By Matthew Turner
Star Wars: The Force Awakens was a phenomenal, record-breaking hit in 2015, so it's safe to say expectation is at an all-time high for the second film in the new trilogy.
Happily, The Last Jedi is everything Star Wars fans are hoping for, a thrilling, action-packed space adventure that's both laugh-out-loud funny and powerfully moving.
Directed by Looper's Rian Johnson, Episode VIII picks up where The Force Awakens left off, with Rey (Daisy Ridley) meeting Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) on a remote island, where she tries to persuade him that the Resistance needs his help.
However, Luke is still plagued with guilt over what he sees as his role in the creation of Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and he refuses to join the fight.
Meanwhile, Commander Leia's (Carrie Fisher) dwindling Resistance Forces, led by star pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), find themselves pursued by the First Order's Destroyers and suffer a serious setback when it transpires that they can be tracked through hyper-space.
Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker in Star Wars: The Last Jedi
With time running out, ex-Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) volunteers for a secret mission, to collect a fabled Code-breaker from an interplanetary casino and use his skills to disable the tracking technology long enough for the Resistance to escape.
At the same time, Kylo Ren and Rey discover that they share a psychic connection and each one reaches out to the other, hoping to turn them to their cause.
Thrilling and emotional
Any fears about the effect that a change of director might have had on the franchise are immediately put to rest, as Johnson proves adept at both thrilling action sequences and powerfully emotional character moments.
Visually, the film is literally out-of-this-world, especially during the climactic final act, which takes place on a salt-encrusted planet where the earth is dark red underneath the white sheen, resulting in crimson clouds and trails left by the Resistance ships.
If The Force Awakens was criticised for being a beat-for-beat rehash of Star Wars, the same cannot be said of the relationship between The Last Jedi and The Empire Strikes Back, even if the film is at some level constricted by being the second film in a planned trilogy.
The late Carrie Fisher in Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Instead, the plot is chock-full of surprises, zigging when you expect it to zag, and taking a series of extremely bold story decisions, some of which are bound to be divisive. Either way, the film is certain to strike lively discussion when all its secrets have been revealed.
Crucially, like Abrams before him, Johnson's direction perfectly captures the tone of the franchise. To that end, the comedy moments are genuinely hilarious, whether it's one-liners, visual gags or whatever perpetual scene-stealer BB-8 is up to at any given moment.
A fitting send-off for Carrie Fisher
The performances, of course, are superb across the board. Top-billed Hamill, in particular, delivers everything fans could want from the return of Luke Skywalker, while Carrie Fisher gets a fitting send-off in her final screen appearance.
Similarly, Isaac is great fun as Poe and Ridley and Boyega bring the same white-hot charisma they displayed in The Force Awakens.
Adam Driver as Kylo Ren in Star Wars: The Last Jedi
However, it's Adam Driver who emerges as the star player this time round, with a performance that's sure to silence his detractors from the previous film. His Kylo Ren is agonisingly conflicted and his relationship with Rey is beautifully detailed, containing the seeds of genuine hope, but also something much darker.
If there's a criticism to be made of the film it's only that it's a little too long at a bladder-bothering two and a half hours.
Other than that, it's a thrilling Star Wars adventure that will have you immediately heading back into the cinema to watch it again.
Director: Rian JohnsonStarring: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar IsaacGenre: Fantasy / AdventureCountry: United StatesRelease date: 14 December, 2017Cert: 12ARunning time: 152 mins