Things are once again fraught in that galaxy far, far away — but have they ever been otherwise? As in the last "Star Wars" movie, they're fraught in a familiar way. Like the Rebel Alliance of 40 years ago, the new good-guys collective called The Resistance, led by General Leia Organa (onetime princess, Carrie Fisher), is being heavily oppressed by the First Order, a league of space barbarians in no way unlike the Galactic Empire of old, apart from being commanded by a desiccated potato head called Supreme Leader Snoke (a mo-capped Andy Serkis). Can the rebels disrupt the Order's evil scheme of, you know, conquering the entire galaxy? It's not much of a question, but let's say, who knows?
Writer-director Rian Johnson, new to the "Star Wars" factory, kicks things up more than a notch from J.J. Abrams's welcome-back series reboot, "The Force Awakens." Abrams's movie was essentially a reprise — and a pretty good one — of "Star Wars'" greatest hits. Director Johnson is a more irreverent guy (see his 2012 time-travel movie "Looper"), and his sequel — "Episode VIII," for those keeping count — is quite a bit wittier. We get a lot of the series' trademark swoosh-boom space action, but it doesn't feel like a haphazard CGI dump — now it has some structure, and for the most part it's smartly staged. There are also a few beautiful scenes — on a remote water planet, in Snoke's gleaming black-and-crimson lair. And Johnson has worked up some amusing dialogue as well (a commodity on which Star Wars creator George Lucas was famously short). He gets a couple of out-loud laughs — especially at the expense of Domhnall Gleeson's operatically snotty Snoke subordinate General Hux — but he's careful about it: No one wants to turn the "Star Wars" franchise into a joke, least of all its Disney overlords.
Back from the last film are the series' four new stars: hard-scrabble orphan Rey (Daisy Ridley), in whom The Force is strong; reformed enemy trooper Finn (John Boyega), who has overcome a previous courage deficit; wild-man pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), stepping into the wisecracker slot left empty by the death of Harrison Ford's Han Solo in the previous film; and brooding Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), Han's son and killer, still resident on the Dark Side but deeply conflicted about it.
There are also some newbies on hand: Benicio Del Toro as an interstellar codebreaker called DJ; Laura Dern as Amilyn Holdo, Leia's right-hand starship officer; and a tough little mechanic named Rose Tico (TV veteran Kelly Marie Tran). There are also quite a few new creatures, among them various icicle dogs, turtle-face monks, and some impossibly cute thingies called Porgs, which look as if they nest in gift shops at night.
The plot isn't exactly full of surprises (there are only so many liberties you can take in blockbuster land), but there's a lot of it. Leia and her shrinking band of rebels are desperately searching for Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), the last Jedi Knight — they need his help in summoning the Force to defeat their First Order enemies. Luke has proved hard to find, however — until the resolute Rey tracks him to a remote planet called Ahch-To, where he's living alone with his grizzled beard and his tiny library of ancient Jedi texts. Luke has no interest in helping the rebels, but he's eventually persuaded to train Rey in the Knightly arts. (Cue lightsaber.)
Meanwhile, Finn and Rose and the swivel-headed droid BB-8 are off to some sort of Vegas-y casino planet (where BB-8 gets mistaken for a slot machine); and Kylo Ren has taken command of the Order's assault on Leia (his mom!) and her fellow rebels.
Johnson has sorted all of this material into an elaborate roundelay that feels endless (the movie is way too long at two and a half hours). Surely, sections of the film could have been trimmed — maybe the Laura Dern scenes, which cry out for compression, or the training sequences with Luke and Rey (in which he says things like "Reach out with your feelings").
On the other hand, it's illuminating to see an actor like Kelly Marie Tran, whose parents are Vietnamese refugees, playing a key role in such a big-bucks movie. (Her presence seems so ... natural.) And it's great to see Carrie Fisher, as warm and unmannered as ever, in her final film performance. Fisher died last year, after the movie wrapped, and although she'd been scheduled to appear in the next sequel, the filmmakers have announced that she won't be digitally exhumed for that purpose, in the creepy way that Peter Cushing was for last year's "Rogue One."
Thank you, "Star Wars" factory.