I have a complicated relationship with the Star Wars series. I am by no means a fan boy (my ability to recall character names and plots is due more to a great memory than devotion to the material), but Return of the Jedi was the first film I ever saw in a theater, I saw all the re-releases and prequels on opening night, and I saw The Force Awakens on opening day as well. So speaking as a fan (but not a fan boy), I loved it; speaking as someone who thinks about movies critically, it had some issues.
On the one hand, The Force Awakens is easily the best Star Wars entry since the original trilogy, largely due to the strength of its cast and writing. First, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, and Adam Driver all deliver strong performances and hold up well when compared to Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher. The inclusion of Ford and Fisher is a smart move as well, as their characters are there not merely as fan service but to drive the plot at key moments. Second, the script jumps past the faithful yet clunky pulp science fiction dialogue of the original Star Wars – not to mention all of the prequels – and into the slick blend of clever (“We’ll figure it out, we’ll use the Force.” “That’s not how the Force works!”) and at times poignant banter of The Empire Strikes Back. Finally, as a director (in)famous for fancy tricks, J.J. Abrams mostly restrains himself, although he can’t resist a few snap zooms and lens flares. His blocking is improved as well, as a decent oner during the second large battle scene demonstrates. In this and in what I’m sure he hopes are “iconic” shots of TIE fighters in a sunset and X-wings over water, he does his best to prove his Spielbergian bona fides.
On the other hand, The Force Awakens is too long and too complicated, qualities guaranteed by the amount of screen time it gives so many minor characters. Several could have been cut altogether, which would have shortened the film and allowed the main characters more time to interact with one another and to develop their arcs more. Along those lines, Boyega’s portrayal only really hits its stride later in the film when he interacts with Ford, and Ridley and Boyega’s relationship shifts from wariness to friendship to (what appears to be) love without a lot of proof on screen.
I am not as hung up on the film’s plot holes as others are: great characters and a compelling story (such as those in Casablanca) always pull me past any narrative inconsistencies. Seth Abramson compiled a nice list of his issues at The Huffington Post, and unintentional parody site Return of Kings has a post on why having a black stormtrooper and a woman as the main characters – which the author believes an obvious concession to political correctness (“social justice” in his words) – is a plot hole in and of itself.
In the end, I think my complaint is less that the film was bad (it wasn’t), but that it could have been so much better.