At the very least, writing about a new Star Wars film is a fraught exercise. Point out its flaws and fawning fanboys will come after you like wolves. Overpraise it and skeptics will label you a fawning fanboy, incapable of viewing a Star Wars film with a critical eye. Spoil anything about it and everyone will come for your head.

Bearing all that, here goes: Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the eighth installment in the iconic film series that started with 1977’s A New Hope, is nothing short of fantastic, a thrilling, thoughtful, and emotional story that continues the journey established in 2015’s The Force Awakens, with such gusto it nearly elevates writer/director Rian Johnson to the hero status achieved by many of the characters in the film.

As the horrid prequel trilogy showed, it’s quite easy to fuck up a Star Wars film. And J.J. Abrams demonstrated what a fine, if derivative and flawed, new Star Wars film looks like. But Johnson elevates the highs of The Force Awakens—and of the entire Star Wars franchise altogether—with The Last Jedi, channeling the original’s message of hope, perseverance, and resistance with the kind of cinematic flair that makes both art-house cinephiles and action thrillseekers squirm with joy. 

The Last Jedi picks up roughly right where The Force Awakens left off: The iconic opening crawl informs us that while the Resistance took out the evil First Order’s Death Star-on-steroids super weapon, the planet-killing Starkiller Base, the baddies are still very much in control of the galaxy and hot on the trail of our heroes. In fact, when the film begins, the First Order is literally within striking distance of what’s left of the Resistance.

All that stands in their way from the resistance is… a single X-Wing fighter. It’s Poe Dameron (a cunning and often hilarious Oscar Isaac), the headstrong fighter pilot who’s set to take on the entire First Order on his own. Or so it seems. What follows is a chuckle-heavy exchange between Dameron and the First Order’s treacherous and dastardly General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson, clearly having a ball doing his best mustache-twirling villain schtick). On top of everything aforementioned, The Last Jedi is also by far the funniest Star Wars saga.

The film roughly sticks to three main storylines that splinter off from that opening sequence, eventually converging in the film’s epic conclusion. The Resistance, led by General Leia Organa (a beaming Carrie Fisher, in one of her last on-screen appearances), can’t outrun The First Order. Resources are low and their ships are running on fumes. All hope seems lost for our heroes until Dameron hatches a secret scheme with the Stormtrooper-turned-Resistance fighter Finn (John Boyega) and a mechanic mourning the death of her sister, Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran, easily the best new character to enter the Star Wars canon) as a last-ditch effort to save The Resistance.

Meanwhile, Rey (Daisy Ridley), the star of the new franchise, has located the mythic Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill, in a triumphant return to his most famous role) on a remote island at the edge of the galaxy. She wants the Jedi Master to teach her the ways of The Force and bring him back to his sister, Leia, to help defeat The First Order. But Luke is jaded and resistant, unwilling to face anyone after he let his nephew, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver, ever the brooding and moody villain, but not as annoyingly so as he was in The Force Awakens), be seduced by the Dark Side via the mysterious Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis, in full motion-capture regalia).

Without giving too much away, The Last Jedi is a film that shows what hope in the face of failure looks like. The Empire Strikes Back, the bleakest and best film of the original trilogy, is something of a spiritual older sibling of The Last Jedi. But even The Empire Strikes Back’s most desperate moments have nothing compared to what The Last Jedi has packed in its two-and-a-half-hour run time.

With a cinematic flare that recalls some of Akira Kurosawa’s most vivid films, Johnson expands Star Wars’ cinematic universe, introducing us to bold and beautiful new worlds for his characters to explore. There’s almost a childlike awe to the world that Johnson is playing in that spills out from behind his camera onto the screen. Each character in the film has a set purpose for being there, and each one’s purpose is in service of the larger story Johnson is telling.

But what’s most thrilling about The Last Jedi is Johnson’s seamless blending of old and new Star Wars lore. Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and the rest of the crew’s roles are by no means fan service, and the new characters Johnson introduces are sure to be as iconic as their predecessors. It’s a film whose primary message is finding hope in the most hopeless of times. That’s something I’m sure at least some of you can relate to.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi opens Friday in theaters everywhere.