One of the things I love about the “Star Wars” franchise is how they’ve always made it easy for us.
Take the famous opening crawl, which begins with, “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away …,” followed by the episode number and a nifty, three-paragraph summary of where we are and what has just happened.
Or the glorious score, which hits just the right inspirational notes when our heroes are swooping in and doing those things heroes do — and sends a chill down our spine with the booming sounds of doom when we join a slimy general aboard his ship, or a menacing Darth, helmeted or otherwise.
Even the costumes and the creatures and the makeup are dead giveaways. Our droids are cute little garbage cans that make beep-boop sounds; their droid sports more black than an Oakland Raiders fan in mourning.
This is one of the many, many, MANY reasons the “Star Wars” franchise has enjoyed such worldwide, generation-spanning appeal for 40 years and counting. The universe of the movies (and all the ancillary products) is vast and complex and brimming with hundreds of characters and deep philosophical issues — but your 6-year-old can also dig it because at heart this is a Space Western, with timeless heroes and hiss-worthy villains.
And then there’s the whole internal struggle thing, and those moments when even the darkest of the dark remembers his humanity and considers salvation.
“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” is the eighth film in the main canon — the second film in the modern trilogy that kicked off with the rousing and powerfully moving “The Force Awakens” in 2015. Although it doesn’t pack quite the same emotional punch and it lags a bit in the second half, this is still a worthy chapter in the “Star Wars” franchise, popping with exciting action sequences, sprinkled with good humor and containing more than a few nifty “callbacks” to previous characters and iconic moments.
We pick up the saga in the immediate aftermath of “The Force Awakens.” The diminished and seemingly hopelessly outmatched Resistance is doing battle with the all-powerful and relentless First Order. (Carrie Fisher’s Gen. Leia Organa is still the leader of the Resistance, and your heart can’t help but skip a beat the first time the late Ms. Fisher appears onscreen. The performance she delivers, on its own, is subtle and wise and quietly powerful.)
Meanwhile, Rey (Daisy Ridley) has tracked down Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill, and if I have to put “Mark Hamill” in parentheses next to the name “Luke Skywalker” in a review, welcome back from your 40-year coma!), whose initial reaction to Rey’s visit is hilarious and comes at just the right time when we need a little levity. (Writer-director Rian Johnson displays keen instincts for dropping in some terrific one-liners and a couple of killer visual gags, in effect giving the audience permission to stop holding its breath and exhale for a moment. Well done.)
Andy Serkis, aka the King of the CGI Characters, is wonderfully menacing as the frightening Supreme Leader Snoke, while the do-everything Domhnall Gleason is suitably slimy and slithering as Gen. Hux.
And then there’s Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren, formerly known as Ben Solo, last seen completely giving himself to the dark side of the Force — or has he? There’s an undeniable, cosmic connection between Rey and Kylo, and she believes he can be saved.
(Adam Driver is a fine actor, but I still think he’s slightly miscast as Kylo Ren. There’s something very 21st century about Driver’s mannerisms, his speech pattern, even his slightly pigeon-toed millennial gait, that has me less than sold when things get extra-heavy and even borderline corny.)
John Boyega returns as Finn, the Stormtrooper who is still transitioning to full-out rebel but his well on his way. Kelly Marie Tran adds grit and warmth as Rose Tico, who starts the journey as something of a fan-girl but finds her inner heroine when the time comes. Benicio del Toro is perfectly cast as a disheveled figure with hidden talents and unclear loyalties.
With a running time of two and a half hours, “The Last Jedi” drags a bit in the second act, as we cut back and forth from Rey’s efforts to get Luke to rejoin the battle, and the fireworks between the First Order and the Resistance. Ridley and Hamill are great together, but the Reluctant Jedi act plays on for at least once scene too many.
By its very place in the timeline, “The Last Jedi” serves as stepping stone of sorts, setting the scene for “Star Wars: Episode IX.”
Still, this is no mere placeholder of a story. Huge, important things happen to characters secondary and primary. Surprises big and small abound. As is the case with all of the “Star Wars” films, where there is evil there is heroism, and where there is bravery there is sacrifice — and sometimes where there is love, there is heartbreak.
That’s the way things were a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, and that’s the way things are today — and that’s another reason why we love these movies.
Lucasfilm presents a film written and directed by Rian Johnson. Rated PG-13 (for sequences of sci-fi action and violence). Running time: 151 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.