Rey develops her newly discovered abilities with the guidance of Luke Skywalker, who is unsettled by the strength of her powers. Meanwhile, the Resistance prepares to do battle with the First Order.

The new Star Wars knows its place in the universe.

Rian Johnson, the writer and director of Star Wars: The Last Jedi approaches the now storied franchise not with a fan’s reverence but their productive curiosity. The filmmaker gets under the hood of George Lucas’ mythic endeavour, testing out adjustments, and it’s reflected in a film where a lowly maintenance worker rises to help save the day and vast systems and institutions are revealed to be deeply flawed. Even as he keeps the story moving forward, displaying a sure hand for space battles and wookiee humour, Johnson and his protagonists question assumptions – his queries find answers, and eventually so do those of the characters.

Beginning with the tyrannical First Order regime of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) in pursuit of the Resistance forces led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and top gun Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) that destroyed his Starkiller base in 2015’s The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi moves its many pieces forward urgently if sometimes awkwardly. The powerful but unformed Rey (Daisy Ridley) is trying to persuade the titular Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to come out of exile to help the Resistance, and train her, while friend and former Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) is determined to get back to her no matter the cost.

The dialogue is peppered with droll admissions and Star Wars-savvy sarcasm, which helps to prick the heroic sweep so common to these trilogies. The Force, a touchstone so often invoked it’s now boilerplate, is calmly dissected for flaws alongside the Jedi order, which Luke has abandoned because his nephew and former student, Leia and Han Solo’s patricidal son Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), readily succumbed to the dark side. In their distinct ways Luke and Rey are both terrified of the Force, while the film’s most potent connection is between the supposedly adversarial Rey and Kylo, whose connection is entangled with sympathy and mutual obsession. The individuals keep shaking off their widescreen personas.

In The Force Awakens director JJ Abrams had an instinctive feel for creating potent moments around Rey’s discovery of her self-belief, but Johnson, whose last feature was 2012’s Looper, is drawn to Kylo. “You’re no Vader,” Snoke tells his furious apprentice, “you’re just a child in a mask”, and even when he’s at full villain the black-clad Kylo will go from declamation to conversational, revealing the young man behind the red lightsabre. Like 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back, the original trilogy’s middle title, The Last Jedi darkens the outline, but it does so by deepening the characters more so than plot revelations.

Johnson, along with his long-time cinematographer Steve Yedlin, matches the insight to dynamic images. There’s a scene of close combat, set against a cardinal red backdrop, which begins with the camera hungrily zooming in, eager for the clash of figures. He creates pairings that test each other: Rey and Luke, who thankfully dodge the usual master and apprentice montages, Rey and Kylo, Leia and Poe, and Finn and Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), the maintenance worker grieving for a sister lost under Poe’s commander who reminds Finn of what is possible by dogged persistence (and adds to the new trilogy’s inclusiveness).

Johnson is thankfully assured with the diversions: furry newcomers the Porg are little more than ornaments for the Millennium Falcon’s dashboard, while C-3PO is basically told to shut it; Benicio Del Toro, eyelids never more than one third open, turns up as a smooth criminal who gets to remark “blip bloppity bloop” with galactic insouciance. Nothing extraneous intrudes on this ticking clock quest for survival, which is compressed into a matter of days, and the acts of sacrifice and belated admissions of failing all feed into the movie’s momentum. The characters may still be reaching out for self-discovery, but with persuasive energy and thoughtful entertainment The Last Jedi knows exactly what it wants to be.