General) Leia is in the movie just about the right amount, and Luke is only teased a bit (he'll certainly have more time in the next film). I was wary of this, and in some ways, my worries were justified, but it works out well enough in the end.
All in all, this is an excellent return to form for Star Wars, evoking the best of the original trilogy and yet showing enough potential to carve out its own identity in the following films. This will be crucial because otherwise, this will play out like lesser Star Wars. It's all well and good for this film to recall the originals so much, but the sequels will need to do their own thing if this is to truly succeed. The good news is that all the pieces are on the board, and they've done a good job maneuvering so far. Episode VIII writer/director Rian Johnson is a Kaedrin favorite, and I'm guessing that he'll shepherd this series on well. He's also on board to write Episode IX, so I think we're in good hands (though I have more trepidation about Colin Trevorrow as director).
As a science fiction nerd, I should note that this film is perhaps the least plausible of them all. And that's actually wonderful! One of the worst, dumbest things Lucas managed in the prequels was the hackneyed attempt to explain the Force scientifically. This movie has no such pretensions, and that's actually what Star Wars is all about.
If I may go off on a tangent for a moment here, I feel like I should mention the books that I always thought would make a great sequel trilogy. Timothy Zahn's Thrawn Trilogy is still wonderful and worth checking out, even though it is no longer official canon material. Grand Admiral Thrawn was a wonderful villain, so different from what you might expect, and that worked really well (still holding out hope for a Thrawn cameo in these new movies - come on Rian, just throw a dude with blue skin and a white Admiral's uniform on screen somewhere). The heroes in that book were still primarily Luke, Leia, and Han, which wouldn't really be possible in movies these days without recasting, and the new characters weren't quite as lovable as the new trio we got in this film. Still, the series is worth checking out, and it's really the only Expanded Universe stuff that I've really enjoyed.
Anyway, this movie is great. I will grant that I'm not particularly objective about this whole thing. There's a lot of nostalgia and love in this series for me, so it's hard to separate this from that. If I really wanted to, I'm sure I could nitpick a ton of stuff, but I don't want to. In fact, much of what I could nitpick here is almost equally applicable to the original movie. There's no sense in that, I just want to revel in this for now. I enjoyed this a lot more than the prequels, and this movie shows a lot of promise for future Star Wars efforts. Only two more years until Episode VIII (though we'll get a Rogue One movie next year).