New and old, good and evil collide in the best ‘Star Wars’ movie since ‘Empire Strikes Back’

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Light and dark, good and evil. The struggle between these opposing forces has always been at the center of the “Star Wars” universe, and it provides the backbone for the excellent, epic eighth film in the series, “The Last Jedi.”

Get your light sabers ready for this one. Writer-director Rian Johnson — he made 2005’s fully committed, wonderfully odd high school noir “Brick” and directed the heart-stopping “Ozymandias” episode of “Breaking Bad” — has crafted a masterful installment of the premier franchise in movies, delivering the biggest, boldest and best “Star Wars” offering since “The Empire Strikes Back.”

If 2015’s “The Force Awakens” rebooted the series by cleansing our palates from George Lucas’ dreaded prequels and cranking up the nostalgia machine, “The Last Jedi” gives us a “Star Wars” for today, where the good guys have shades of bad, the bad guys have shades of good and the rich get richer by profiting off the war between the two.

“You blow them up today, they’ll blow you up tomorrow,” one character says late in the movie. “It’s just business.” It’s an example of how this “Star Wars” isn’t afraid to stir political debate, while openly questioning who and what decides what makes the good guys good and the bad guys bad.

Political leanings aside, “The Last Jedi” is a humdinger, revving up to a monster climax that roars like an orchestra at full power. Johnson stages a visually audacious sequence — perhaps the single greatest-looking set-piece in the “Star Wars” series — set on a desertscape where a white-dusting covers a sea of blood-red sand. Why is it red? Well, mainly because it looks awesome, and Johnson stirs up so much of the red stuff that it’s like watching a samurai movie gone Jedi.

“The Last Jedi” also gives us a returning Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker, after he was teased in the cliffhanger ending of “The Force Awakens.” Hamill gives a grown, lived-in performance as the bearded, aging Jedi, playing the reluctant teacher to Daisy Ridley’s Rey and the caretaker of the Jedi way of life. Paired with Carrie Fisher’s final performance — the end credits carry a touching dedication to Fisher, who died in late 2016 — “The Last Jedi” honors the “Star Wars” legacy while also letting the new generation shine and grow into their roles.

That means the story is carried by Ridley’s Rey, Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren, Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron and John Boyega’s Finn, and their respective screen time is divvied up nicely. There’s also plenty of time for roly poly robot BB-8 and old friends like Chewbacca and C-3PO, while those furry little owl-like creatures known as Porgs dot the landscape of the film but don’t do much other than make cute faces. (Fans worried the Porgs would dominate the screen like Ewoks or a Mr. JJ Binks needn’t get their midichlorians in a bunch.)

“The Last Jedi” is structured around the dwindling Resistance fighters and their battle against the oppressive First Order. The Resistance is outnumbered and outgunned but not to be outfoxed, setting up a classic David and Goliath scenario between the two. Things admittedly take a while to get going — “The Last Jedi” has the longest runtime of any “Star Wars” movie — but once it settles into its groove the time flies by. And Johnson’s story does a wonderful job of containing itself; it has implications across the “Star Wars” timeline, but feels like a contained episode in the series with its own beginning, middle and end. (Johnson also did “Fly,” the famous bottle episode of “Breaking Bad.”)

While “The Last Jedi” explores the push-pull between good and evil, its scorn is reserved for arms dealers and those who profit from war, and there’s one eat-the-rich sequence where the greedy are trampled inside a plush casino. Take that for what you will.

Mostly, this “Star Wars” feels relevant, and is spiked with humor, roaring action and fanboy moments that will cause heart palpitations. The worry with the return of the “Star Wars” franchise was that it wouldn’t do enough to alter the landscape or take any risks because there’s too much, financially, at stake for Disney to mess with their cash cow. “The Last Jedi” dispels those notions, and offers up a glowing piece of blockbuster entertainment that delivers to both the “Star Wars” faithful and the non-converted alike.

“The Last Jedi” works on several levels, but most importantly it’s a rip-roaring good time. That’s what “Star Wars” fans want the most, and that’s what they get with this dynamite installment. A new hope has arrived, and the Force is strong with this one.

agraham@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2284

@grahamorama

‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’

GRADE: A-

Rated PG-13: for sequences of sci-fi action and violence

Running time: 152 minutes

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (PG-13)

Writer-director Rian Johnson gives us the best “Star Wars” movie since “The Empire Strikes Back,” an epic clash between good and evil, light and dark. (152 minutes) GRADE: A-

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