The one major thing that I have to agree with the critics is how much this film mirrors a new hope. Without giving too much away, there are definitely some familiar settings. At many points the plot is even a bit too predictable. But as a “passing of the torch” sort of film, the familiar plot elements didn't diminish the experience for me.
What made the film work was the new characters. They were all enjoyable and unlike the prequels, they were well acted and well written. The action was pretty intense and the film was well directed. I've always liked J.J. Abrams as a director personally. Yes, his legendary love of camera lens flare effects is on display in this film, but not quite to the extent that it was in his two Star Trek films. The film still looked like a Star Wars movie.
Speaking of which, there wasn't CGI overload in this film as there was in the prequels. There were plenty of effects, of course. But they weren't just there to be eye candy. This film focused on real people. Even the CGI characters were real characters. They got that part right.
The nostalgia is well balanced in the film, far as I'm concerned. But yes, sort of knowing what's going to happen was a bit distracting. They definitely played it very safe with the plot. That's why it is a sound film. It did what the first Star Wars movie, A New Hope, did right. The cliffhanger ending I felt was perfect. I really don't think that Episode 8 will be a clone of empire strikes back. Lucasfilm really just didn't want to screw this up with a new generation of fans. They wanted to start off on the right foot. Far as I am concerned, they did.
I can't really say much more without giving things away. I may do a spoiler laden review at another time. But I will say this. It's really cool that they have a female protagonist for these new films. Yeah, Rey will probably become a Disney princess. But I'm ok with that.
I give The Force Awakens a solid B. Not a perfect film, but it has its own charm that I simply love too much. I'll be watching it again and again, that's for sure.