It's difficult to be objective about a movie that was painstakingly engineered to evoke one of the most powerful experiences of your childhood. I can't see Star Wars: The Force Awakens from the perspective of someone who has never thrilled to the first notes of the John Williams score. Nor can I see it from the perspective of someone who cherishes fond memories of George Lucas' prequel trilogy. (Such people must exist, though their voices aren't very loud on the internet.)
I can only see Star Wars VII as a member of the audience that the franchise's new owner, Disney, was presumably targeting when it hired J.J. Abrams to cowrite and direct. Abrams is a master mimic who specializes in reviving franchises' original recipes even as he tweaks them to fit the palate of the modern blockbuster viewer. Having made Star Trek bankable again, he took on the Force — a huge assignment, but perhaps an easier one, given that most of those modern blockbuster formulas are based on 1977's Star Wars: A New Hope.
It won't surprise anyone familiar with Abrams' work to hear that The Force Awakens plays like a reverent remix of elements from the first two (and most beloved) Star Wars movies. The opening text crawl suggests that someone hit the reset button after Return of the Jedi. The defeated Empire has risen again as the First Order (now with even more blatant Nazi imagery!), opposed by a plucky Resistance. The latter's only hope is a map to the refuge of the semilegendary Luke Skywalker — a map that, in early scenes, is secreted inside an adorable droid on a desert planet remarkably similar to Tatooine.
That's enough spoilers, but the parallels don't end there, clustered as thickly as the familiar motifs in the musical score. While the prequels ventured out boldly — and badly — to explore things new to the Star Wars universe (trade negotiations! tragic hubris!), Abrams plays it safe.
But it's a good kind of safe, because, for the first time in ages, the Star Wars saga has personable leads. Besides bringing back old favorites, Disney had the challenge of introducing a new generation, and the casting is solid — which also makes Star Wars look a bit more like the diverse world we live in. As Rey, a scavenger on the aforementioned desert planet, Daisy Ridley has a graceful alertness and is never a damsel in distress. Playing off her poise with comic awkwardness is John Boyega (Attack the Block) as Finn, a Stormtrooper who suddenly decides he doesn't want to be a bad guy anymore.
Both these characters suffer from cloudy backstories — exposition isn't the film's strong suit. Unpretentiousness is. All that ponderous Jedi mythology aside, the original Star Wars trilogy had a frequent aw-shucks goofiness, perhaps lifted from Lucas' beloved Saturday morning serials. It's back in the Force Awakens script, where you can feel the presence of Lawrence Kasdan (The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark). While a dearth of Han Solo-type smart-asses rendered the prequels dour, this film has almost a surplus of them. (Besides Finn channeling the wisecracks, and a certain well-publicized return, there's Oscar Isaac as a dashing Resistance pilot.) Some of the original trilogy's endearingly low-tech effects are back, too — such as the Millennium Falcon's stop-motion chess set.
It's all about trends, of course. When Lucas made the prequels, he was a kid in a digital toyshop, eager to upgrade everything; now that digital cinema is the norm, Abrams can arouse nostalgia simply by shooting on 35mm. He has an audience eager to feel that nostalgia for the perfect popcorn movie, and feel it they will — along with affection and elation. Whether future Star Wars installments will deliver the even greater excitement that comes from originality remains to be seen.