With one foot planted in the Skywalker family saga and the other striding toward bold new territory, writer-director Rian Johnson delivers plenty of excitement, humor and soaring moments in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” a rousing middle-of-a-trilogy installment of the franchise.
Starkiller Base, destroyed at the end of “The Force Awakens,” is still a smoldering cinder when Johnson’s story kicks off, but the evil First Order is as determined as ever to wipe out the “rebel scum” of the Resistance. There’s infighting among the rebels, though, as hotshot pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) leads a daring mission against the orders of his commander, General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher, getting the last word a year after her death).
In the aftermath of the early skirmish, the Resistance fleet is barely holding on against a barrage ordered by the First Order’s General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) at the behest of Supreme Leader Snoke (performed by Andy Serkis). It’s up to Finn (John Boyega), the ex-stormtrooper and Poe’s friend, and a new character, plucky crew member Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), to devise a plan to cut through the defenses of Snoke’s flagship.
But what of Rey (Daisy Ridley), the desert scrounger whose budding gifts in the ways of the Force dominated the last movie? She’s where we left her, trying to persuade a grizzled Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to end his self-imposed exile and help the Resistance. But Luke, who believes “the time of the Jedi must end,” sees Rey has deeper questions about her destiny and her connection to his nephew and former student, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who now sits at Snoke’s right hand.
Johnson (“Looper”) deftly weaves the plot threads together, mixing deadpan humor, familiar characters — like the stalwart Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo, filling the furry boots of Peter Mayhew) and the chrome-plated Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) — and some surprising new ones, led by Laura Dern’s Vice Admiral Holdo. About the only weak spot is Benicio Del Toro, playing a shadowy rogue and feeling weirdly out of place among the space-opera heroics.
Johnson stages some of the most dynamic action sequences ever seen in a “Star Wars” movie and sets them to a ticking-clock narrative that heightens the tension. The brisk pace and nonstop action make the 2 1/2-hour running time (the longest in the series) move like a landspeeder at full throttle.
And yet, Johnson proves that he can deliver emotional resonance beyond the whiz-bang spectacle. He gives ample room to explore Rey’s quest to understand the Force, Kylo’s pursuit of power, and Luke’s need to balance the dark and the light. What’s more, he shows how the power of hope, embodied in Leia’s no-nonsense wisdom, is an idea not confined to the Skywalker bloodline.
Altogether, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” makes for an inventive nail-biter of a chapter in the franchise’s long run. It’s quite satisfying — or as satisfying as a movie can be when it, like “The Empire Strikes Back,” leaves the audience hanging for what happens next.
★★★1/2<br>Star Wars: The Last Jedi<br>The battle between the dark side and the light, between the First Order and the Resistance, has seldom been as exciting and emotional as this eighth chapter of the franchise.<br>Where • Theaters everywhere.<br>When • Opens Friday, Dec. 15.<br>Rating • PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action and violence.<br>Running time • 152 minutes.