What I Liked
I should start by saying I loved this movie. It was a lot of fun, filled with adventure, excitement, and all the things a Jedi craves not. It had just the right balance of action and humour, without being campy or over the top.
Let's start with the technical. The pacing was spot on. It was fairly long for a Star Wars movie, but never felt like it was dragging. Sure there were some scenes (perhaps a better statement would be moments) that felt a little superfluous, for example Finn using a lightsabre against a Stormtrooper with an anti-lightsabre weapon that he just happened to be carrying, despite there not having been any Jedi for decades. But overall the movie had felt like it had a good balance of dialogue, action and character development that progressed at a rate that kept you engaged without overwhelming you.
I also loved the new cast. John Boyega surprised me - having only ever seen him in Attack the Block I didn't know what to expect, but to me he has the look of someone doing comedy. I'm not sure I can explain that; to me he just looks like a funnyman, and I was concerned I would have difficulty taking him seriously. I'm glad to say my concerns were suitably alleviated. Sure, he had his slapstick moments, but he delivered them well in between bouts of real emotion and believable action.
Next up is Rey. And wow, did Daisy Ridley deliver. Prior to this I hadn't seen her in anything (I hadn't even heard of her), so I really had no idea what to expect. But she was fantastic. Rey is a complex character; an adventurer, a scavenger, someone with a traumatic childhood background and obvious abandonment issues. And also a force-sensitive just starting to feel out her new abilities. Ridley portrayed all of the nuances of these various traits, riffing off Harrison Ford for some banter and recoiling from the visions given to her by Luke's lightsabre with equal comfort.
Kylo Ren, played by Adam Driver, is an interesting new villain for the new Star Wars era. Unlike previous dark side villains, Ren is not a cool, collected almost Zen like force wielder who dispatches his foes with cold precision. Instead, he is teen angsty, has daddy issues, and is prone to fits of uncontrolled rage. He feels he is incomplete and can never measure up to Darth Vader, who he holds as his idol. Driver is another unknown, but as it turns out he's an ex-Marine and an actual badass, and brings these aspects to the character when he needs to while also deftly displaying the childlike anger that underpins Ren. Also interesting is Ren's new lightsabre. Instead of the smooth neat blade of a normal lightsabre, Ren's flickers and sparks, and is scrappy and erratic, which reflects his personality. At this stage this may be purely symbolic, but as we're learning in this movie, lightsabres are far more than just inanimate weapons (Luke/Anakin's lightsabre calls to Rey and give her visions), so there may be a deeper meaning here yet to be revealed.
I think the thing I loved most about it, though, was that it felt like a Star Wars movie. Everything from inclusion of classic Star Wars phrases ("we got company" and "I got a bad feeling about this") to the look and feel of the technology, costumes and architecture. A lot of this had to do with the minimal inclusion of CGI effects and heavier reliance on sets and props. But also the design aesthetic was faithful to the originals in a way the prequels never were, and that made this feel like the first new Star Wars movie since Return of the Jedi.
Finally BB-8 was awesome. No more need be said on this subject.
What I Didn't Like
OK, I'm going to start this off with something so minor it seems almost petty. But here it is. Since Lucasfilm has been sold to Disney, this was the first ever Star Wars movie not to open with the 20th Century Fox drum-roll and fanfare. I know that seems minor, but to me it's such a quintessential part of the Star Wars experience that I really missed it. That sound immediately means to me a Star Wars movie is about to begin. I can't see or hear it now without expecting the immediate darkness and silence of the words "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away..." followed by the blaring opening fanfare of the main Star Wars theme. To the point where I'm a little bit disappointed any time I watch a 20th Century Fox movie that isn't Star Wars. Like I said - minor, but I missed it.
And now for my one major gripe about this movie. The storytelling was so lazy and unimaginative that it was borderline offensive to me as an audience member. It's almost as if they took the script from Episode IV and crossed out the name of a planet here, the name of a character there, and re-used almost the entire thing. This movie was unashamedly a remake of Episode IV, and while that's not necessarily a bad thing, it's a bit disappointing that we didn't get a new story.
While not a shot-by-shot, this was an act-by-act remake. Secret plans (sorry map) being hidden in a cute droid, cute droid being hunted by the Empire (sorry, First Order). Young farm boy (my bad, scavenger girl) on desert planet has a Force awakening and is convinced to leave her home behind and join the Rebellion (sorry, Resistance). Daring rescue and escape from the Death Star (no wait, Starkiller Base), team inside to deactivate the tractor beam (or was that the defensive shield?), attack on mega-weapon with small X-Wing squadron, with one hero pilot blowing up the whole thing. There you have an interchangeable synopsis for either movie.
There were also stylistic similarities (which in fairness I've argued above are a good thing) that made the movie somewhat predictable in places. The obvious example being Han's Obi-wan moment with Kylo Ren. As soon as he stepped onto that catwalk, it was inevitable what was coming next, and the scene played out almost exactly like Obi-wan's death in a New Hope.
There was a lot to love about this movie. It was first and foremost a lot of fun. I enjoyed watching it, will certainly watch it again, and can't wait for Episode VIII. Despite it's shortcomings (and there are more than I have listed here, in particular plot holes, unresolved mysteries, etc., although a little bit of patience will see these resolved in subsequent movies), this movie was a lot of fun, and will no doubt provide joy for current and future generations of Star Wars fans. It's well deserving of it' place in the saga, and has made me believe again that we can have new Star Wars movies which will not only not suck, but actually be enjoyable and entertaining.