Star Wars: The Force Awakens was a return to form for the Star Wars series, both in terms of storytelling and in terms of making boatloads of money. The movie was beloved enough by fans to recently earn an MTV Movie Award for Movie of the Year, and that was well after it crossed the $2 billion mark in box office earnings during its theatrical run.
Some, however, felt that the movie was a little too close to its roots, particularly in comparison to A New Hope. It follows a similar group of characters (Rey as the Luke character and Kylo Ren as the Darth Vader character, for instance) and some very familiar plot points, including the basically-the-Death-Star-but-bigger Starkiller Base. It's easy to write those things off as a bit of lazy trope recycling for the series, but director J.J. Abrams says there was a reason for the similarities.
Abrams spoke to Chris Rock at the Tribeca Film Festival about that reason, and says that it was to provide a familiar jumping-off point for audiences when introducing the new storyline that will drive the sequels to come. IGN offers a transcription of Abrams' comments (via Slashfilm):
“This movie [The Force Awakens] was a bridge and a kind of reminder; the audience needed to be reminded what Star Wars is, but it needed to be established with something familiar, with a sense of where we are going to new lands, which is very much what 8 and 9 do. The weird thing about that movie is that it had been so long since the last one. Obviously the prequels had existed in between and we wanted to, sort of, reclaim the story. So we very consciously — and I know it is derided for this — we very consciously tried to borrow familiar beats so the rest of the movie could hang on something that we knew was Star Wars.”
In other words, Abrams is saying he didn't borrow plot points from the first movie in order to cut corners. Rather, he did it to offer some similarity to audiences who might have been put off by jumping into an entirely new storyline without some way to contextualize it. That applies not only to the plot, but to the characters as well:
"All the characters – the Stormtrooper who turns, Finn played by John Boyega, and Rey, the character that Daisy plays, the Scavenger, Kylo Ren, the son of Han and Leia, and Poe the pilot – all these were characters and sort of their roles in the story needed to exist in something that predates them."
One could definitely argue that Abrams was successful in providing an accessible entry point to the new trilogy given the fan reaction and box office numbers. It was certainly more well-received than the first movie in the prequel trilogy, the more laboriously titled Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. That movie set off a tidal wave of negative fan reaction that would last for well over a decade, versus the relatively muted complaints about The Force Awakens being too derivative. If the next two sequels follow a similar template then fans might be less forgiving, but Abrams' comments offer a new hope that episodes 7 and 8 will have more original and surprising plots.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens is now available on Blu-ray and DVD. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story opens in theaters on December 16, 2016, followed by Star Wars: Episode VIII on December 15, 2017, the Han Solo Star Wars Anthology film on May 25, 2018, Star Wars: Episode IX in 2019, followed by the third Star Wars Anthology film in 2020.