Photo: Disney

Early into The Last Jedi, the zippy, operatic, and occasionally exhilarating new Star Wars movie, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) smashes his helmet into pieces. It’s chiefly a symbolic act: Kylo, who established his volcanic temper as the formidable new heavy of The Force Awakens, is determined to “let the past die”—to emerge from the shadow of his infamous grandfather, to shake the Vader comparisons he once courted and make the galaxy far, far away forget all about the fallen Jedi with the basso profondo and the beetle-black armor. But is there a promise, too, in the shattered remains of that villainous headwear? After two “new” Star Wars movies inextricably linked to the 1977 original, perhaps letting the past die isn’t the worst route for this series to take.

Written and directed by Rian Johnson (Looper, Brick), The Last Jedi is a middle chapter in most of the right ways. Unburdened by the necessity for introductions or tying up loose ends, it operates in a rollicking present tense, never stopping to catch its breath as it races through two and a half hours of running time. This isn’t a nostalgia trip through another film’s highlights, à la the franchise reset J.J. Abrams offered two years ago, though as the second episode in a new trilogy, it does contain perhaps inevitable echoes of The Empire Strikes Back: a battle on an ice-covered planet that’s basically Hoth, complete with slowly stomping, dinosaurian AT-AT Walkers; a plot that splits up the characters, sending one of them to some far-flung locale for secret training sessions; and even the repeat of a certain punchline. More than replicating the specifics of Empire, The Last Jedi preserves its general values, its spectacle and mysticism and downbeat Shakespearean drama.

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We pick up where The Force Awakens left off: with the resistance, led by General Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher), back on the defensive, evading destruction at the hands of The First Order. The impossibly British General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) has found a way to track the rebels through hyper-speed, meaning that the good guys have to constantly keep leaping to safety—an idea that recalls the first episode of the Battlestar Galactica reboot. (Given the supposed, litigated influence the original Star Wars had on the original Battlestar, perhaps we’ll call this a friendly case of sci-fi symbiosis.) With fuel running low, reformed Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) sets out on a risky, multi-step mission to disable the enemy’s tracking device, an uneasy new comrade from the engine room (Kelly Marie Tran) in tow. Meanwhile, on a secluded island somewhere else in space, Rey (Daisy Ridley, terrific again) slowly convinces a grizzled, hermetic Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to train her, the way a miniature Zen master with jumbled syntax once trained him.

Photo: Disney

Those who go in expecting the knotty unpredictability of Looper will be disappointed. Johnson is operating firmly within the Lucasfilm framework; narratively speaking, he’s playing with, not transcending, the ancient hero’s-journey template of the series. Yet The Last Jedi gets some new life out of those conventions. The meat of the story is on that island, as Luke—looking more like Alec Guinness’ Obi-Wan Kenobi than ever—reluctantly schools Rey in the ways of light, darkness, and the eternal balancing act between them. But this may be the first Star Wars movie that makes the dangerous allure of the dark side feel like more than a vague, unconvincing threat. Much of that comes down to the script’s one brilliant innovation: a kind of involuntary psychic communion between Rey and Kylo Ren, whose opposing positions in the cosmic struggle don’t prevent them from developing a certain tense chemistry. If it was hard to ever buy that Luke could actually be coaxed to the dark side by a deep-breathing cyborg autocrat, Driver’s oddly sympathetic performance almost seduces you into believing that souls are actually at stake. It’s a real relationship, this love-hate bond between two offspring of the old world.

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Perhaps even more so than Gareth Edwards, who made last year’s bracingly bleak Star Wars prequel/spinoff Rogue One, Johnson rises to the occasion of mega-budget, space-opera blockbustering. It’s clear from the opening set piece that he has a three-dimensional, inside-out grasp of space, both outer and otherwise: The sequence deftly mingles coherent CGI spectacle—the usual diving, dogfighting spacecrafts, whose movements across the inky black canvas never grow impossible to track—with the tactile human dilemmas happening simultaneously, like a nerve-wracking development involving an out-of-reach remote and a cache of explosives. Johnson’s imagery, too, is grand and mythic: a brilliant crack of light cleaving a giant spacecraft in two; a lightsaber frozen in midair, pulled by equalizing forces of telekinetic concentration; and a truly awe-inspiring scene featuring starfighters with trails of bright-red salt pluming behind them, like the gaseous flairs in Mad Max: Fury Road or something you might see in the colorful, patriotic big-screen pageants of Zhang Yimou.

Photo: Disney

From the Coen-ish noir hijinks of Brick to the Andersonian whimsy of The Brothers Bloom to the Terminator time-travel gymnastics of Looper, Johnson has built a career riffing on and rearranging the stuff that’s sparked his imagination—he’s a gifted remix auteur. That makes him an unlikely but natural fit for Star Wars, which was conceived as a hodgepodge of classic tropes and images. After Force Awakens, whose only real point of visual and conceptual reference was A New Hope (Abrams did get the texture down), The Last Jedi reintroduces genre-hopping to the series’ bag of tricks. The new trilogy’s answer to The Emperor, Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis, completely unrecognizable under his motion-capture performance), delivers orders from a throne room guarded by warriors in boxy red samurai armor, while Luke’s island paradise is a menagerie of hilarious movie critters (including, yes, the screaming Porgs, whose plush-doll cuteness is amusingly undercut by their sole function as a source of irritation to Chewbacca). The film also makes an extended pit stop at a seedy casino town that’s like Casablanca meets the Mos Eisley Cantina, though it turns out to be one of the few aspects of the film that feels underdeveloped: all nattering CGI clientele, no ambience.

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One of the things that separates the new Star Wars films from George Lucas’ prequels is the wealth of likable personalities, and the general absence of solemn, tariff-discussing Jedi bores. (Even the most spiritually enlightened of these folks, like Hamill’s wizened disciple-turned-master, have wry senses of humor.) Yes, Han Solo is gone, but his essence seems to have been dispersed among the freshman cast. There’s a little of his arrogance in flyboy Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), who takes up the sparring-with-Leia duties; his everyman-among-space-prophets exasperation in Finn (though, to its discredit, The Last Jedi misplaces some of the nervous bumble Boyega got to exhibit in Force Awakens); and his mercenary I’m-just-here-to-get-paid selfishness in Benicio Del Toro’s new addition, a shady, stuttering hacker brought along for the ride. As for the inevitable reunion between the film’s anchoring franchise veterans, it’s perhaps even more simply poignant than the one Force Awakens arranged, in part because we’re seeing some of Fisher’s final acting.

“They blow you up today, you blow them up tomorrow,” Del Toro’s opportunistic anti-hero says at one point during the film’s extended roller-coaster finale. It’s The Last Jedi’s way of acknowledging the cyclicality of Star Wars, and how awfully convenient it is, for franchising purposes, that there’s always a new generation of light and dark recruits to keep The Force in balance. The Last Jedi, like The Force Awakens and Rogue One before it, isn’t perfect popcorn entertainment: It sags a little in the middle, during that protracted misadventure in space-Morocco, and doesn’t always juggle its multiple storylines with the grace of, yes, The Empire Strikes Back. But by the rousing final act, Johnson has brought an apocalyptic grandeur to the lightsaber duels and airborne combat. His often-stirring addition to the saga finally lands on an affecting point about the importance of preserving essential cultural tradition without clinging too strictly to the dogma—and the texts—of the old way. In that philosophy, contrasting hard with the burn-it-all-down zealotry of Kylo Ren, Star Wars locates a promising path forward: old virtues, new cool.