I'll make it simple.
I loved it.
When the title crawl came up, I smiled. It felt right. There was no mention of taxations of trade routes. It felt like Star Wars again. And then there was a moment pretty early on that set the tone for the movie where one of the characters momentarily breaks the tension of the scene by injecting a very appropriate joke. This continued throughout the film, though to be clear it wasn't a comedy, but the characters were funny. It never took away from the emotions or the tension, though.
I'm going to start with my biggest worry going in, which was Kylo Ren. He is not a Vader clone. He's a new kind of Star Wars villain, layered and emotional, which isn't why he's different (although I can't say too much more without spoiling). Kylo Ren, along with the First Order (that replaces the Empire) serve as a slightly different kind of threat. A little scarier than the Empire because they're zealots, more Nazi-like than the Empire was. Their goals were not fully fleshed out, but as the main villain I was very happy with them.
Han and Leia are Han and Leia. The actors slipped right back into their roles, they are just thirty years older. It created a really nice continuation of the saga without it feeling forced, pun intended. Finn and Poe, the two male leads, both had a charm and wit to them that made them instantly likable, and they were not Luke and Han analogs by any stretch. The same can be said for Rey (Daisy Ridley) who is not a Leia stand-in. She brought a wide-eyed optimism and genuine likability to the role. It's really hard to explain why she was so good; there is something special about both the character and the actress. The point is, I really wanted to take this journey with these characters, and I wanted more when it was over.
One of the new aliens, Maz (Lupita Nyongo), was probably the only real Yoda-esque character, but she was so different and I liked her so much. Plus she brought a nice new alien into the mix. BB-8 was a perfect new addition to the family, and fit in well with C-3PO and R2D2. The little droid was also a lot more versatile than I thought it would be, and matched Rey in innocence and optimism.
As for the visual side of things, this film both looked like a Star Wars film, and brought something new as well. The way things were shot was almost visceral, with long lingering panning shots of beautiful vistas, and quick energized camera moves that worked with the action. The effects were also amazing, without a wonky looking effect or overly CGI moment (except for maybe the CGI characters). Combined with a loving attention to detail and atmosphere, even the bit characters and background players brought just the right stuff to make the movie feel like the originals. It was a bit prettier, maybe. But still dirty and lived in, as it should be.
The film wasn't perfect. There were some very minor issues with pacing, and the plot was a bit thin. But neither of those things ruined the experience. When I left the theater, I felt like I got Star Wars back.
4 out of 4 wonderful new characters.
[Please note that while the review is spoiler-free, the comments are not!]
J.D. Balthazar is a confirmed nerd who loves most things sci-fi or fantasy-related.