Star Wars: The Last Jedi (12A)

Four stars

Dir: Rian Johnson

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With: Mark Hamill, Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver

Runtime: 152mins

IF JJ Abrams’s The Force Awakens successfully re-established the Star Wars franchise as a force to be reckoned with after the disappointments of the Phantom Menace-led prequels, then Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi continues the saga even more impressively.

Episode VIII isn’t afraid to ring the changes or, as one character puts it, "let the past die". So, while it’s still very much a Star Wars film capable of sending the core fans home delirious, it also steps out of the shadow of what has come before to confidently do its own thing and set up a future that’s rife with possibility.

Johnson has previous good form for entering a pre-existing universe and laying down his own stamp on proceedings, having directed three of Breaking Bad’s best episodes (including The Fly and standout Ozymandias).

With The Last Jedi, he repeats the trick, striking a near-perfect balance between honouring the old and bringing in the new, while also delivering crowd-pleasing spectacle and finding a satisfying mix between the drama and an unexpected line in comedy.

Picking up pretty much where The Force Awakens left off, the film hits the ground running with a blistering chase sequence between fleeing Resistance vessels and First Order Star Destroyers.

At the centre of this is General Leia (the late Carrie Fisher) and Resistance heroes Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega), the latter of whom must embark on a daring mission to try to prevent the imminent destruction of the remaining fleet.

Rey (Daisy Ridley), meanwhile, has found Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and persuaded him, albeit reluctantly, to train her in the ways of The Force – a task that unsettles him once he begins to realise the true extent of her powers.

And leading the chase on behalf of the First Order is Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who continues to battle his own demons while seeing an unlikely ally in Rey that could tip the balance of power in his favour.

At just over two and a half hours, The Last Jedi is the longest film in the series to date but works hard to ensure that not a moment feels wasted. It seldom sags.

Rather, its set pieces are genuinely massive, and deserving of the biggest screen possible, while the different planets it visits are visually ravishing and alive with fantastic characters. As a self-confessed lifelong Star Wars fan, Johnson has a keen appreciation for what makes the franchise work.

He knows how to use the iconography of the past intelligently but also strives to keep things fresh, taking viewers to new places and introducing them to new creations. A sequence within a gambling den is one particular delight, populated by spectacular characters, while a climactic battle on a landscape infused with reds and whites genuinely dazzles.

And yet for all of the film’s obvious visual panache, Johnson never loses sight of the inner conflicts at the heart of each character and gives his actors plenty to do.

Hamill is particularly beneficial of this, given that his Luke Skywalker is now a shell of his former self – a legend riddled with regret and doubt. It’s perhaps Hamill’s most complete performance.

But Ridley is given plenty to explore as she seeks to understand her character’s growing powers, while Driver excels as Ren, even if there continue to be doubts about the direction of his journey.

A colourful support cast also includes eye-catching work from newcomers such as Benicio del Toro, as an eccentric thief, and Laura Dern, as a rebel commander, as well as returning cast members Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson and Andy Serkis (once again excelling in a performance capture role).

There are flaws. Johnson sometimes allows things to become a little too corny in the way events play out, opting for hope over cynicism in a way that the standard-bearing Empire Strikes Back avoided. And he also teases some revelations that struggle to carry the impact they promise.

But in the main he gets things right and even leaves you with the feeling that you have seen something new. Where many accused The Force Awakens of being content merely to recycle past ideas, The Last Jedi feels fresh and innovative and a proper changing of the guard.

It’s a film that dares to be ambitious and which, ultimately, feels fully deserving of the fan-boy devotion coming its way.