In the summer of 1999, as a naïve twenty year old, I saw Star Wars Episode I The Phantom Menace a few times in the theater. I was blinded by my love of Star Wars, but by the time the film was due out on VHS later that year, I had more or less lost interest in it altogether. Episodes II & III did nothing to reignite my interest in the franchise, which waned completely by the end of the aughts.
I was worried after seeing The Force Awakens once and genuinely enjoying it that I might once more fall victim to the malaise that sets in on multiple viewings. Thankfully the film was actually even better for me the second time and deepened for me as a fan in ways that the prequels never have and likely never will. There's a reason The Force Awakens is the number one movie in US box office history. It's pretty damn good. These are my feelings about the film and some of its major plot beats after a second viewing. I hate that I even have to make this caveat still, but spoilers ahead...
Finn might just be the best of the new characters
Something the Star Wars universe has never had before is a good old fashioned traitor. Sure Lando may have backed the wrong horse initially in his dealings with the Empire, but we've never had a character that experienced a crisis of conscience before and Finn's "Oh shit, I'm playing for the wrong team" moment makes him a much richer and deeper character than we've seen before. He essentially fills the role Han Solo did in the first film, but he's nowhere near as far along in his journey of self discovery as Han was when we met him, and that makes me excited for his future.
John Boyega damn near steals the movie with his winning line delivery, excellent sense of humor, and fierce loyalty to those who treat him as an equal. How many other non-Jedi characters have picked up a lightsaber to defend their friends? Not counting Han using it to gut that Tauntaun at the beginning of Empire, the answer is zero. I can't wait to see where his character goes from here, but as of right now, Finn is my favorite of these new characters.
JJ Abrams managed to squeeze a ton of quiet moments into the chaos
The film moved at such a clip for me the first time I saw it that revisiting it, I was struck by the amount of time director JJ Abrams was willing to give to moments that needed and deserved time and space to breathe. One example is the moment when Kylo Ren is interrogating Rey, reading her mind and trying to steal Luke's location from her memory of having seen the map. I thought this scene flew by the first time, but I was really taken aback by how Abrams gave the two characters time to force mindfuck one another basically. It's clear that Rey has some knowledge of what force users can do, but it takes Kylo Ren messing with her to sort of piece it all together. I was also pleased that the moment where she mind controls the Stormtrooper shortly thereafter played out much longer than I originally thought.
There's a time and a place to slow things down in a film, especially one like this, and it felt like Abrams and his editors Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey knew exactly how long to give each scene. It's a tightly paced film that moves like a bat out of hell, probably second in 2015 only to Mad Max: Fury Road in that aspect, but it's actually a much savvier film than I suspected on first viewing.
It's not just a beat for beat copy of A New Hope
I wasn't completely onboard this bandwagon after seeing the film, though I had predicted prior to its release that the film would hew closely to the story beats of the original Star Wars, aka A New Hope. Yes, there are elements that are the same, but let's not forget that classic George Lucas directive when he was making Episode I...
I daresay that Force Awakens adhered to this better than Phantom Menace, at least in spirit. Yes, there are echoes and callbacks to the original, but I would never deign to call it a remake or copy.
Without making it sound as reductive as it's likely to sound, the film is actually the most expensive Star Wars fan film ever made. It understands the Star Wars mythos implicitly and made a fun space fantasy that adheres to it like a revered elder. I think that George Lucas' biggest problem in making the prequels is that he was too close to the source matter to be objective. He had no one around him willing to tell him "no" or "this doesn't make sense" or "trade embargoes, George, really?" Greatness is not achieved in a vacuum, and I think that JJ Abrams and crew have made a Star Wars film that's fun in the way those original films were fun. It was no small task, but they pulled it off brilliantly.