Okay, having seen the film enough times in the theater I think (3 at the moment), I think I'm as ready as I will be to discuss the film.
First off, I very much enjoyed it. I'm not sure it's the greatest or best Star Wars film ever, but it's certainly a lot of fun, and the most fun that a cinematic Star Wars film has delivered in a very long time.
I'm not the biggest fan of the prequels, but I don't hate them either. If anything, I mourn all the potential that was in that story, potential that a capable director would have been able to bring out. For as amazing of an idea guy that George Lucas is, he really hadn't grown as a director since filming the original Star Wars, and in the prequels it showed. On top of the problem of not having anybody that would tell him "No George, that's a bad idea" during that time frame.
Now, to The Force Awakens, let's get one particular elephant ushered out of the room right now. Yes, the basic plot structure was beat-for-beat almost identical to that of Episode 4. The decorations were different, particularly in terms of the main cast, but the core plot structure was very similar. In spite of what some internet trolls might tell you, this does NOT constitute a "remake" or a "reboot" of the franchise. And honestly, I liked that TFA took its nods from the Star Wars films that the fans generally consider to be the better half of the franchise. You didn't get overburdened with background elements, being given enough basic background info to set the stage, and then into the story we go.
The Force Awakens is ultimately the foundation for Disney's stewardship of the franchise, one that they paid a very princely sum to acquire. Sure, they could have taken more risks with the film, but for the first outing, especially given the general loathing of the prequels and The Phantom Menace in particular, they opted to hedge their bets and go for what the masses had claimed "felt like Star Wars."
That's not to say Disney and Abrams didn't take risks in the story presented to us. Killing off the fan-favorite Han Solo was certainly a risk, and it certainly did strike an emotional chord with the adults in the audience that had grown up with this character, even if a lot of them saw it coming. Like GM Phil of the Order 66 podcast said, the moment Han stepped onto that bridge, you knew he wasn't coming out of that alive.
Another big risk, especially for a multi-million dollar action movie (which truthfully is what The Force Awakens is), was having a female being the lead protagonist for this new trilogy. It's kind of telling that in spite of the rampant success that Marvel Studios has had with their films we've yet to see a Black Widow movie, and the closest they've got to something headlined by a female lead is the very good Agent Carter series. It's a sad shame that where action movies are concerned, a female leading character is seen as too big of a risk for major film studios. So the fact that Rey winds up being the hero, especially after making folks think it was going to be Finn in the various previews, was a pretty big risk... and it paid off big time, as audiences really liked the character, with Daisy Ridley's performance being no slouch. As I heard it said somewhere on Facebook, we got more actual acting out of Daisy in 10 minutes than we got out of Hayden in the entirety of both AotC and RotS.
That's not to say the rest of the cast was bad, because they weren't. Harrison Ford was great (as he usually is) in portraying the crusty, worn-down Han Solo, while I likened Carrie Fisher's performance to a Leia that is equally worn-down and simply tired and more than a little frustrated of having to go through all this nonsense that she did when part of the Rebellion; doubtless Leia heard stories from her adopted father about Senators of the Old Republic turning a blind eye towards the dangers of then-Chancellor Palpatine's rise to power, and saw parallels with how the New Republic was turning a blind eye to the dangers of the First Order. General Leia was someone that had lived a rough 30 years since the Battle of Endor, losing her family and seeing all that she'd fought and struggled for about to go down the drain.
John Boyega I thought did a tremendous job as Finn, and I cheered when he dropped the "cowardly" part of the "cowardly lion" act that had defined him through much of the movie. Finn proved he could be brave when it called for it, but the moment he took up Anakin's old lightsaber to square off against Kylo Ren, overmatched though he may be, simply to protect the unconscious Rey... even if Finn isn't Force-sensitive, that still took a lot of balls. Even more so perhaps since as a former member of the First Order, he's probably heard stories about Kylo Ren and just how unhinged the guy can be. And having one of the principal leads and potential main hero be a black male in a franchise where the main hero has been white was also a risk, one that I also felt was worth it.
Poe was... well, Poe. As GM Chris said, Poe was the kind of guy that you could go have a beer with, and he'd be glad to do so. I personally felt Poe was a bit one-dimensional (ace pilot, incredibly loyal while easy to make friends with), but it was a good dimension, and I suspect/hope that he'll get much more character development.
I did like that the essence of Luke's character in the original trilogy was split in to the three leads, with shades of Han and Leia thrown in as well. Poe as the hotshot ace pilot, but one that's not sensitive to the Force and is steadfastly-loyal to the Resistance, Finn is the idealist, albeit one that's a defector from the bad guys and mostly just wants to avoid the fight until the girl he's crushing on is put into grave peril. And Rey as the Force-sensitive desert dweller and heir to a great legacy, albeit a female that scraps by on her own and was abandoned by her family at a very young age. My guess is that Rey is actually the daughter of Luke Skywalker, and that's why Anakin's old lightsaber called out to her in Maz's Palace, and perhaps why it didn't respond to Kylo's attempts to claim it during the film's climax.
As for Kylo Ren, while he's certainly not the greatest villain in cinematic history, I do like that he's simply a pale reflection of Darth Vader. I saw earlier today on Facebook that Kylo's cross-guard lightsaber was very much a reflection of Kylo's psyche, and I think it's a very apt comparison. I think having a villain that can grow and develop just as the heroine grows and develops can lead to some wonderful parallels between Kylo and Rey. One of my favorite animated series, Avatar: The Last Airbende did this as well with the parallels between Aang (the hero) and Zuko (initially the villain before developing into something far more complicated and interesting). I do have to give props to Kylo for taking as much of a beating as he did, and was still able to keep going; even after Rey had disarmed him and scarred his face, Kylo was still trying to get back up and continue fighting.
I've seen a lot of complaining about how TFA left us with more questions than answers in terms to the state of affairs 30 years after the events of RotJ. And I'm okay with that, because I knew from the outset, from when the film was announced as part one of a new trilogy of films, that we weren't going to get all the answers right away. After all, they need stuff for the sequel. And the only reason that ANH was as self-contained as it was is because Lucas was convinced that it wasn't going to do well enough to merit a sequel, so that was going to be his one shot. I suspect that if he knew full well that he'd have the chance to make additional movies, he'd have left a few more threads hanging to be handled in ESB and RotJ, such as perhaps introducing a bit more mystery into the nature of Luke's father.
So yeah, while there were a number of similarities between the original films and TFA, I honestly felt that instead of detracting from the new film, it instead enhanced it while getting new members of the fanbase up-to-speed on the basics of "what is Star Wars?" I'm hopeful that now that the foundation has been laid that further films in the new trilogy will take a few more risks in terms of the story; after all, we've already had the "greatest hits of the original trilogy" film to get everybody on the same page in terms of the Star Wars experience. But time will tell, and given the monstrous success of TFA it might be that Disney takes this as a sign to not stray to far from the tried and true. I do expect we'll see more nods and parallels in Episode 8 to ESB, and will be astonished if that film doesn't end with the First Order in a very strong position and the Resistance/Republic in a very rough one by the time the credits roll.
So overall, yes I very much liked The Force Awakens (that I went to see it three times in the theater in the opening week should be testament enough to that). Was it perfect? No, but then none of the Star Wars films were without their flaws. But it was a very enjoyable rider, one where the pacing was quick enough that things kept moving but never so fast that you had no idea what was going on, provided you were willing to pay a modicum of attention to the movie. I'm very much eager for this to come out on Blu-Ray, if only so that I can watch it meticulously for all the little background elements I did miss. I did catch the 501st banner at Maz's palace as well as at least two (I think) appearances of R2-KT in the film, but I'm sure there are other tidbits that I missed simply because I was having too good of a time being entertained by a film that well and truly felt like Star Wars.