Will Gompertz reviews Star Wars: The Last Jedi ★★★★☆
Star Wars fans, relax.
Rian Johnson, the writer-director of the latest instalment, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, has not ruined your Christmas with a turkey. His gift to you is a cracker, a blockbuster movie packed with invention, wit, and action galore.
It starts with several bangs.
General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson in full pantomime villain mode) is standing on the bridge of the First Order's mighty intergalactic spacecraft watching the Resistance's maverick top gun, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), cause havoc at close quarters.
There are bombers, battles and banter a-plenty, setting the tone for the next two hours and 32 minutes, in which Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis channelling Davros from Doctor Who) closes in on his evil quest to annihilate the last remaining Jedi.
Meanwhile, Luke Skywalker has turned into a grumpy old man living the life of a hermit in some godforsaken medieval backwater.
Until, that is, Rey (Daisy Ridley) rocks up and bothers him with an unwelcome request that he teaches her his Jedi ways.
Back on the Resistance's old banger of a mother-ship, we find the wise, headmistressy General Leia (the late Carrie Fisher in mesmerising form) attempting to bring some calm to the celluloid storm.
She has Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern in a role that feels too small for her) as backup in case things turn ugly, which, needless to say, they do.
The film is not faultless.
There are some excruciatingly hammy lines, some of the locations feel far, far too close to home, and it is a touch too long. There are times towards the end reminiscent of that dispiriting feeling you get after a long hike up a steep hill, when you realise that you've arrived at yet another false peak.
A judicious 15-minute trim would add more than it took away.
Unless it was one of Benicio Del Toro's scenes hitting the cutting room floor.
That would be a mistake.
His role as the unscrupulous, Fagin-like, lock-breaker DJ is little more than a cameo, but he still manages to give the film a life and soul that takes it beyond run-of-the-mill franchise fare, and into the realms of a classy and memorable piece of stand-alone work.
Adam Driver's performance as the conflicted and recently scarred Kylo Ren is not far behind.
Aside from a couple of brief melodramatic moments at the beginning and end of the film, he is utterly convincing as a baddie with qualms. It is when he is lost in his own individual moral maze that the film develops its most palpable dramatic tension.
It also takes us back to its 40-year-old roots and George Lucas's original narrative vision for his interstellar fairytale.
He wanted it to be a story about friendship and loyalty spiced with an essential personal dilemma, in which he placed many of his characters. They had to choose, one way or the other, exactly what kind of person they were going to be.
As we know some opted for the dark side, others the light, but never without the sense of a lingering scripted twist hanging in outer space, that the character might turn.
This is what has given the Star Wars saga so much of its emotional energy, or Force, I should say.
And so it is with Episode VIII, in which Kylo Ren (once Ben Solo) is not the only character wrestling with an existential crisis.
What about Finn (John Boyega) for instance? He made his ethical journey in The Force Awakens, and returns in typical ex-Stormtrooper form, acting first and thinking second. His heart might be in the right place, for now at least, but the fella keeps losing his head.
Fortunately he has some back up in the brains department in the nerdy shape of Rose Tico (the excellent Kelly Marie Tran), who makes for a great addition to the new generation of Star Wars characters.
There's still space in space for the old timers. Chewbacca, R2-D2 and C 3PO all show up and shamelessly play to the gallery. Running jokes resurface, call-back references are made, and John Williams returns with a lovely score that subtly develops from, and refers back to, past episodes.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi is not breaking new ground in sci-fi or surprising us with an unexpected turn of events.
It doesn't need to.
Rian Johnson has taken the basic ingredients of George Lucas's 1970s masterpiece and intelligently transformed them into a very entertaining 21st Century modern epic.