‘Last Jedi’ is the best ‘Star Wars’ movie since the first one

This instant-classic popcorn movie makes clever references to the past while embracing the new.

In 1977 George Lucas made an outer-space picture that caught on despite being a fairly thin collection of sci-fi cliches. Or maybe it caught on because of that; who knows?

A few billion dollars later, Lucas sold off his saga to Disney, which is now efficiently mining the franchise. They’ll still be making money off these things long after you and I have left the Force.

It’s a tribute to how shrewdly Disney is dealing with this universe that the latest installment is the best film in the saga since 1977. “Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi” picks up from 2015’s “The Force Awakens,” and it is positively giddy about being a “Star Wars” movie.

Daisy Ridley plays a plucky heroine learning Jedi ways from cranky old Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) in “Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi.” (Lucasfilm Ltd.)

Daisy Ridley plays a plucky heroine learning Jedi ways from cranky old Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) in “Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi.” (Lucasfilm Ltd.)

There’s a simple plot, but then these things generally are simple. The plucky Rey (Daisy Ridley) is on an island in an ocean world, trying to learn the Jedi ways from a cranky graybeard named Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). She stays there for most of the movie, just as Luke spent most of “The Empire Strikes Back” learning from Yoda.

Meanwhile, Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher, who completed her role before her death last December) leads the rebels in a stand-off against super-gross Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson, who does a perfectly pitched Evil Twit).

Swaggering pilot Poe (Oscar Isaac), new rebel hero Finn (John Boyega), and various robots you already know are also in the mix. A new rebel recruit, played by Kelly Marie Tran, is amusingly portrayed as “Star Wars” fangirl.

We have lightsaber duels, Jedi claptrap and delicious (but not slavish) references to the original Lucas trilogy. It’s also funny throughout, even at dramatic moments: one planet is introduced as the home of the “worst people in the universe,” but instead of the wretched hive of scum and villainy we expect to see in “Star Wars,” the place turns out to be populated by the high-living One Percent.

As we might have suspected from “The Force Awakens,” the dark figure of Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the wayward son of Han Solo and Leia, here assumes an ominous, if intriguingly conflicted, power.

The big showdown scene with Kylo Ren and Rey is full of fighting and some startling conversation — it kicks the story line into a whole new realm. At moments like this, “The Last Jedi” becomes a classic of popcorn movie-making

In practically every frame, writer-director Rian Johnson conveys how much fun it is to do this stuff. He made “Brick” and “Looper,” smallish films that proved his talent but didn’t suggest how good he would be at orchestrating all the “Star Wars” mayhem.

He’s also sly about maintaining the political thread that percolates beneath good popular art. “The Last Jedi” is all about accepting change and not clinging to the past, which might sound ironic for a franchise that frequently refers to its own past mythology. But the message is deeply felt, and delivered with a galaxy of fun.

“Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi” (4 stars)

Merely the best movie in the “Star Wars” saga since 1977, as writer-director Rian Johnson delivers a positively giddy showdown between the rebel forces (led by Carrie Fisher, who completed her performance before her 2016 death) and the Empire. At its best, this one becomes a popcorn-movie classic, with clever references to the past but with a strong message about embracing the new. With Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, Mark Hamill.

Rating: PG-13, for violence

Showing: Alderwood Mall, Cinebarre Mountlake Terrace, Edmonds Theater, Everett Stadium, Galaxy Monroe, Marysville, Stanwood Cinemas, Meridian, Pacific Place, Seattle 10, Thornton Place, Woodinville, Cascade Mall

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