Setting aside for the moment the spaceships and lightsabers and critters, "Star Wars" has always been about a few core ideas: the clash of evil empire and mobilized do-gooders; the existence of a power greater than ourselves; the wars within and without ourselves; and love and family. George Lucas' multi-billion-dollar franchise also has told story after story about it always being darkest (or Dark Side-est) before the dawn. Technically, J.J. Abrams' "Episode VII: The Force Awakens" was about all of the above as well, but it's writer-director Rian Johnson who, with "Episode VIII: The Last Jedi", better fulfills the promise of Lucas' first subtitle: "A New Hope."
Johnson, who previously wrote and directed "Looper" and "Brick," embraces the familiar obligations of a "Star Wars" movie while making a strong effort to trick audiences into sitting on the edges of their seats. Though no one would have wished it, he gets help in this regard from the untimely death of Carrie Fisher (who returns as Leia Organa, princess and general). On a first viewing, it's hard not to watch "The Last Jedi" without constantly wondering how much more we'll get of Fisher. It's no spoiler to say that the filmmakers weren't lying when they promised Fisher has a substantial role; in fact, the beloved Fisher gets to be the film's font of centered wisdom, humor and heart.
By contrast, the other characters -- with the exception of Andy Serkis' wickedly confident uber-baddie Snoke -- mostly live in self doubt, fear, and desperation. These include Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), the former tasked with returning the latter, "the last spark of hope," to the scrappy Rebel resistance before it gets snuffed out by the empowered First Order. Luke, you see, is "the last Jedi" knight, and he's determined to keep it that way, having been burned by personal failure. Will he get his Yoda on and train Rey? And what explains the cosmic connection of Rey, Luke, and the "raw, untamed power" that is First Order attack dog Kylo Ren (Adam Driver)?
While that trio attends to the space-opera theatrics, the metaphysics and mystery, Rebel fighters Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac, still buddying up with cute droid BB-8), Finn (John Boyega), and welcome new face Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) get up to the usual space dogfights, behind-enemy-lines missions, and rebel stronghold defenses that keep "Star Wars" in eye-popping action. That's as specific as I'll get about the plot, which is best discovered in a movie theater. Suffice it to say that Johnson has happily recruited some bonus high-caliber acting support from Laura Dern and Benicio del Toro, and several familiar faces from previous "Star Wars" installments crop up in supporting roles or cameos.
Johnson sticks with the "Star Wars" house style and seems pleased to have the opportunity to inspire children with this story of overcoming inner conflict to become one's best self, the key ingredient being hope. The filmmaker injects his own personality and smarts with flippant visual and verbal humor (your mileage may vary) and a pinch of tart political commentary that, in hindsight, functions as a wink to the franchise's own fiscal haul (one character explains, "There's only one business in the galaxy that will get you this rich," and another nods, "War").
Lucas quickly committed to the notion of rhyming "Star Wars" films, a tactic he used over the course of the original five sequels (in the musical vein, composer John Williams remains at it). Where Abrams' "The Force Awakens" felt like "A New Hope" re-painted by numbers, Johnson's "The Last Jedi" rhymes with "The Empire Strikes Back" in subtler ways, allowing for memorable new character dynamics, sights, and sounds assembled by a stellar team of motion-picture craftsmen dedicated to honoring the old while staying on the lightsaber's cutting edge.