And this will be a totally spoiler-ful recap of my thoughts and feelings about nearly every scene. So be warned.
This is mostly by memory, from having seen the movie 4 times, but not taking notes in real-time (by the end of this article I was consulting a copy of the script a friend found on line and sent to me.) So a few things might be out of order, and as always there are bits I intended to mention but forgot at the time of writing.
Opening crawl. Luke Skywalker has vanished. Well, that explains why he's not in the promotional material, and it looks like the main macguffin is about finding Luke. Cool. Also "Empire" becomes "First Order" and "Rebels" becomes "Resistance." Haters are complaining about how derivative this is. Maz Kanata will later explain how there's a cycle of dark side--the Sith, the Empire, and now The First Order, but I'm jumping ahead of myself. In brief, I'm with Maz Kanata--history repeats itself, and that's an intentional motif of this film, not a weakness.
Star Destroyer shadow over the planet. Nice.
Other than a phalanx of nameless Stormtroopers, BB-8 is the first character introduced. This sentient soccer ball will consistently upstage everyone else in the movie. And that's not a slight against the actors, that's a comment on how cool BB-8 is.
Max Von Sydow gets the first line in the movie: "This will start to make things right." Then he's killed off quickly. I want to know more about Lor San Tekka. Seems like he has an interesting backstory.
Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron, the best Resistance pilot. Cool. He's got the skills, and the swagger. I like him.
The First Order attacks. Poe's X-wing is damaged. He's done for, but puts the map to Skywalker in BB-8. Now BB-8 is guaranteed to be the center of the film.
In the fight, we see one Stormtrooper become hesitant after his buddy is gunned down and smears a bloody handprint on his helmet (nice way to recognize him.) That's actually some great acting-- showing the fear, the second-guessing, etc. without the benefit of using your face. I'm still impressed by this every time. Kudos to John Boyega, impressive acting before we ever see his face.
By the way, the guy who gunned down his buddy happens to be...Poe Dameron, the guy who later becomes his BFF. I imagine sometime later, Finn and Poe are at a bar, shooting the breeze, talking about how they met. Finn starts talking about the battle that turned him against the First Order, and how it started with his buddy getting killed. Finn says, "I know I'm on the other side now, but I just wish I could get my hands on the bastard who did that!" And Poe is thinking 'Oh shit! Should I tell him? No, don't say anything...'
Kylo Ren appears. He makes for an interesting villain. Haters are disappointed, but I think they're missing the point. He is not the bad-ass that Vader was (at least when we first see him in the original STAR WARS.) He has raw strength with the force, but not great control. In fact, if you go by the theory that the Force is a finite resource, the fact that he's nearly the only one using it makes him strong, but not necessarily skilled. More on this later.
In any case, after a brief exchange establishing that he and Lor San Tekka know each other (and that his family connection is important) he strikes him down.
Poe shoots at Ren, and HOLY CRAP HE JUST FORCE-STOPPED A BLASTER BOLT! (and Poe.) Again, he's strong, but not subtle. Also, this is kind of an excuse for more lens flares. This is, after all, a J.J. Abrams movie.
"Who talks first? Do I talk first?" Lol. This is kinda stretching the comic relief factor, but I love it as part of Poe's cocky swagger.
Kill all the villagers. Finn doesn't fire. He's realizing not just that war is hell, but he's on the wrong side of it.
Back to the Star Destroyer. On the 4th time through, I was keeping an eye out specifically for wipe effects. This is the first one I noticed. J.J. Abrams has certainly changed the visual style plenty (even beyond the copious lens flares.) Visually, this is J.J. Abrams movie more than a STAR WARS movie. But at least he kept this nod to the originals (which, of course, was itself a nod to Kurosawa.)
We finally see Finn (still FN-2187) without his helmet. And Captain Phasma giving him some shit. He's gonna be in trouble!
Now let's go back to Jakku and introduce Rey. A scavenger among the ruins from the end of the last war. Star Destroyers, AT-ATs, pod racers, etc. are half-buried in the sand, and she collects parts, cleans them up, and turns them in to Unkar Plutt (unseen Simon Pegg cameo!) for "portions" (food rations.)
My fellow burners will immediately recognize Niima Outpost as Center Camp. Don't know if that's intentional, but I always laugh at it.
She lives in a fallen AT-AT, she has a handmade rebel pilot doll, a rebel pilot helmet, and all sorts of other artifacts. Later moments of recognition will confirm that she's heard stories, legends of the battle between the Rebellion and the Empire, and that's set up visually from the start.
Rey rescues BB-8 from Teedo. Yay! Two of our heroes meet! She tries to give him directions, but he follows her home. Congratulations Rey, you have a pet soccer ball!
Back at Niima, she can't get a good price for her scavenged parts, but Unkar offers her a fortune for the droid. No sale. So Unkar will steal it.
Kind of pointless plot-wise, but sets up an important positive element of Rey's character.
But first, back to the Star Destroyer. Kylo Ren interrogates Poe. By which I mean he reads his mind, because that's something force users can do now. Now both sides know to look for BB-8.
Finn rescues Poe. I love this exchange:
Poe Dameron: Why are you helping me?
Finn: Because it's the right thing to do.
Poe Dameron: You need a pilot!
Finn: I need a pilot.
Finn is becoming a hero. In fact, he's becoming my favorite--an ordinary guy, who finds himself on the wrong side of a fight, and has the moral courage to switch. People of conscience are more valuable than people who are strong in the Force. But right now, he's still conflicted on 'doing the right thing' vs. 'just getting the fuck away from there.'
They steal a tie fighter. The tie fighter shooting up the interior of the Star Destroyer bay is pretty fucking cool.
Finn is a natural gunner, Poe is one hell of a pilot, they make a good team. This is also where Finn officially gets his name.
They're hit, they crash, oh no! Back on Jakku, Finn has ejected and survived. This is one shot that bugs me every time. He sees the smoke of the tie fighter way in the distance, then in the next shot he's running right up to it. I understand it adds nothing to show a minute of him walking over towards it, but it results in weird time/space distortion in my mind.
Anyway, Poe's nowhere to be found, but his jacket is. And then the tie fighter sinks into the sand, and then explodes. We're led to believe Poe is dead, but I didn't believe that for a minute. Let's call that whole thing a weak-ish scene. But the fact is Finn's story is what's important now, not Poe's.
BTW, haters have complained that after surviving the crash Poe apparently just went back to the Resistance base rather than searching for BB-8. This is allegedly a plot hole. Except it's not. When they're reunited later, Poe tells Finn he ejected and then woke up at night. By then, Finn, Rey, and BB-8 were off the planet. He could've searched for them and found someone who saw them leave, so he knew it was useless to stay on Jakku.
Finn makes it to town, and there's a gag (literally) about him drinking from the same pool as a disgusting giant snout-monster. That was pretty funny.
Finn sees Rey attacked by Unkar Plutt's goons. He gets up and starts to run to her rescue. His latent good-guy instincts are awakening.
But she's a bad-ass and fights them off. Then BB-8 fingers him, recognizing Poe's jacket.
A brief chase, and Rey clobbers Finn with her staff. Also BB-8 electrocutes him. I love all the little gadgets BB-8 has hidden inside.
Finn tells how Poe didn't make it. I love the downcast motion BB-8 makes. Droids have often been the best part of STAR WARS filmmaking, especially in how much character and emotion they can communicate with just motion and beeps. BB-8 is fantastic at this. It makes me wonder if they not only studied the droids in the previous movies, but also studied one of my favorite movies ever--WALL-E.
Stormtroopers, run! The joke of Finn taking Rey's hand and her objecting might be a little overplayed, but I still like it.
Shhh...Tie Fighters, run some more!
And finally, after introducing 4 great heroes and one fascinating villain, we get our first introduction to a classic original trilogy character--the Millenium Falcon! The joke that it's "garbage" telegraphs what you're about to see, but it's timed great and I still get chills every time I see it.
Flight, and fight. A kick-ass escape/dogfight scene. And cool, BB-8 has little cables he can shoot out to secure himself!
Both Rey and Finn are impressed with their abilities, also they're starting to like each other. Interesting that they're both impressed with their abilities. I think an overlooked element is that Finn is finding himself to be kind of a surprising badass almost as much as Rey is. I wouldn't be surprised to find he has a little bit of the Force in him, too. Not that I necessarily want that, I think he's a cool character even without a single midichlorian, but I wouldn't be at all surprised or disappointed to learn that he's at least a little bit of a Force user.
Back to Kylo Ren--an officer tells him that the droid escaped, with the help of FN-2187 and an unknown girl. He goes apeshit destructive with his lightsaber on a compute console. Wow, like crazy, unhinged destructive! There's a lot of anger in him, and not a lot of control. He's becoming more interesting.
The Millenium Falcon, as always, is fucking falling apart. While fixing it, Finn confesses to BB-8 that he's not actually with the Resistance (oh yeah, earlier he had told Rey he was.) But they come to an agreement anyway. I mention this only because BB-8's thumbs-up with a lighter makes me grin every time.
Then they're trapped in a tractor beam, and...Han Solo and Chewbacca are back! Their entrance still thrills me every time. "Chewie, we're home!" Damn straight!
Finn knows of Han Solo as a rebel and war hero. Rey knows Han Solo as a famous smuggler. That's funny. And, of course, she knows the Millenium Falcon did the Kessel Run in 14 12 parsecs. Still makes me laugh.
Mention Luke Skywalker to Han, he gets all serious and nostalgic. I love seeing Han Solo have the same nostalgia as the audience--that really gets me in this scene.
Two different gangs confront Han Solo, and we're on a collision course with wackiness. Rathtars escape and there's a big old action sequence. Just pure visual, visceral thrills. But in terms of moving the plot forward, it puts Han and Chewie on the Falcon with Rey, Finn, and BB-8 heading to the Resistance, and it informs the First Order of this fact.
Ren and Hux talking to Snoke. I forget, is this the first time we see Snoke? Anyway, he's big as fuck, until we realize he's just a hologram. Can't wait to learn more about him. There are already ridiculous fan theories about him (e.g., he's Darth Plagueis, or even Darth Vader) but I'll just wait to find out. Anyway, Andy Serkis continues being the master of acting without being on screen.
Also, giant reveal, Han Solo is Kylo Ren's father! And Snoke and Ren know this will present a major challenge for him. Interesting reversal that they talk about being seduced by the light side of the Force. I like that more each time.
In the meantime, Hux prepares to use their super-weapon. Oh yeah, we have our first views of Starkiller Base. A planet with a giant weapon built into it. Yes, it's a Death Star rehash. Or rather, as sequels often do, it's modeled on the giant weapon in the first movie, but bigger and badder this time. We will soon see how much.
Back on the Millenium Falcon, travelling to Maz Kanata's bar. Rey again proves to be a bad-ass by fixing the Falcon--bypassing the compressor (ripping it out.) I love the dynamic between her and Han. He's obviously impressed. Han has always been a great audience surrogate in the films, and what was missing most in the prequels.
We get the first look at that map that BB-8 is carrying. And...it's not complete. Han is again nostalgic about Luke, and we get the mention of the first Jedi Temple.
Back to Kylo Ren. Talking to and seeking strength from the charred remains of Darth Vader's helmet and skull. I don't care about how he got it (which is something that seems to bug the haters) I just love that he has it. And he calls it "grandfather."
Takodana, "I never thought there was this much green in the whole galaxy." Nice line. Rey's sense of wonder poking through her orphaned survivor shell is one of my favorite themes of the film. Also, Han sees through Finn's "big deal" bullshit pretty quickly.
Now the only thing that really bugged me, and I didn't notice until the 4th viewing. When Han gives Rey her mini-blaster, she practices aiming by holding it out with her right hand but closing her right eye and aiming with her left. She shouldn't be able to hit shit like that.
On a personal note, this registered with me because I, myself, am right-handed but left-eye dominant. The first time I held a rifle as a young Boy Scout I made this exact mistake, rolling my head over as far as I could to aim with my left eye and right hand. I know there's plenty of material online for people with this condition about training yourself to aim and shoot with either your right eye or left hand, but after trying a bit of both, I was still a lousy shot and not having much fun, and that's why I don't own a gun today.
Anyway, we get to Maz Kanata's bar. Yes, it's a callback to Mos Eisley, but I love the idea that the galaxy is littered with strange bars where varieties of unsavory characters--even enemies--stop to unwind. Spies from both the Resistance and the First Order alert their masters that the droid they're searching for is there. There will soon be a battle there.
I like Maz Kanata. She has a relatively small role here, but is important as someone who has the wisdom of years. "I have lived long enough to see the same eyes in different people." Not only a cool line, but I think that's my go-to response to the haters who talk about it being derivative. Life is derivative, life is cyclical, history repeats itself. I said that before, and it bears repeating.
But first, "I like that Wookie" might be my favorite line of the movie.
Finn is still looking to get the heck out of there. Rey is confused, betrayed. Just before leaving, Finn comes clean--I'm not with the Resistance, I'm a Stormtrooper who defected. Also, I love you and come with me to the Outer Rim (not in so many words.) She doesn't go for it.
And now Annakin's/Luke's lightsaber calls to Rey. This is one of the most fascinating, mysterious scenes in the film. It took me a few times watching it to come to this conclusion, but I'm convinced her visions are not coming from the lightsaber itself. It's a conduit, maybe touching it opens a pathway for the visions, but I don't think they're originating from it.
Follow me on this...
First vision: The hallway on Bespin, just before Luke's first duel with Vader. Okay, obviously the lightsaber was there for that.
Along with both of it's previous owners.
Second vision: Burning temple, Luke's hand reaching out to touch R2D2. The lightsaber should not have been there. But Luke was.
Third vision: Kylo Ren and the Knights of Ren attacking, killing all of Luke's students. Again, the lightsaber wasn't there, but Luke was.
Fourth vision: Rey as a child being left with Unkar Plutt on Jakku. The lightsaber wasn't there. But...was Luke? Are these all Luke's memories, being transmitted to her through the lightsaber?
Theory: she was a student of Luke's, the only one in his Jedi nursery to survive the attack. Kind of the Harry Potter of this universe. And Luke himself hid her on Jakku, knowing that hiding on desert planets work because Sith hate sand (http://hellogiggles.com/darth-vader-plot-hole-star-wars/) Also, I don't think Luke is completely absent on his little island on a distant planet. I think he's actively but secretly reaching out with the Force, and manipulating events as best he can while staying hidden. R2D2 suddenly coming to life at the end (sorry for jumping ahead) is the strongest evidence for this, but it explains most of the vision sequence, too. And can explain a lot of how quickly she learns to use the Force...perhaps she's hearing a voice in her head, much as Luke heard Obi-Wan at the end of the original STAR WARS.
Anyway, Fifth vision: This gets even more interesting, as it's foreshadowing the ending of this movie and the fight in the snowy woods on Starkiller Base. It's a vision of the future, and now we have Obi-Wan's voice (actually a blend of Ewan McGregor and Alec Guinness) calling to her and telling her these are her first steps. Well, it appears Luke isn't the only one reaching out to her through the conduit of the lightsaber. Obi-Wan's Force ghost is, too. Which leads to tantalizing theories about who else might be. After all, if it was Annakin's lightsaber, could there be some dark side forces reaching her, too? We'll have to wait for the next movies.
Anyway, all this is too much too fast, and Rey freaks and runs away. But not before Maz gets in a little more wisdom: "The belonging you seek is not behind you."
Back to Starkiller Base, and the super space-nazi rally. Holy crap that's a great scene, and Domnhall Gleeson throws himself into the role of Gen. Hux. He's great (have I mentioned how cool it is that he and Oscar Isaac (Poe Dameron) were also in EX MACHINA, in very different roles. Anyway, they make great sci-fi opponents.)
Can we pause for a moment and consider how the super-weapon is a galactic-sized lens flare?
Also, let's gloss over the fact that people on Takodana can both see and hear this weapon from the surface of the planet. The Star Wars franchise has never been big on scientific accuracy, so let's just pretend this Galaxy Far, Far Away has slightly different physics.
The important thing is everyone notices, especially Finn. He's no longer leaving for the outer rim. He cares more about finding Rey (yay, love!) And Maz hands him the lightsaber. That's his weapon for this battle.
Yes, Finn wielding the lightsaber is cool. The fight with stormtrooper TR-8R is cool.
And elsewhere, Rey actually can shoot with the wrong eye/hand combination? Actually, I like to think that's why she missed her first shot but corrected it on the second.
But in this whole battle, Han's love of Chewie's crossbow is the best part. Harrison Ford, who famously wanted to die either in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK or RETURN OF THE JEDI, is actually having fun still being a part of Star Wars.
And The Resistance shows up to join the fight. And, no surprise, Poe Dameron is leading them. "Woohoo! That's one hell of a pilot!" Ha, Finn and Poe's bromance is strong.
Ren and Rey face off in the forest. It's no contest, Ren is definitely more powerful, but keeps her alive and kidnaps her so he can Force-read her mind and get the map. They no longer need BB-8 (or so he thinks) so he order a retreat. Our heroes, Finn and Han see Kylo Ren leave with Rey's unconscious body.
Han and Leia's big reunion scene...interrupted perfectly by C-3PO. Okay, that was silly, but fun. And the "You probably don't recognize me, because of the red arm." line is pretty funny. For a protocol droid, C-3PO is especially inept at human interactions.
At the Resistance base, Poe and Finn are reunited. Poe tells Finn to wear his jacket. Dude! They're totally going steady like high-school sweethearts!
Lots more exposition at the base. Han and Leia talk about Kylo Ren, their son. He's the reason they're not together. Their scenes are sweet and they still have the loving antagonism thing going on. Most important part--Han thinks Kylo Ren is beyond saving. But Leia wants him back, and tells Han so. He's his father, he can reach him in a way Luke couldn't.
Back on Starkiller Base. Ren interrogating Rey. She's better at resisting him then he thought. He takes off his mask, and again we see there's more conflict in him than he likes to let on. The part about the island in an ocean--obviously Luke's island. She dreams about it. More evidence that she was there before she was placed on Jakku (or at least that Luke is reaching out to her and giving her visions.) Anyway, she successfully resists him.
And Snoke is pissed at that. Especially since he took the girl rather than finding the droid, and now the Resistance has it, and possibly the map. The "Bring her to me" line is fantastically menacing.
Rey somehow gets the idea to try a Jedi mind trick on her guard (trivia, that's Daniel Craig under that armor, and fans have taken to naming the character JB-007.) Of all the derivative-but-who-cares-it's-fun scenes in the film, this is my favorite. Even if it's never explained how she even knew about the mind trick (my theory, of course, is Luke put the idea in her head.)
Ren finds out she has escaped and goes bat-shit crazy on the room with his lightsaber. The Stormtroopers walking by turn around and decide to patrol elsewhere. That scene always makes me laugh.
Biggest exposition scene back at Resistance base, explaining Starkiller Base relative to the Death Star, and coming up with a plan to blow it up. I'll revisit this later when I address some of the complaints with the movie. Important thing is it puts Han, Chewie, and Finn on a mission to both rescue Rey and blow up the base.
Ignore the physics of coming out of light speed right at the planet's surface. Ignore a lot of physics in most movies, but especially in Star Wars movies. They're fun without the physics.
Kylo Ren can tell Han Solo is on the planet. Haters make a big deal that he can sense this but not when Han is right behind him later. Makes perfect sense to me if you keep in mind that Kylo Ren is strong, but not skilled. He can tell he's on the planet, but can't localize it down more than that. At least, not to the level of a few meters, maybe to the level of kilometers? (Sorry for getting all metric on you)
Outside, Finn admits his job on Starkiller Base was sanitation...he was a janitor. Haters pick on this (ignoring that he was, in fact, a trained Stormtrooper, this was just his assignment at one time.) I think it's perfect, and not just for the trash compactor joke later. If you've ever been to a strange new building and want to ask directions, often the best person to ask is the janitor. He goes into every room of that building, he knows the layout. Hell, people never seem to worry about the janitor overhearing sensitive information, he's just the guy taking out the trash.
Okay, "That's not how the Force works!" is actually my favorite line of the movie. Note: they ultimately lower the shields using not "The Force" but simply...force. Ha!
The Resistance fleet rushes in, bombs the whatever-it-was-called doohickey...oscillator, that's it...that will make the planet blow up. But...no effect. And now they're in a huge dogfight with a ton of Tie Fighters. Haters seem to ignore the fact that their super-quick blow-up-the-planet plan...didn't actually work. It was a long shot, but they actually needed help on the surface.
Which brings us back to Han, Chewie, Finn and Rey (oh yeah, they find Rey remarkable easily, in another comic scene.) So, time to set the explosives.
And then the pivotal scene, Han confronting Kylo Ren/Ben on the bridge. What always gets me in this scene is remembering how Han thought there was no saving him. I think Han walks out on that bridge thinking he'll never walk back. He does it because Leia asked him to. And he's almost successful. You could see the conflict in Kylo/Ben, even before the line about being torn apart.
And then, of course, as the light goes out Kylo Ren kills Han Solo. Yeah, yeah, Harrison Ford is signed on for the next movie. But he's not going to be a Force ghost. And he didn't survive. It will be a flashback, nothing more. Anything else would be stupid.
Chewie shoots Kylo Ren, wounding him. And then he detonates the explosives. That damages it enough that one more bombing run by Poe can finish the job.
Gotta get all the heroes working together for this.
And now outside, the showdown between Kylo Ren, Finn, and Rey.
Haters make a big deal that Finn can hold his own against Kylo Ren. Ummm...no, he can't. He gets one good hit in but Kylo Ren overpowers him and slices him up the back. It's a miracle he survived.
The scene where the Skywalker lightsaber flies right past Ren and into Rey's hand. I love it, and yes, I think Luke has something to do with that. In fact, OH MY GOD, it's Luke Skywalker's theme music!!!
Okay, that's not the first or last time it plays (and actually it's kind of Obi-Wan's music, too. It's basically the light side of the Force theme.) But this is my favorite instance of it.
Haters make an even bigger deal that Rey holds her own against Kylo Ren (despite the fact that she obviously is pretty strong with the Force.) Let's ignore the fact that he's injured. Let's also ignore the fact that his concentration is way off after just killing his dad. Even beyond that, let's get to the essence of his character.
He is violent, angry, undisciplined, conflicted...strong, but not skilled. This is reflected in his ragged, crackling lightsaber blade. The fact is he's not a lightsaber expert. He attacks a person the same way he attacks a computer console--with rage, with force, but with no style or grace. Lightsabers were introduced first as an elegant weapon from a more civilized age. And the Skywalker saber is. Ren's is not. It's not an elegant weapon, and he is not a product of a civilized age.
Thinking more on this, I love the progression (or regression) of lightsaber duels over the entire series. In the prequels, lightsabers were everywhere and were flashy, shiny, and used with extreme skill. It was an art--truly an elegant weapon for a civilized age. By the time of the original trilogy, there were only a few lightsaber wielders left, and the skills had declined. The wars were fought with blasters and spaceships, not lightsabers, except in rare, almost ceremonially staged duels. And now...lightsabers are uncivilized, and nobody knows how to wield one. Except the Skywalker saber still has elegance, it's just waiting for someone who can wield it properly.
Okay, all that's left after the battle is to get the principles on both sides off Starkiller Base before it collapses. Snoke order Hux to get Ren and evacuate. Chewie finds Rey, they get Finn onto the Millenium Falcon and take off. The planet does not explode. It collapses and forms a new star with all the energy it sucked from the old one. Everybody has to slightly update their star charts.
R2-D2 wakes up (clearly Luke's doing) and reveals the rest of the map to find Luke. Rey flies there, walks up a lot of stairs (am I mistaken or does she pass Yoda's old dining set at one point?) and we finally see Luke Skywalker. I have to say, the beard looks good on Mark Hamill. Cool ending, and makes me want to see what happens next.
So all 4 times, I enjoyed it immensely. In fact, I'll stick with my initial assessment that it might be the best so far, we just won't know until there's 30+ years of nostalgia and repetition behind it.
Now let me address the haters.
First: things that you don't understand or are unexplained are not plot holes. Some things they're clearly setting up for future films, and some things you can just fill in the blanks yourself. If we want to talk about movies that leave things unexplained, the top example of that, just from this year alone, is MAD MAX: FURY ROAD. As many have pointed out, it doesn't even make sense in context of the other Mad Max films, unless he's not actually the same character. But it's still much beloved, scored a 97% on Rotten Tomatoes, and is nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. Also, much of what you think is unexplained actually is explained, if you actually watch the movie instead of look for things to pick at.
Second, noting that the seventh movie in a series is derivative is not particularly noteworthy, and pretty puzzling as a criticism. 'This was too similar to something I greatly enjoy' is at best a confusing complaint. Just off the top of my head, the two movies I can think of that vastly deviated from the rest of their series are...THE GODFATHER PART III and MATRIX: REVOLUTIONS. I would love to see a defense of either of those movies for brilliantly taking their series in new, unexpected directions, but you have to realize that's going against the grain of popular and critical opinion. Knowing J. J. Abrams skills as an homagist (a word I just made up, but probably should've years ago for Quentin Tarantino) I expected there to be plenty of call-backs and references to other films in the series. What I hoped for, and what he delivered brilliantly, were new characters that could continue moving the stories forward. The fact that I'm more interested in what happens next to Rey, Finn, BB-8, and Poe (in that order) than in what happens to Luke, Leia, Chewbacca, R2-D2, and C3-PO tells me he did a fantastic job (although rumors that Lando Calrissian is coming back in episode VIII also have me excited.)
Most importantly, I have yet to see anyone suggest any changes they'd make. There's a whole lot of criticism, but none of it constructive. (I'm sure I've missed someone's blog post on this, but I haven't read anything saying "STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS would've been better if they had...[insert actual suggested scenario here.]"
So I want to return to one scene. The Resistance planning the attack on Starkiller Base, starting with Han's "There's always a way to blow it up" statement. It seems that's the tipping point for many haters. They were letting Abrams have his call-back in-joke fun up to that point, but somehow that pushed them over the edge.
I submit to you that the problem with that scene is not that it's derivative. It's that it's brief. It's light. It cares more about getting to the next action piece than putting any weight into the scene itself. No Bothans died bringing us this information. Calling back to previous movies is the method to keep the action moving, but it is not the root cause of your complaint.
So with that in mind, here is my concrete suggestion for how to make STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS better:
Don't blow up Starkiller Base.
At least, not yet. Leave it for the next movie. Or even deal with it a different way--in the next movie.
If the root cause is that exposition scenes are abbreviated in order to get to the next action piece, then take a 'less is more' approach to the action. Spend more time on everything up to that point (maybe leave fewer of these questions that haters call plot holes.) Have R2-D2 wake up right then (for that to be worth it, he--and the Resistance Base--would have to be introduced earlier.) If Luke is the one waking up R2-D2, in Abrams' movie he must do it because after Starkiller Base was destroyed and it was relatively safe. In my version, maybe he turns on R2-D2 out of desperation, because Starkiller Base just went live. A lot more would have to change to make it work, but basically my proposal is to cut the last act of the film and move it to the next one.
I should stress again that I liked the movie, in reality I would change nothing (other than have Rey aiming with the right eye.) So I present my "improvement" as an attempt to fix what ain't broken, and as a challenge to the haters to do the same. If it sucks so much, what would you actually change?
Running Time: 135 (x2)
My Total Minutes: 413,589