Thrilling, surprisingly funny, and full of enough narrative twists to keep even the most seasoned “Star Wars” movie fan guessing, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” takes the new trilogy in a bold new direction.

It’s got some pacing issues due to its length, and it covers a lot of ground. However, by the time the credits roll most audiences should come away satisfied and eager to see where the series goes for the presumed Episode IX finale.

What’s it about?

2015’s “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” left viewers with a final shot of new heroine Rey (Daisy Ridley) finding Jedi Master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and returning to him the ultimate family heirloom – his lightsaber, which an even longer time ago in that galaxy far, far away belonged to his father, Anakin, a.k.a. Darth Vader.

The new film does pick up from that thread, but also gets audiences caught up with what’s happening with Rey’s friend Finn (John Boyega) and what’s left of the Resistance to the galaxy’s new tyrants, the First Order, led by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and his Darth Vader-wannabe apprentice, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).

Things look bleaker than ever for the ragtag rebel group led by General Leia (Carrie Fisher) and maverick ace pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac). Their dire situation sends Finn and new ally Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) on a desperate mission of their own, one they hope will help keep the Resistance alive until Rey can bring Skywalker back to save the day.

Strongest writing yet

“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” features some of the strongest scriptwriting in the long-running series yet thanks to writer/director Rian Johnson.

Johnson’s screenplay does several things very well. First and perhaps foremost, it takes risks and blazes its own narrative path. Unlike “The Force Awakens”, which consciously mimicked the plot beats of 1977’s “Star Wars: A New Hope”, “Jedi” follows no model, no preconceived structure, and at least feels as though its developing organically.

Johnson also allows his performers to really come into their own within their characters. While the film is essentially plot-driven, as most space opera tends to be, because Johnson’s script provides ample opportunities for the performers to mine their characters for motivation and personal drama, it feels more character-driven.

A welcome result of Johnson’s approach is that the film features truly memorable work from Ridley, Boyega, Tran, and especially Hamill, who gets to play a range of emotions and expressions with the legendary Luke Skywalker that were never afforded to him in the original trilogy.

Maintaining dramatic tension

The only place “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” stumbles is in terms of pacing and maintaining the dramatic intensity it so capably sets up. This, arguably, is a by-product of including in the script all that enjoyable character development – it leads to quieter, more dialogue-driven moments that, when strung one after the next, feel like lulls in the film’s flow.

In a two-hour-and-thirty-two-minute film, too many such lulls may have less patient audiences feeling the running time. But it’s important to note that none of those dialogue-driven moments feels superfluous or gratuitous; when seen within the film’s entirety, they’re all necessary and provide far more benefits to the movie experience than they do detriments.

So much eye candy

Of course, no review of a “Star Wars” film can go without some mention of all the spaceborne derring-do, all the lightsaber swordplay and all the toys.

Again, Johnson’s vision provides plenty for audiences to enjoy in this area. There’s so much eye candy in the film for aficionados to enjoy, in fact, that perhaps the only downside comes when one stops to consider how much it will cost to collect all the premium versions of all the movie-inspired toys and props.

Worth seeing?

Thus, for all that visual fun, for the strong script and memorable performances from the cast, and for one final opportunity to enjoy the late Carrie Fisher light up her scenes as fandom’s beloved Leia, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” is must-see material. Set aside a night, get together all your friends and family who are fellow Star Wars fans, and pay to see the film in a premium venue.

The Force is definitely strong with this one.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Starring Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Gwendoline Christie, Kelly Marie Tran, Laura Dern and Benicio Del Toro. Directed by Rian Johnson.
Running time: 162 minutes
Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action and violence.