IN AN early scene in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is handed his long-lost lightsaber—only to toss it over his shoulder and walk away. Sacrilege! In another early scene, the moody Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is ordered to take off the “ridiculous” Darth Vader-like mask that makes it so difficult to understand what he is saying. Sacrilege again! The lightsaber and the mask were presented as holy relics in the previous "Star Wars" instalment, “The Force Awakens”, but the follow-up, written and directed by Rian Johnson, establishes in its opening minutes that it won’t be putting up with any of that nonsense. Harrison Ford’s sceptical Han Solo may be absent, having been killed off in “The Force Awakens”, but the character’s grouchily irreverent spirit flows through it. “The Last Jedi” keeps scoffing and smirking at the saga’s iconography and mystic mumbo-jumbo in a manner more akin to a Mel Brooks parody than an official entry in the series. And yet, by the end of the film, it ensures that its devotees will love “Star Wars” more than ever.

“The Force Awakens” revived the franchise when it came out two years ago. A decade earlier, George Lucas’s abysmal trilogy of “Star Wars” prequels had staggered to an ignominious conclusion, but it was obvious within the first half-hour of the new film that the people behind it knew what they were doing. Indeed, J.J. Abrams, who directed “The Force Awakens”, clearly understood the magic of Mr Lucas’s original 1977 film more deeply than Mr Lucas did, and he gave its fans everything they treasured about “Star Wars”—not least the scratched, grimy metal interiors, with their grilles and cables and atmospheric puffs of steam. He also gave them the novelty of a female protagonist, Rey (Daisy Ridley) who could outfight, outshoot and out-mind-control her male counterparts. To quote the subtitle of the first “Star Wars” film, Mr Abrams gave the fans a new hope.

What he didn’t give them was any compelling reason for the saga to continue other than to heap billions of dollars into the coffers of Disney, the company which now owned it. “The Force Awakens” may have been a barnstorming space opera, but it was also a shameless retread of the 1977 “Star Wars”—yes, it even ended with the rebels blowing up another bloody Death Star—and this lack of novelty undermined the validity of the whole enterprise. If the best a new “Star Wars” film could do was to copy Mr Lucas’s old ones, then what was the point?  

To a degree, “The Last Jedi” is derivative, too, in that many of its scenes are minor variations on scenes that were in the 1980 “Star Wars” sequel, “The Empire Strikes Back”. To wit, Luke lectures Rey in his off-the-grid Jedi retreat, just as Yoda once lectured Luke, only the lecturing takes place on a mountainous island rather than in a swampy cavern. And Finn (John Boyega) and his sidekick Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) try to evade their fascist pursuers by rubbing shoulders with the galaxy’s high-rollers, just as Han Solo and Princess Leia once did, only the shoulder-rubbing takes place in a casino rather than in Cloud City.

But if “The Last Jedi” is all too similar to “The Empire Strikes Back” in outline, what is different about it is its maverick attitude. Instead of going along with the received wisdom that the Jedi are virtuous crusaders for peace and justice, and that imperial oppressors have to be fought at all costs, Mr Johnson keeps questioning and mocking everything we took for granted about the series. To paraphrase Edwin Starr, he keeps asking: “Star Wars, what is it good for?”

For much of the film, this line of enquiry is intriguing without being especially entertaining. It is hard to resist BB8, the lovable and astonishingly capable robot (who can be recreated at home by putting an upturned cereal bowl on top of a beach ball). It tugs the heartstrings to see Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher, who died before the film was completed) finally getting to show off the Jedi powers which the men in the Skywalker family have always been so free and easy with. And Mr Driver’s wounded performance as the conflicted Kylo Ren must put him in contention for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. But “The Last Jedi” doesn’t have the hurtling pace or the vertigo-inducing action that distinguished “The Force Awakens”, so it is possible to admire Mr Johnson’s cheeky iconoclasm and philosophical musings while glancing repeatedly at your watch.

In the film’s last act, however, it makes its metaphorical leap into hyperspace. Just when you think that it is nearly over, Mr Johnson comes up with surprising answers to all the questions he has posed. He stages combat sequences which will have audiences punching the air and cheering, and he deepens the characters in ways which subvert our expectations and then surpass them. It is quite a feat: he tears “Star Wars” down to its foundations, only to build it back up again. As slow as it may initially be, “The Last Jedi” finishes by giving the series not just a new hope, but a new and electrifying sense of purpose. Best of all, it doesn’t rely on anyone blowing up a Death Star.