By Piya Sinha-Roy
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Light faces dark, old faces new and there's a struggle to find a balance in the Force when "Star Wars" returns with "The Last Jedi," the sequel that places Luke Skywalker and his sister Leia at the center of an emotional adventure.
"The Last Jedi," written and directed by Rian Johnson, sees new characters that were first introduced in 2015's "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" return alongside franchise veterans, as the Resistance, led by Carrie Fisher's General Leia, fights the menacing First Order trying to control the galaxy.
"Because it's a new chapter and because it's the one where we have to start challenging the characters, it gets to go to intense places," Johnson told Reuters in a recent interview.
"The Last Jedi," out in theaters worldwide from Wednesday, is the eighth installment of the long-running "Star Wars" saga that George Lucas kicked off with 1977's "Episode IV: A New Hope."
Rey (Daisy Ridley) desperately tries to convince a stubborn Luke (Mark Hamill), who has sequestered himself on a remote island and given up the ways of the Jedi, to join the rebel fight, which is losing hope against a powerful First Order helmed by the tyrannical Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis).
Johnson places a spotlight back on the Force, the supernatural energy that runs through the galaxy and which a young Luke was taught to harness by Jedi Master Yoda in 1980's "The Empire Strikes Back."
The older Luke has rejected the Force and the Jedi after one of his former pupils, Ben Solo (Adam Driver), turned to the dark side.
"The good guys really come up against a wall and everyone faces challenges in this movie that they didn't expect," Hamill said.
Rey harnesses the Force and finds that it connects her through visions to Ben, now the tormented villain Kylo Ren. She tries to convince him to embrace the light, while he attempts to lure her to the dark side.
"This is about balance in general. It's sort of about taking away labels and ... finding the middle ground and understanding more that in a war, both sides are losing," Ridley said.
The film also shines a spotlight on Fisher, who died last December, shortly after she completed work on the film. "The Last Jedi" does not conclude Leia's story, which will be left to the filmmakers of 2019's "Episode IX."
Early reviews for Walt Disney Co.'s "The Last Jedi" were mostly warm on Tuesday, and Boxoffice.com projected that the film would gross $185 million to $215 million in North America in its first weekend, one of the biggest film debuts in history.
Johnson said that, like previous "Star Wars" films, he wanted to bring levity to "The Last Jedi," from Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) mocking the uptight General Hux to Leia's scathing put-downs and Chewbacca's annoyance with fuzzy new creatures, the Porgs.
"To me, a 'Star Wars' movie is a fun adventure. You have the opera but you also have to have the bubblegum," Johnson said.
(Additional reporting by Rollo Ross, Editing by Rosalba O'Brien)