Spoiler (click to reveal)
The returning cast: Leia was kind of inconsequential in the film, which was OK with me because I felt her speech pattern wasn't normal. I'm not sure what Carrie Fisher was doing, but she doesn't sound that weird in real life interviews, so I couldn't figure out why it looked so awkward when she showed up here. Anthony Daniels' voice also seemed strange as C-3PO, like it had been overly processed by the sound guys, but it wasn't bad. I can't wait for Mark Hamill to get a real opportunity to shine in the next Episode, he looks like he has really become the Obi-Wan of this new series. But the real star out of the classic actors was Harrison Ford, and he did not disappoint. Despite all the years that have passed, he still totally knows how to play Han Solo. His interaction with Chewbacca was very similar to what we saw in the original trilogy, and he pulls off some of the most emotional scenes in the film with great skill. It was nice to see that classic character just as we know and love him, but also dealing with some deep emotional scars.
The new cast: I could talk about the entire cast, but let's focus on the Top 4. Oscar Isaac pulls off one of the most miraculous tricks by making Poe a character I loved within only 5 minutes of screen-time. When I suspected he was dead after his early scenes, I was so disappointed, but his return gives me hope that he will get even more to do in the upcoming films. John Boyega was also charming, but in a different way. The crush that Finn had on Rey was so fun, and it was nice to kind of see it all playing out based on his actions instead of clunky dialogue. I also think Finn is a refreshing new character we haven't seen before, and I liked that he was kind of a coward, but his sense of honor was so strong that he couldn't resist helping when he saw his friends in trouble. Kylo Ren is perhaps the most intriguing new character. His struggle to resist the Light side was a fascinating twist, and I loved how he just felt like a spoiled brat who throws tantrums when he can't get his way. I also liked that his appearance defies the intimidating nature of his character once that mask comes off, because he kind of looks goofy and that flies in the face of our expectations. But the whole conversation has to end with Daisy Ridley. Her performance as Rey was nuanced, it was intense, and in any one scene she displayed more character than the entire trilogy of prequels combined. It took me very little time to care about her and to root for her to succeed. The best scene of the film for me was the interrogation between Kilo Ren and Rey, because they both were doing next to nothing physically or verbally, but you could read all that was happening in their facial expressions.
The problems: I had 2 big issues with this film that kept me from lifting it up and exalting it as being on par with the original trilogy. And, no, one of them is not that they duplicated so many of the story points from the original trilogy, I didn't mind that at all. The first problem I have is that the movie felt a bit long. Now I want as much Star Wars as the next guy, but there were a couple of scenes that I felt were struggling to move the plot forward, and they could have been cut or even replaced by more relevant material. The most egregious of these was the entire gang face-off and squid alien attack on Han Solo's ship. It did nothing for the story, it didn't help build the characters, and it bleeds over into my second issue with the movie. I think I'm just not built right to accept CGI creatures. Machinery, and inanimate objects tend to be perfect when rendered in a computer so I totally love the space battles and stuff like that. Yet I still don't think even the best CGI companies can pull off convincing living creatures. They always look artificial, and I have this involuntary reaction of thinking "well, I know that's not really there." Maz Kanata is probably the most frustrating example, because there's really no reason she needs to be CGI. A puppet or person in costume could have pulled off the role just as well, and would have blended into the practical-effect style of the rest of this film.
The positives: Pretty much everything else in this movie worked for me. I greatly appreciated the return of actual humor to the series. I laughed a lot, but it never felt overly jokey either. BB-8 was a great call-back to why we loved R2D2 and C3PO, because he was cute without being cloying or overly childish. The lightsaber fights were simply magical, because Abrams understood that our emotional investment in the fight was more important than the choreography of the fight. I loved how intense and raw the battle seemed, and how each person kind of had their own style with the blade. That final fight between Kilo, Finn, and Rey was so amazing. I liked that they didn't spend a ton of time explaining the politics that were going on, or getting bogged down in the minutiae of who the different organizations were, they just kept it simple (Resistance=good and First Order=bad). Finally I have to compliment the film because, despite my complaints about the CGI, it was rather limited which allowed the movie to feel real instead of entirely manufactured.
Final opinions: Upon further reflection I feel like The Force Awakens nestles nicely below the original trilogy but well above the prequels. I desperately need to watch it again, and hope to soon (probably checking it out in 3-D this time.) But I think they did a nice job setting up a new group of characters in the same world as the ones we love. I hope that they will now take them on new adventures, breaking new ground and respecting the original films without needing to duplicate them any more. I do have concern about the spin-off movies in the even calendar years, because I think prequel/origin stuff is not necessary, but I hope the odd calendar year "Episodes" will keep this level of quality. The only worry I have, which already started here with the C3PO red arm, is that they will alienate people who have no desire to watch/read expanded universe stuff. I shouldn't have to read a comic book to understand what is going on in the movie I'm watching, and they shouldn't break in the middle of the story to make a reference to some TV cartoon I'm not watching either. If they can eliminate that in the future, I'll be completely on board.