I saw it on an Imax screen, and I believe I am done with Imax screens for awhile. Unless you can sit directly behind the projector, I do not believe there is a good seat in the house, I was just to the left of the projector, and I found the whole experience distracting and unrewarding. I think technology has already created the perfect viewing experience, and it is the home theater where you have some measure of control over your experience. I look forward to re-watching this movie several times in this manner.
Clearly the first thing I am obliged to mention is that the movie is essentially perfect. It is pure, 99.9% perfection. I am certain that there are plot holes to be revealed, and performances or effects to nitpick in the future, but for the moment, it is clearly a winner. Star wars is not dead, and JJ Abrams did not kill it.
This is admirable, although I hesitate to praise Abrams all that much. A Star Wars movie carries with it so much weight and backstory that it really ought to be incredibly easy to write. The bar had been set so low by the prequels, that this really should not have been so hard to do. Although, of course, there was the prequel series. So clearly its an all-or-nothing game, but conditions could not be better.
I couldn't help but compare the two movies at every opportunity, especially the various characters' action figure potential. The original movie gave us about a dozen distinct characters with clearly identified names, and all were merchandised at an unprecedented level. There is some of that here, but there isn't much I can really say that hasn't been said already. Star Wars is a fucking Cash Cow for disney, and they know how to make a buck. Anyhow, The Force Awakens has a good bit of the action figure mentality going on, but its a part of Star Wars, so what can you do?
The first notable re-shuffling of the character roles from A New Hope was the division of Luke's role into two separate characters - Rey and Finn. Rey is the one stuck on a desert planet trying to make ends meet, while Finn is the frightened youth fleeing danger. Luke was both of these at once. Both Rey and Finn go through their own hero's journey, and their paths combine without resorting to romance.
The second re-shuffling I saw was the 'wise old sage' archetype. In episode 4, this role is taken by Obi-Wan Kenobi. Luke goes to him for guidance, and it leads him to leaving Tatooine by help of the new ally, Han Solo.
The rest of the cast is virtually all direct analogs of characters from A New Hope. I am not faulting the movie for this - it was the right thing to do. This is what Lucas should have done in the prequel series.
So, characters aside, the movie really mirrors A New Hope in many ways. R2D2 is entrusted with crucial information and escapes, finds a hero in a backwater town, and together they complete the quest. Here, BB8 meets Rey in on a rural dusty planet, and together they deliver the vital information. Luke made new allies and was drawn into the galactic struggle for peace while learning to use his newfound Jedi powers. Rey does essentially the same thing.
We even have wildly similar set pieces - the desert planet, the giant death ball, star destroyers, the actual millennium falcon, and even a snow level. JJ Abrams even gave us a swordfight and ships flying inside of something to blow it up.
All this repetition of the Star Wars format is reassuring and welcoming and fantastically well done.
Now what else can I learn from this movie? It is fascinating to think how, in 1982, Return of the Jedi ended and fans began speculating about what might happen next. There were certainly novels and comic books and games all full of well written stories that expanded the lore of Star Wars, but these did not bear the Lucas brand of approval, and are therefore "non-canon". This means that, The Force Awakens finally expands on a story that has been brewing for 34 years. This movie has answered some questions and raised even more.
In the original Return of the Jedi, the movie ends with the celebration on Endor. The later remastered version included shots from other planets cheering at the killing of the emperor, including the capitol planet of Coruscant, where people can be seen tearing down a statue of the emperor. Is Leia now the president or something?
I guess not. The prequels taught us that the Emperor seized power over a democratic republic. He used his Sith power to coerce planet governments and organize a separatist movement of non-republic planets. The separatists raised an army so the republic raised an army, both being secretly manipulated by the emperor. The war led to financial crisis in the Republic, and the Emperor was elected as temporary prime minister of war or something. He allowed the war to progress and solidified his power. His final move was to use a secret protocol to command the clone army to turn on the Jedi knights and kill them all. He indoctrinated Anakin to the Dark Side, and the two of them eliminated all other living Jedi. Anakin gets turned into Darth Vader and placed in charge of the clone army. The separatists are quickly defeated, and Emperor Palpatine is credited with the success, and becomes the new galactic dictator.
So then there is the inevitable unrest, and later outright rebellion against the empire, and about 25 years after seizing power, the emperor is finally killed. It is plausible that the empire would just go back to being a republic as it was in the prequels and before. It is also plausible that there was still loads of soldiers and weapons and generals to command all elsewhere in the empire. Surely some other powerful general might rise up.
It seems that the Empire still exists in some form. They are still led by a Sith Lord. There is still plenty of Nazi imagery.
Star Wars has created some completely original movie cliches. Some are great, some are terrible. All of the following tropes could have been easily inserted into The Force Awakens, and fans would have accepted them, though they would have only lessened the movie.
Overt Comic Relief Characters. The original trilogy had C3P0. Lucas chose to double down on this trope with Jar Jar Binks - a character widely believed to be the worst aspect of an already terrible movie. Lucas and others assume that a character such as this is needed to keep children and other uninterested audience members entertained. This is not true, of course. TFA gave us BB8, and that was plenty. Finn creates some further comic relief, but his character is actually developed and he has purpose beyond simple sillyness.
A hand getting cut off. This was interesting in the Original Trilogy, but Lucas went too far with the prequels. Anakin loses a hand in episode 2, then he loses another in episode 3. Dooku loses a hand right before getting decapitated. The guy in the bar in episode 2 loses an arm. There are other examples. I am fairly certain nobody got their hand cut off in TFA. For some reason, this is considered violent, but also tame enough to warrant a PG-13 rating at most.
Lightsaber dancing. Actual sword fights are over in seconds. The prequel series brought us the highly choreographed style of lightsaber movie fights. In reality, there are only two reasons to move a sword - to cut something or to block an incoming cut. If you watch the fights in the prequels, you will see the actors are just trying to hit each others sword. This is lazy choreography made to dazzle the audience.