Episode VII takes place over 30 years after the closing of Return of the Jedi, with a new regime rising from the ashes of the Empire to once again threaten the galaxy. Familiar faces meet new ones in the age old battle of the dark force against the light.
Undertaking the weight of jumpstarting a new Star Wars trilogy is no small matter, and reportedly Abrams had to undergo a monthly length of heavy convincing to shoulder it. It's impossible to fully understand and emulate the cultural impact that the original trilogy had, and the thought of balancing that with the weight of expectation with a new trilogy would give any director the yips. The Force Awakens broke all previous records for preshow sales, beating its closest contender by a whopping four times the amount in ticket sales. There were fans that called JJ Abrams out and vowed to forevermore call him Jar-Jar Abrams if he failed in the endeavor.
Star Wars feels like Star Trek with its youthful zing and verve, having a flow and momentum that happily carries its viewers away. The plot and screenplay are so streamlined it feels aerodynamic, shooting forward with a kind of unencumbered verve that the prequel trilogies never achieved. Although Abrams depends mostly on practical effects and went back to a sort of "gritty" vibe of the originals (as opposed to the sleek luxury of the prequels), the film looks glossy and joyous. There's not an extra alien or laser beam in there. There aren't explosions to draw us away from what's important (and also thankfully no lens flares, for any that might have been wondering). Abrams' Star Wars has all the gravity of the force mythos, but still knows how to have fun with the characters.
There's a little too much in there that caters to fans, however. Although the nostalgic nods draw out laughs in the beginning, after a while there appear to be too many to ever grasp at a semblance of subtlety. At times, the plot alludes to or appears far too similar to previous movies in the franchise, so much so that it's almost as if they cobbled together what they thought were the best parts of the series, revamped other parts, and created a mishmash remix with new effects and actors. What's new in the story doesn't always appear to have a well-founded base, with little explanation given to pivotal moments.
Oh, but the actors! What a beautiful group of people to come together. Old faces are better than ever, with Carrie Fisher leading the pack in nuanced performances -- the years since the original trilogy have give maturity and a mellifluous quality to her skills. The new ones are exciting to watch on screen -- Daisy Ridley, the always superb Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, John Boyega, and a painful (in a good way) and nuanced Adam Driver. As much love as you have for the old characters (and yes there are plenty of those), you can't wait to see what will happen for the new ones.
And that, perhaps, is what JJ Abrams is the best at -- creating characters that you care about. There are aspects of The Force Awakens that skate thin in terms of plot, but it's unfair to compare it to the original. From the beginning A New Hope was a simple story of good vs evil, peopled with the unassuming hero, the daring princess, and a dashing rogue pilot. We hoped for the power of good and the presence of an unseen force that moved men. Abrams has created a launching board for a solid trilogy that draws a curtain back and allows us to be completely consumed by this universe once more. Could we have asked for more? Perhaps he could have experimented and gone off the map more, but that's not what the franchise needed. I'm interested to see what Rian Johnson does to create a darker and perhaps more original take in the second installment, but we have certainly have a good start with Episode VII.