Great fun, and a reminder that unpopular political leaders mock the Resistance in other galaxies, too, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” boasts a bald-faced lie of a subtitle — sorry, folks, last Jedi, no more “Star Wars” movies! — and special guest appearances from some old, familiar faces. The oldest of them utters a very funny line about the sacred Jedi religious texts being the opposite of page-turners.
It’s a lot of movie, in a good way. Writer-director Rian Johnson, in his fourth feature and the first of what will be, for him, at least four “Star Wars” outings, has whipped up 152 minutes’ worth of pursuit, evasion, mayhem, team-building, explosions, nostalgia and, yes, wit (spoiler alert: actual wit).
This is the longest movie in the franchise. It just doesn’t feel that way. I haven’t been this into a “Star Wars” picture since the Empire struck back in “The Empire Strikes Back.”
Now: I say this as a critic, and as a civilian, who holds little affection for George Lucas’ second trilogy (“Phantom Menace,” “Attack of the Clones” and “Revenge of the Sith”), or for “Return of the Jedi,” for that matter. Here’s why the new one works. You can tell there’s a clever, admiring but not slavish filmmaker at the helm, as you could with Irvin Kershner and “Empire” back in 1980, and it’s clear he enjoyed a fair amount of leeway, tonally and otherwise.
Building on what he learned on his Raymond Chandler riff “Brick” (2005), the archly stylized caper “The Brothers Bloom” (2008) and, heretofore, his sole mainstream hit, the deftly managed time-travel thriller “Looper” (2012), Johnson’s first visit to LucasLand darts and zigzags with an unusual lightness of touch for an effects-heavy franchise title. It’s swift but not monomaniacal in its pacing. Characters both old and new, of various earthly and intergalactic ethnicities (spoiler alert: white supremacists will not like “The Last Jedi”), all enjoy a little elbow room, and their fair share of the action.
Speaking of which … Johnson’s best action sequence is his smallest and simplest, a lightsaber standoff late in the film. The crowd loved it, and I was in that crowd.
“The Last Jedi” plays by the rules laid out in director J.J. Abrams’ 2015 reboot “The Force Awakens.” Much as Harrison Ford served as mythic grounding in “The Force Awakens,” Mark Hamill takes top billing here as Luke Skywalker. We last saw Luke in his Hobbitty hoodie, a disillusioned recluse on an island on “the most unfindable place in the galaxy,” as he says to Jedi-in-the-making Rey, played once again by the invaluable Daisy Ridley.
Several questions are asked and either answered or artfully evaded by “The Last Jedi.” Rey’s family history; the extent and secret source of Luke’s profound disillusionment; these and other puzzlers are nicely spaced out by Johnson, in between aerial dogfights and visits to the next planet on the movie’s itinerary. At one point Finn (John Boyega) and his fellow Resistance fighter Rose (Kelly Marie Tran, a highlight of the new character roster) search for a “master codebreaker” on a planet resembling a mashup of Catalina Island, Monte Carlo and the cantina from the very first “Star Wars,” with tonier clientele.
The digital effects, the production and costume designs, the creature designs and everything else spinning around in this big-budget blender all combine to satisfy the audience’s collective “throw it at me!” impulse, as well as its sentimental, “O, lost youth!” one. I like the blood-red salt on the salt planet; I really like the extra-sudden WHOOOMMPP of the hyperspace jumps, similar to the old ones but whoompier, thanks to the sound design and to the latest Dolby technology. Now and then Johnson’s jokes don’t quite come off, or he’ll settle for a routinely staged and framed shot of people getting on or off a spaceship. Before long, though, the movie’s back on track, and moving fast.
The first in the trilogy laid out the threat posed by Luke’s protege, Ben Solo, who killed his father, Han Solo, and defied his mother, Princess Leia, now a general in the struggling Resistance. “The Last Jedi” is Carrie Fisher’s swan song. She completed her scenes shortly before her death. Johnson wisely makes no attempt to pull our heartstrings more than they’re already being pulled simply by watching Fisher portray her most famous role one last time.
Adam Driver got off to a somewhat rocky start in “The Force Awakens,” uneasily navigating the bratty-adolescent comedy called for by that script’s early scenes. Here, much improved; Driver plays to Kylo’s light and dark sides convincingly, and effectively. Oscar Isaac’s a charismatic asset, as he was in “The Force Awakens,” as the impetuous flyboy Poe Dameron, the pilot most likely to be voted winner of the Han Solo Act-Alike Contest. Much will be resolved by the final chapter of the trilogy, to be directed by Abrams. As much as I enjoy his brand of canny populism, I prefer Rian Johnson’s wilder, generous, far-flung imagination.
Michael Phillips is the Chicago Tribune film critic.
"Star Wars: The Last Jedi" -- 3.5 stars
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for sequences of sci-fi action and violence)
Running time: 2:32
Opens: Thursday evening