Rian Johnson sure had a lot on his plate taking on The Last Jedi. Forget it being by far his biggest film in scale or budget and the inherent expectations of making a damn Star Wars film. He also had to contend with the growing sense among core fans that J.J. Abrams' The Force Awakens, while neatly packaged and presented, was an overly staid, safe retread of A New Hope. The Star Wars backlash was real.

That he's even succeeded in delivering an entry into the beloved canon that fans will even like is a massive accomplishment in itself. That he managed to take some risks along the way – all under the trigger happy, watchful eye of Kathleen Kennedy, no less – is a testament to a fledgling voice in cinema.

Johnson clearly finds joy in bucking the expectations laid out by the series in general, and the last film in particular. Luke isn't how you imagined he'd be, not by a long shot, and as the great, aging Jedi said himself in the trailer: "This is not going to go how you think."

While the film checks expected boxes for a Star Wars film, it also manages to head in directions perhaps unexpected. The heroes don't come together in the easy ways you'd think, instead spending the majority of the film estranged in various precarious situations, and for all the fan obsessing over "Who is Snoke?," well, let's just say that won't go how you expect, either.

As audience members who were very critical of The Force Awakens, we must acknowledge: it's all too easy to get our armchair on and criticize, but imagine actually taking on a film of this nature. Pleasing old fans, making it feel welcoming enough to new ones, keeping it thrilling while sticking to something that won't make Disney executives scratch their heads...it's truly daunting to even consider.

For the first time since the series, for better or worse, was resurrected, we've received a film that manages to pay tribute to the films many of us grew up loving without feeling trite or stale. Old characters – those you'd expect to show their faces, and one you wouldn't – all get their moment, even when they haven't turned out how you wanted, Johnson makes you believe when they've arrived. What's more, he makes you feel it. Carrie Fisher's Leia, in an expanded role from Awakens, is having a blast with the stronger, wizened Organa, and her loss sears more than ever watching. She will be very much missed next time around.

It's not perfect, naturally. BB-8, despite markedly less screen time, receives more over the top moments, verging uncomfortably close to prequel territory in his absurd heroics. On the other hand, as forcefully (pun intended) as they were marketed, the dreaded Porgs have a reasonably understated presence in the film, not bothering even this writer, who felt a fair amount of trepidation about their inclusion. Meanwhile, while you may wonder why Admiral Holdo has purple hair, Laura Dern remains a welcome, deft addition to the cast.

Fellow series newcomer Kelly Marie Tran, as Rose Tico, more than makes her presence felt. Surely the envy of every aspiring actor and actress, she seems to have lept from relative obscurity to superstardom in a single bound, but she makes for the most valuable addition to Star Wars since Finn. An Asian – female, no less – heroine is past due for a film of this size, and she makes the most of every moment of her screen time, instantly joining the running for the most likable character hailing from the new trilogy with her journey from nameless maintenance worker to hero in The Last Jedi.

It must be repeated: for a series already known for playing it safe, Rian Johnson has succeeded in taking more narrative and stylistic gambles than arguably any Disney-Marvel film to date, let alone the new Star Wars entries. As the kind of kid who lost most of his young social life the moment his uncle gifted him the original trilogy on VHS at five years old, even this writer was pleased. Not overwhelmed, perhaps, but at its best, it gives those good ol' Star Wars goosebumps. It's a shame Han missed out on this one.