The latest chapter in the "Star Wars" saga has arrived, and fan reaction has been divided, to say the least. Written and directed by Rian Johnson, "The Last Jedi" settles much of the speculation and theories set up by 2015's "The Force Awakens," but the answers it provides won't necessarily satisfy the diehard fans. They do, however, leave plenty of opportunity to steer the series into excitingly uncharted territory. How much you value comfortable familiarity in your tales from a galaxy far, far away will likely determine how much enjoyment you get from the newest installment.
As the film opens, the struggling remnants of the Resistance, led by General Organa (the late Carrie Fisher), are on the run from the evil First Order and the sneering General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson). Hotshot pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and his faithful droid sidekick BB-8 are on the front lines of the battle, but his impulse for reckless heroism causes him to clash with both Leia and her second-in-command, the enigmatic Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern).
Former stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) teams up with a spunky maintenance worker named Rose Tico (appealing newcomer Kelly Marie Tran) to set off on a dangerous mission to find a code breaker who might be able to turn the tide of the Resistance's losing battle.
Finally, in the most compelling storyline, Rey (Daisy Ridley) has tracked Luke Skywalker down to the remote planet of Ahch-To in the hopes of convincing the Jedi master to train her to better wield her natural gift with the Force. Meanwhile, her mysterious connection to conflicted would-be villain Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) grows ever stronger, even as he falls further under the sway of the nefarious supreme leader Snoke (played by motion-capture master, Andy Serkis).
Rian Johnson places little value on the "mysteries" set up in the previous film, and as the plot veers off in some bold directions, he provides the audience with genuine surprises while deepening the characters and giving them real arcs that find them growing and changing in exciting and unexpected ways.
Much in the way Han Solo provided the foundation on which "Force Awakens" rested its story, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) steps into that role for this installment. Hamill plays an angrier, more bitter version of his iconic character than we've seen before, and Johnson uses him to teach his characters not to be beholden to their heroes, and explore the ways they deal with their own failures as well as those of their mentors. "The Last Jedi" continues the series' themes of hope and sacrifice, and the characters are challenged in ways that inject a messy humanity into the film.
Carrie Fisher had finished filming her role before her death, and though "The Last Jedi" provides plenty of great moments for her character, it's clear the next film was going to put Leia in the foreground, and it's heartbreaking to know that will never come to pass.
The film isn't without flaws: the middle section following Finn and Rose's mission has some pacing issues. I loved seeing the planet of Canto Bight, a high-class den of scum and villainy built on the dirty money of war profiteers -- and there's clear thematic intent to what it's seeking to accomplish -- but the entire sequence could have done with some tightening.
The already infamous Porgs get more screen time than they probably need, but damn, if they aren't adorable. But they also fill a purpose, as Johnson adds creatures to fill out the film's universe, reminding us that there's a whole universe of beings who exist outside and separate from the film's central conflict.
And perhaps the most important thing Johnson does with "The Last Jedi" is expand the plot in ways that keep the franchise from solely being the story of the Skywalker clan. There's a rather populist message throughout the film -- that greatness can come from anywhere, not just those with legendary lineage.
Working with cinematographer Steve Yedlin, Johnson also delivers the most gorgeous-looking Stars Wars movie we've ever had. There's an attention to composition, color, and shadow that's somewhat uncharacteristic for the franchise, and which results in some indelible, jaw-dropping images. From its suspenseful opening battle to one of the series' most spectacularly staged lightsaber battles, "The Last Jedi" features some of the strongest action the franchise has seen.
By consistently subverting our expectations, Johnson is able to forge a path full of potential. And sure, one might point out that two-thirds of the way through this new trilogy is a little late in the game, but maybe that's more a fault with "The Force Awakens," a movie I very much enjoyed, but one that catered heavily to fans' nostalgia. "The Last Jedi" feels like something all its own.
It's already proved itself to be one of the more divisive entries in the franchise, and perhaps that's understandable for a film that implores its viewers to let go of the past and accept new possibilities. Thankfully, Rian Johnson carries it off with wit, imagination, and a clear affection for the material. With J.J. Abrams set to return for Episode IX, I only hope he continues down the path Johnson left for him.