If the new trilogy of “Star Wars” sequels is deliberately mirroring the original 1977-83 trilogy, then “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” is the “Empire Strikes Back” of the current series — even better than its predecessor, and one of the best yet.
The new film is the eighth in George Lucas’ proposed nine-film storyline.
Taking the helm this time is Rian Johnson, whose high school detective movie “Brick” from 2006 was one of the best debut features of recent years.
His “Looper” from 2012 was a smart time-travel thriller, and he directed three episodes of “Breaking Bad.” He’s ready for this.
Certainly J.J. Abrams’ 2015 “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” was more than satisfying, but Johnson steps it up several notches, digging deeper into characters, and even adding nuance to the “Star Wars” mythos.
In this film, it’s no longer as simple as good guys fighting bad guys, or The Force being the exclusive property of the Jedi, although Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) argues that point.
Like “The Empire Strikes Back,” “The Last Jedi” splits into sections, one involving a spiritual quest, and the other involving an exciting chase and/or escape.
Rey (Daisy Ridley) has found Luke but is shocked to realize that he’s reluctant to leave his sanctuary or help in any way. But he has his reasons, and they are fascinating.
Keeping Luke company are the adorable little penguin/owl-like creatures, the “Porg,” which will likely appear under many Christmas trees this year. They’re funny, and nowhere near as cloying as Ewoks.
Elsewhere, the First Order, led by General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who bicker like brothers, have found the location of the rebels and attack mercilessly.
In order to escape, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega) must break into the First Order flagship and shut down a tracking device. This requires outside help from an expert codebreaker, a terrific new character.
Another delightful newcomer, Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), accompanies Finn on this mission.
Running a whopping 152 minutes, but never flagging, “The Last Jedi” spends more time on characters that previously were marginal. The late, beloved Carrie Fisher gets plenty of screen time and a thoughtful character arc as Gen. Leia Organa; it’s a fitting farewell.
Kylo Ren, once teased for being too much like an emotional, tantrum-throwing teen, is also more relatable.
Along with stronger emotional connections, the movie is also knowing and funny. Poe Dameron starts things off with a belly laugh, and even Chewbacca gets a couple of chuckles.
Return viewers will notice sly little references to things like Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch,” Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodbye” (on which “Star Wars” composer John Williams also worked), and even the homemade spoof “Hardware Wars.”
It’s a whirlwind of stuff both new and going back 40 years: laughter, emotion, joy, shock, awe, tingles, ideas, characters we love and characters we’re learning to love.
“Star Wars” is why so many people were drawn to movies; thanks to Johnson, that can happen again.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Three and a half stars
Starring Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac
Written and directed by Rian Johnson
Running time 2 hours, 32 minutes