The Last Jedi is one of the year's smartest blockbusters

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

(M) 152 minutes

Like most recent exercises in pop nostalgia, the new Star Wars films have an underlying melancholy. It's not just because Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and friends have aged with the rest of us, but because today's Hollywood so rarely manages to devise brand-new stories with the same breadth of appeal.

While The Last Jedi may not receive top marks for originality, the eighth official entry in the Star Wars saga is still one of the most entertaining blockbusters of the year, justifying the faith the Disney corporation have shown in writer-director Rian Johnson (Looper).

Johnson has a subversive streak, but also the knack of gratifying an audience through a stream of small surprises. He delivers nearly everything a Star Wars fan might want, though not always in the expected ways: there are the requisite aerial battles and light sabre duels, and a winning range of new aliens, from sleek snow foxes to the already-legendary porgs, who look like upright guinea pigs with large pleading eyes.

As a technician, he owes less to series creator George Lucas than to Lucas' old comrade Steven Spielberg. Like Spielberg, he makes the camera part of the action, tracking in rapidly for emphasis and zipping from one significant detail to another.

As in The Empire Strikes Back - the Star Wars film Johnson most obviously takes as a model - the complex plot branches off in multiple directions.

While the cocky fighter pilot Poe Dameron??? (Oscar Isaac) butts heads over strategy with the new Resistance leader Admiral Holdo??? (Laura Dern???), former stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega???) and his new pal Rose (Kelly Marie Tran???) embark on their own far-fetched plan for saving the Resistance fleet.

Most central is the long-delayed encounter between Luke, now living as a hermit, and the young heroine Rey (Daisy Ridley), who sees herself as his potential successor.

Not far from the surface are Johnson's own anxieties about stepping into Lucas' shoes, yet he can boast certain talents Lucas has always lacked, including a flair for language (one bit player is characteristically described as "a poet with a blaster") and a rapport with actors which yields more good performances than most previous Star Wars films put together.

Isaac's Poe Dameron is the essence of "cocky fighter pilot", a worthy successor to Harrison Ford's Han Solo; Hamill redeems his past woodenness with a finely judged mix of gravitas and self-mocking humour.

There isn't as much of the late Carrie Fisher's General Organa (otherwise known as Princess Leia) as might be hoped. But her big moments are worth waiting for, especially her scenes with Dern, who plays the lilac-haired Admiral Holdo as a typical Dern character, full of fretful good intentions but with steel beneath.

Even Adam Driver, as the tortured young villain Kylo Ren, makes more sense here than previously: everyone in the Star Wars family has a niche, and it's clear by now that Driver's niche is weird, vaguely misplaced intensity, just as Ridley's is dauntless pluck.

Unavoidably, the innocence of earlier Star Wars instalments is long gone. Johnson can't help mocking the cliches Lucas played straight, even as he strains to deepen characters originally conceived as cardboard types.

Where Lucas was content to delight the first Star Wars audiences with a simple tale of derring-do, Johnson has to wrestle with the complex legacy of one of the most popular and influential film series ever made; the encounter between Luke and Rey offers an explicit commentary on which aspects of this legacy should be preserved and which left behind.

That Johnson has signed on for three more Star Wars movies is not wholly good news for fans of his original work as writer-director, and Johnson seems to have some ambivalence, repeatedly acknowledging the possibility that it may be time to move on from the Jedi and the Force.

Perhaps he has accepted the burden out of civic duty, feeling that no one can now afford to turn down the chance to deliver a positive message to an audience of millions. At any rate, it's no bad thing that the cleverness which goes into his battle sequences is also used to imply there might be more to heroism than blowing things up.

This story The Last Jedi is one of the year's smartest blockbusters first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.