Spoiler-free review: 'Star Wars: The Last Jedi' looks back, but it shines when it rushes forward

The Force is definitely awake in The Last Jedi. If anything, it might be over-caffeinated -- rushing from one anecdote to the next with a hyper energy that makes you worried the movie is trying to do too much in too little time.

But dang, it's a lot of fun to hang out with. The Last Jedi is funny, it's emotional, it's fast-paced and it has a good story to tell. It might not give you all the answers you want (not yet, anyway), and you might not like every turn it takes, but Star Wars fans will get off the ride happy to have experienced it.

It probably won't surprise you that The Last Jedi is the dark middle chapter commonly seen in trilogies. The remaining members of the Resistance aren't just on their heels, they're running away, desperately hoping to survive the First Order onslaught long enough to turn the tide. Some heroes are made along the way. Others are lost. Both Rey (Daisey Ridley) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) struggle internally about their place in the galaxy, sharing connection that neither of them understands.

At the end of it all you wonder: "How are our heroes ever going to win this one?" Because, of course, you need to come back for Star Wars: Episode IX in 2019.

Many accused The Force Awakens of being little more than a shameless remake of the original Star Wars movie, A New Hope. Naturally, many also expect The Last Jedi to mirror The Empire Strikes Back. In some ways, it does. As Luke (Mark Hamill) trained with Yoda on the remote planet of Dagobah, Rey trains with Luke on Ahch-To. Or tries to, anyway. The wizened old Jedi is more than a little hesitant to pass on his knowledge of the Force considering his last student turned to the Dark Side and became Kylo Ren.

The film acknowledges the ways in which it leans on the past, playing a powerful nostalgia card and having one character remark that it is a "cheap move." It's not the only cheap move the movie plays on its audience.

The Last Jedi shines, though, when it subverts those expectations of familiarity. Many beats of the story feel like they are knowingly playing chess with the theories fans have been concocting about the movie for the past two years. Nuggets of information seem to confirm popular guesses before they're ripped away. There are moments of genuine surprise, too, and not in the "I am your father" sense that you might be looking for.

Carrie Fisher as General Leia

It's a tricky and dangerous game to play with Star Wars fans. How do you stay two steps ahead of viewers that number so many millions, especially when many of them will over-analyze every line of official text you provide them? So far, the stewards of the franchise have proven up to the task, and they once again demonstrate that they are not afraid of shedding beloved elements of the older movies to keep things fresh.

The Last Jedi might inject new characters and concepts to a fault. Don't get me wrong, the additions are mostly great. Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), a starry-eyed engineer with a huge heart, is particularly wonderful, but other introductions feel rushed or even wasted.

Benicio Del Toro's character, for example, is well-acted yet under-utilized, and it's hard to tell if parts of his story were cut from the film or if he's being introduced purely to set the stage for Episode IX. He shows up late, and while his actions have weight, you're left wondering, "Is that all he's here for?" Laura Dern's Vice Admiral Holdo serves a far clearer purpose, but you might still feel as if you're not getting enough out of her presence, impressive though it may be.

The Last Jedi clocks in as the longest film in the series' history, and while it doesn't exactly drag, one does wonder if some elements could have been more efficient. Hopefully Lucasfilm is just playing the long game, planting seeds for things that will pay off narratively in the future, rather than existing purely as fodder for cosplayers.

I'm glad they didn't cut the Porgs, though. Those little penguin-like creatures are pretty adorable (and they're easy enough to gloss over if you're a heartless monster who hates cute things).

Thankfully, we also get plenty of time to spend with friends who were introduced in The Force Awakens. Poe (Oscar Isaac) leaps onto the scene with the same lovable, cocky arrogance we saw when he was first introduced, and he's also given room to grow -- with a lot of help from the always wonderful General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher, to whose memory this film is dedicated). She may have one of the more cheesy moments in The Last Jedi (her moment in space had me rolling my eyes, cool as it looked), but she commands every scene she's in.

Finn (John Boyega) is still a bit of a sidekick, but a strong one, learning important lessons about the nature of war (and the people who profit from it) as he strives to be more than just a runaway stormtrooper. He gets far more screen time than Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) who once again seems to be in the movie far less than was implied pre-release.

Oh, and BB-8? He's still the best droid in the universe, and I'll fight anyone who says otherwise.

For as many things that happen in The Last Jedi, much of this film feels like setup for the next. The pieces are moving into position and showdowns seem to be looming on the horizon, but many important questions remain unanswered. Until we get the final piece of this trilogy, though, I know I'll be joining fellow fans in re-watching this one more than a few times. Because Star Wars has that effect on people, especially when it's delivered as well as The Last Jedi is.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (B+)

PG-13 (for sequences of sci-fi action and violence). 152 minutes. In wide release.

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