This review is a no-spoilers zone, so let's cut to the chase: The Last Jedi – Episode VIII of the Star Wars saga – is simply stupendous, a volcano of creative ideas in full eruption. Writer-director Rian Johnson, known for indies such as Looper and Brick, eases into epic filmmaking like a pro. The Star Wars universe is the best toy box a fanboy could ever wish for, and Johnson makes sure that Jedi is bursting at the seams with knockout fun surprises, marvelous adventure and shocking revelations that will leave your head spinning. Even those few jaded doubters, the ones still reeling from the disastrous trilogy of prequels perpetrated by George Lucas, will roar like Wookies and holler, "Holy shit!"
Want lightsaber duels, X-wing dogfights, exotic creatures (oh, those crystal ice-critters!), criss-crossing family bloodlines ("Who's your daddy?" gets asked a lot), high-end FX and lowdown farce? It's all here. But Johnson takes it to the next level, leading us through so many trap doors and blind alleys that we can't tell the dark side from the light. Heroes die and villains thrive ... and then it's the reverse. That's the point of the movie, which brims over with characters on a tightrope.
The plot picks up where director J.J. Abrams left off in 2015's The Force Awakens. The Resistance, led by Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) – she's now a general – is again fighting the evil First Order, commanded by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis in peak motion-capture form). Resistance fighter Rey (Daisy Ridley) has traveled to the isolated island of Ahch-To, the site of the Jedi Order's first temple. The goal: to find AWOL Jedi master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and drag his depressed hermit ass back to save the galaxy and whip sense into his conflicted nephew. That would be Ben Solo, aka Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who last time out killed his own father and now gives his mom, Leia, no end of heartache.
Just when you think you know where this movie is going, Johnson pulls the rug out from under you. Old friends are back, including R2-D2, C-3PO and the immortal Chewbacca. Ex Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), proud to be called "rebel scum," teams up with newbie Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), a mechanic with skills to plan a daring rescue for the Resistance. Benicio del Toro is the life of the party as a thief and codebreaker no one can trust. Fighter pilot Poe Dameron (a dashing Oscar Isaac) has his own misgivings about Vice-Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern), the autocrat who takes command when Leia is knocked out of commission. The Last Jedi marks a sad farewell to Fisher, who died a year ago and whose slyly comic and deeply felt performance shows again why she's irreplaceable.
OK, there are nitpicks. It's simply too long at two hours and 36 minutes – and sometimes too damn much. The screen is so crowded with character and incident that you might need a scorecard to keep up. But the way Johnson, who's slated to direct three more Star Wars films with unfamiliar characters, balances the skyrocketing action with tender feeling keeps you emphatically in the game. The actors are stellar in big roles and small. Ridley and Driver knock it out of the park as Rey and Ren, two characters drawn together by a Force neither understands.
Still, The Last Jedi belongs to Hamill in a portrayal that cuts to the core of what Star Wars means to a generation of dreamers looking to the heavens. In the 40 years since the actor first played Luke Skywalker, we've followed him from callow youth to Jedi master. But it's here that Hamill gives the performance of his career, nailing every nuance of an iconic role and rewarding the emotional investment we've made in him. There are people, places and things you'll have to say goodbye to in Episode VIII, even the laughs are tinged with tears. Never fear. You're in hyper-skilled hands with Johnson who makes sure you leave the multiplex feeling euphoric. The middle part of the current trilogy, The Last Jedi ranks with the very best Star Wars epics (even the pinnacle that is The Empire Strikes Back) by pointing the way ahead to a next generation of skywalkers – and, thrillingly, to a new hope.
Watch below: In our latest 'Fan Theory Exploder' video, Star Wars legend Mark Hamill opens up about Rey's training and General Leia's force sensitivity.