I watched Star Wars: The Force Awakens with my family in LA on Christmas Day. Our reaction matched the critical consensus: It didn't do much new. It was a nostalgic exercise.
There were a few new things. I'll list them here:
1. Of the two leads, one was an ethnic minority.
2. The swashbuckling hero at its center was female.
3. JJ Abrams forefronts characters who adopt what is perceived to be nerd-like qualities in an attempt to flatter an audience of millions who somehow think of themselves as outcasts. Kylo Ren is emo, which unfortunately diminishes his menace. Finn is a bumbler who just can't listen to "the man" anymore. The comic high point in the film features his juvenile acting-out against his former boss. Rey's first attempt to use the force is charmingly awkward, similar to a crash-and-burn montage in a superhero origin story.
4. Kylo Ren's light saber's deadly handles, which suggest that this "civilized weapon" is now just a cruel tool for mutilation, like the can openers of medieval Swedish soldiers.
5. Kylo Ren's methodical beating of his bloody wound during his climactic fight with Rey. It looked like something Mifune would do in a Kurosawa fight scene.
6. Mark Hamill looking sort of cool. (I expect/hope that this movie along with his appearance in The Kingsman and the Flash tv series, will offer him a second career as a campy character actor in adventure movies.)
7. Slightly more brutal depictions of mass killings and genocide.
8. The racism was mostly limited to the yakuza-like gang that hunts down Han Solo. At least, they aren't grotesque animalistic caricatures. bell hooks would notice more problems, but I'll take this as a small victory.
9. Cameos by great actors who really wanted to be in a Star Wars movie. (Daniel Craig, Max von Sydow).
10. Old Mark Hamill, old Carrie Fischer, old Harrison Ford. I liked old Mark Hamill and old Carrie Fischer. Old Harrison Ford, who made his fantastic debut in Hollywood Homicide 12 years ago, but who lost his genius in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, bored me.
In short, the movie functions as solid but unimaginative fan fiction. (Fan fiction can be very imaginative. This wasn't.) Abrams did for Star Wars what Bendis did for Spider-Man. He placed the original fans within the narrative and put in some good ideas the fans might have hashed out. He's intelligent, but he doesn't take any risks. The prequels now seem almost admirable in their colossal failure. There is something almost noble in George Lucas's decision to ignore the desires of his fans, indulge his inner Ed Wood and give them something completely new...eh.
The original trilogy is a triumph of excess. It demands that the viewer watch it over and over again, study every little side character who appears for just a few seconds of screen time, and dig the landscapes that were shot on location in the Redwoods and Tunisia. The Star Wars action figure line encouraged this excess. Kids bought action figures of characters who appeared for only 10 seconds on screen and endowed them with narratives and backstories of their own. At the time, Lucas was still a talented filmmaker. He knew that he didn't need to show off Boba Fett's whole costume, or film the entirety of Jabba the Hut's ship, and that by denying the complete knowledge of his universe, he encouraged his viewers to indulge in the mise-en-scene. You couldn't stop "looking" at the screen, or listening to the sound effects.
The prequels and reissues failed by overpopulating the screen with all the toys Lucas wanted to show off. He was gosh darn proud of everything his team had produced in their workshops and he wanted you to see their work. Abrams returns to the original trilogy's relative minimalism, but his team only managed to give us passable knock-offs of those awesome puppets. I hated looking at Lucas's prequels. I didn't hate looking at Abrams's movie, but I didn't have a burning desire to do so.
Star Wars was one of the first movies I ever loved. The others were Little Shop of Horrors and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? The first adult (i.e. R-rated movie) I loved was Blade Runner. All of them encouraged that "looking". Every child is born a cinephile. The trick is making him stay a cinephile. So many of us become adults and decide to just kick back and enjoy a good story with our buddies. I doubt Star Wars: The Force Awakens could encourage a future cinephile. I don't know if there are any big budget movies made in the last 15 years that could. The guys at Pixar try, but they never really succeed.