This whole review is filled with spoilers. Go see the movie first, it's great, and know as little as you can going into it. Then read this.
First, go read Devin Faraci's review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens Review. He's right about virtually everything.
BB-8 is fantastic. You immediately feel a lot for this little droid even without a companion droid to talk to. The design is so expressive it reminded me of what Pixar was able to do with Wall-E and what Aardman was able to do with Grommit. I'm guessing the chirps are sampled from R2 but all the body expression is unique. He's my new favorite droid.
While the story was a little derivative, it didn't really bother me during the movie. And I had been warned by a few "non-spoiler" reviews I glanced at beforehand in that they said it was kind of a remake. It's true, many of the story beats are the same, but it worked. The Star Wars films broke so many grounds visually and this one really didn't do much new, it just did it well. A few new environments would have added a sense of awe, but it's just nitpicking and I'm so thrilled they didn't get lost in the effects the way the prequels did. The best location was the crashed star destroyer and we saw that in the trailer, still Rey's line about not knowing there was so much green in the galaxy was cute.
Stephen Marche makes a good point, The Force Awakens Is the Biggest Movie of the Year. But Is It Great?:
The Force Awakens is easily the best written, and in some ways the most sophisticated, of all the films. But while it verges on greatness, it doesn;t quite reach it. Perhaps that was inevitable. The original Star Wars was influenced by science fiction, samurai movies, Westerns, opera, serial radio, racing car movies, cross-talk misfit couple comedies, Lawrence of Arabia, the Muppets and World War II documentaries. The influence of The Force Awakens was Star Wars.
In other words, The Force Awakens is Star Wars made by people who grew up on Star Wars, and that's its biggest weakness. But it's also a real strength. The movie plugs deep down into the joys of childhood, and Abrams knows to milk that source of joy. It is a story told by someone who grew up, like me, playing with Star Wars figurines, imagining Tatooine in the sandbox and Hoth on an aunt's white sofa.
J.J. Abrams was definitely a good choice to base VII on previous Star Wars films. It's a skill he demonstrated in the Star Trek films, rebooting a franchise being true to the characters and to the aesthetic of Star Wars (not Trek). Now that that's been done and VII has wiped away the memories of the prequels, I hope Rian Johnson goes back to Lucas's source roots in A New Hope. He's not a student of film like Lucas, Scorsese or Spielberg, but Brick, The Brothers Bloom and Looper all show he can bring fresh takes to well worn genres.
It's the funniest Star Wars. Shots and lines could have come from a Robot Chicken episode. I loved when Ren was having a fit and destroying the room with his lightsaber and the storm troopers walk by, stop, and go back the way they came. I'm sure some will argue that it was too tongue-in-cheek or referential, but I think they got it right and it just worked.
Farachi said the characters are great and he's right, but also the lines and acting are way better than in the other films. The new characters all outshone the originals. Except for one, they did a great job with Chewbacca. He finally felt like a capable lead character instead of just a side-kick. I was really concerned when he got shot.
Farachi is also right about this: "Kylo Ren has a depth to him that George Lucas wanted to get at with Anakin Skywalker in the Prequels, but failed. Kylo Ren is Anakin done right." Nevertheless I'm not an Adam Driver fan and think Kylo should be referred to as Darth Emo.
That wasn't the only tragedy in the film, the big spoiler event in this was Han dying. I was upset at seeing one of the iconic characters of movies die but I think I'm ok with it. Han dying was probably a condition of Harrison Ford being in the film. They did it well with lots of foreshadow and tension. Leia told Han to bring back their son and Han looked like that wasn't going to happen. He told Finn that they wouldn't leave the station without Rey and he didn't. Kylo's line about being conflicted and needing help and Han offering any he could so obviously had double meaning and of course the camera zooming in on the saber was Hitchcockian. That seen on the (so ridiculous it could only be in Star Wars) bridge felt so long and I just kept saying to myself "Don't kill Han. Don't kill Han. Don't kill Han." Maybe it was a little cheap, but it worked. I've seen comments of people complaining that there was no tension because they knew it would happen; but these people need to learn from Hitchcock the difference between surprise and suspense.
None of the minor characters were stereotypes. The prequels were filled with dim or offensive caricatures like Jar Jar, Boss Nass, Watto, dumb droid soldiers, trade federation buffoons, and a droid general who coughs. They did seem to underwrite Captain Phasma. For a supposedly menacing figure she gave up information way too easily when threatened by a gun. She can't be a rebellion double agent because then they would have know about the base. Apparently she'll be expanded on in future movies so I'll reserve judgement.
The opening crawl, first line, explains Luke has gone missing. The big Internet mystery about the trailer, where is Luke? is right there at the start. We're supposed to be wondering that and the trailer made us a part of the film months before we got into the theater. The end of the film gives us the mystery from the end of Empire. What will Luke say to Rey? Welcome back padawan? Hello daughter? Who are you?
I saw it in regular 3D and it was very pretty. I got a tilt-shift miniature effect a few times but nothing like I did with Mad Max: Fury Road which mostly seemed like miniatures to me. While it wasn't filmed in 3D there are a few shots, particularly of ships flying, where it really worked. It would be fine in 2D and I think it would be really fun in IMAX 3D.
Apparently the stormtrooper that Rey mind tricked was played by Daniel Craig. I will refer to him as 00-Trooper.
Two things bothered me in the film. Some things happen by coincidence particularly Chewie showing up at the end to rescue Rey and Finn. I was expecting her to at least have to wave the lightsaber to get his attention but he somehow knew where she was. I still don't know how Poe survived the crash so far from Finn and his own jacket.
Second was that they screwed up some distances and technologies. Starkiller base could apparently fire energy bolts to distant star systems, which seems way out of bounds of Star Wars (the death star had to move to the planets to destroy them). Also the rebellion had interstellar communications. They monitored the final battle from their base in real time and we know it was distant because (a) they didn't know where it was without Finn and (b) the Falcon had to go through hyperspace to get to it. They didn't seem to have interstellar communications in Star Wars which is why they were always currying messages in droids. If they could communicate these distances why did Poe have to pick up the map from Jakku in the first place?
I’m going with Rey was a Jedi in training under Luke. Ren turned dark and killed people and Luke hid her on Jakku and mind wiped her to keep her safe (and maybe Max von Sydow was there to look after her from afar like Obi-Wan did with Luke and it would explain why he had a map piece to find Luke). She was too good with the force (resistance to mind probes, mind trick, lightsaber) to be completely untrained. I don’t remember all the stuff in her vision, but she was waiting on Jakku for someone to return and Maz told her that to continue on her journey she needed to move forward not back. So instead of waiting for Luke she needed to go find Luke.
Maybe she's Luke's daughter and maybe Rey killed her mom, but I'm guessing Luke had been chatting with Yoda and Obi-Wan and reinstated the Jedi chastity thing. Since breaking that didn't work out so well for his father. I missed it but apparently Luke was standing next to a grave at the end, perhaps that's his wife in which case it would probably be Rey's mom just based on dramatic themes of the closing shot. Or it could be the grave of anyone close to him that Kylo killed.
People are also pointing out that Luke's lightsaber called out to her, but that's the saber Anakin made and Luke lost on Bespin in Empire, so Maz probably scavenged it somehow and Luke probably never saw it again. I'm not taking it as she's a lost Skywalker and Luke's old lightsaber recognized her, I think touching a lightsaber triggered her repressed memories. Also, I think R2 woke up because a Jedi (in training) was near him (not because Luke's lost lightsaber or daughter was near him).
The other fan theory is that she's Ren's twin which I guess is possible. But Han and Leia didn't recognize her and they didn't speak of any other children let alone losing one. Maybe Leia kept her secret from Han but I don't see an obvious explanation for that. It would be nice that she got to meet her father, and there is a history of twins in Leia's family, but the parallels of her fight with Kylo being a fight between siblings seems too obvious with Luke/Vader or even Obi-Wan/Anakin ("You were my brother Anakin!"). Though Abrams copied so much from the previous stories, maybe he copied this too.
Add VanDerWerff has his own theory, Let's try to solve the new trilogy’s biggest mystery.
Who is Snoke? His projection was giant sized and I'm guessing that's a misdirection. Maybe he's Yoda sized. :)
Update: Devin Faraci answers some questions with What The Hell Is The Story With The Resistance And The First Order In The Force Awakens?
If you need to hear smart people talking about this for 45 minutes in a way NSFW or children, Half in the Bag Episode 100: Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
io9 has a good list of 33 Questions We Desperately Want Answered After Star Wars: The Force Awakens