The Force Awakens aims straight for the nostalgic hindbrain of Star Wars fandom, but my favourite moments were invariably the ones where we saw something new.
The looming wreckage of a Star Destroyer on Jakku, hinting at three decades of history without a word of exposition. Kylo Ren's desperation to forge a new identity outside the established rivalry between Jedi and Sith. Rey's wordless introduction, focusing on her surroundings and her evocative theme music. And in a more general sense, the diversity of the cast, which may be the most significant innovation J.J. Abrams brought to the franchise. It's hard to articulate how important and exciting it feels to see actors like John Boyega, Daisy Ridley and Oscar Isaac at the helm of a story like this, except to say: oh my god I'm so in love.
You can easily map various aspects of the original trio onto Rey, Poe and Finn. In the foreground, Rey continues the Skywalker legacy as a Force-sensitive prodigy with a natural affinity for machines, trapped in an isolated desert settlement but dreaming of the stars. Then Finn and Poe share attributes from both Han and Leia: the pilot, the icon of the rebellion, the outlaw, the reluctant hero who is motivated more by love than by political ideals. Poe's arc in the first half of the film even follows Leia's role in A New Hope, as he passes important information to a droid before being kidnapped and interrogated by the enemy, only to be rescued by a stormtrooper.
This melting pot of familiar motifs is reminiscent of the way J.J. Abrams remixed Spock's death scene for Star Trek Into Darkness, but this time it was far more effective. While Into Darkness offered an unsatisfying copy of an already iconic moment, The Force Awakens had more in common with the way long-running superhero comics get updated for modern audiences. It extracted the most compelling ideas at the heart of Star Wars, pulled them apart, and rearranged them to make something fresh. This didn't always work (in particular, the Starkiller Base attack was unnecessarily derivative), but the three new leads were a phenomenal success.