Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens is an indisputably fun, indisputably well-crafted and well-paced film. It's also indisputably an extraordinarily derivative one, lightly remixing the themes and plot elements of the original Star Wars movie in a way so unsubtle that it almost qualifies as a remake or reboot, in the same way director J.J. Abrams's Star Trek: Into Darkness is essentially a retelling of The Wrath of Khan.
The result has been a somewhat polarized critical reaction even in the absence of real substantive disagreement about the film. Some people are simply very bothered by the lack of original story material; others don't seem to care. But it's a debate that's artificially constrained by the fact that we know two more movies are coming in this series without yet knowing anything about them. It is those yet-to-be-made films that will ultimately determine where The Force Awakens rests in the pop culture canon. Some movies, like The Matrix, stand alone just fine even if their sequels are bad. Other movies, like the original Star Wars movie, are blessed with good sequels but would be joys even if they had stood alone. The Force Awakens isn't like that — our understanding of its highly derivative plot will be fundamentally and forever tied to what comes next, and right now we just don't know what that will be.
To discuss this issue with any clarity requires some plot spoilers, so read on with caution.
Episode VIII could be an Empire Strikes Back remake
Based on where the characters end up at the end of The Force Awakens, the stage is set, in terms of plot mechanics, for Episode VIII to follow a storyline that is as close to Episode V as Episode VII is to Episode IV.
Rey (as the new Luke) will train on a remote planet with Luke (as the new Yoda) while Finn and Poe are on the run, only to be betrayed and handed over to the First Order. A not-yet-ready Rey charges off to fight Kylo Ren (the new Vader), only to be bested and maimed during a fight that also reveals they are close relatives. Ultimately Rey and Poe escape, but Finn is captured and sent into some kind of Stormtrooper reprogramming stasis.
If this happens, Episode VIII will be lame and disappointing, and will cast a retroactive pall of lameness over the quite enjoyable Episode VII. Star Wars, as a franchise, will in effect have landed where we see Spider-Man — every few years a new cast gets together to retell the story of Uncle Ben's death and how Peter Parker learned the lesson that with great power comes great responsibility.
Episode VIII could reveal new depths to Episode VII
Alternatively, Episode VIII could go in a very different direction.
Even though the broad story arc of Episode VII is very similar to Episode IV, the actual characters are rather different. Rey is considerably less callow than Luke (who, let's recall, brushes off the murder of his aunt and uncle like it's nothing, subconsciously excited that their death has liberated him from the tedium of moisture farming), while Ren's temperament and motivation seem entirely different from Darth Vader's. Looking ahead, Luke may play a similar structural role as Yoda, but they are very different personalities with very different life experiences — Luke seems likely to be both a less technically proficient trainer (he hasn't had 900 years of practice, after all) and a considerably more relatable one.
Throughout the course of The Force Awakens, none of this really makes a difference in a clear way. But it certainly could going forward. Why would Rey rush off, half-trained? And if she did, would Luke really respond by sitting around shaking his head remorsefully? New characters ought to give us a new storyline, which, in turn, ought to help us understand the nature of those characters' personalities in a more fully realized way. If it's done well, Episode VII will end up looking like a really well-executed series of callbacks situated near the midpoint of a progressively unfolding tale. If it's done poorly, Episode VII will look like the last gasp of a franchise that's dying creatively. And if the producers and Disney don't even try and simply opt for the remake route, then Episode VII will live under a shadow of lameness retroactively cast by its sequels.
For now, though, all we can say for sure is that all of this week's Force Awakens reviews will have to be heavily rewritten once we see more clearly where the series as a whole is headed.