[Beware, traveler, MAJOR spoilers ahead!]
Last night I managed to snag a late ticket to The Last Jedi—still not quite sure how that miracle happened—but it did and I have to say I was thoroughly impressed. In the early 2000s I remember Star Wars and Lord of the Rings both being a staple of the holiday season, heading out to the newest release with friends, family, and a jumbo bucket of popcorn. I'm really glad to have that back, especially when the new films aren't just nostalgic, but actively good. That's the first time in a long time that a two-and-a-half-hour movie didn't lose my attention even once.
There's a lot I could say regarding The Last Jedi's success, but here I want to focus pretty tightly on their use of environments to further the story.
It makes sense, yeah? Star Wars takes place "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away..." and, like its sibling Star Trek, that breadth of setting allows the series to boldly take us where we've never been before; to foreign planets and space stations, all of them jam-packed with aliens that draw the eye—and sometimes raise a brow or two. Star Wars is a space opera, so of course setting is going to play a key role, but The Last Jedi utilizes environmental details in ways that I found particularly compelling.
Like the ruby-red dirt of Crait for example, hidden by a lawer of crisp, white salt. It's certainly a compelling image: having a rebel walk out to get a look at the First Order's approaching forces, leaving 'bloody' footprints in his wake before the battle has even begun. But the choice of coloring here is more than just symbolic; it's what actively sells Luke's later stand against Kylo. Well, that and Leia. It's important that any universe as massive as Star Wars continues to expand the possibilities of its storytelling, without actively breaking any of the rules its already laid out. Here, we get to see that the Force apparently allows someone to survive the cold and pressure of space, giving Leia time to pull herself back to safety after her bridge is blown away. I'll admit, I thought the moment a little hokey (especially since I expected Leia to die this time around. I'm sure we all did. What are they going to do about her now?), but it's Leia's extreme Force abilities that allow us to nod and accept that, yeah sure, Luke can survive a whole shit ton of blasts from Kylo's Walkers. Why not? After all, we've already seen the Force do some crazy stuff in the last two hours. This might as well happen.
But while Leia's earlier survival helps to hide the fact that Luke is actually just a Force-generated hologram, it's that dirt that shocks us, if only for a moment. By giving Crait’s soil a bright red coloring and having Kylo initially shoot just one, well-aimed shot... well, it looks a lot like a human body getting blown to smithereens, doesn't it? I had a pretty vocal group in the theater (always fun, provided that people don't chat over dialogue) and there were audible, horrified gasps in that moment; everyone wondering if Johnson had really blown up our hero Tarantino style. That brief moment of shock is all down to a very well-chosen environment.
But of course, Crait is only in the very last leg of the film. The rest of the story is chock-full of equally appropriate settings that reflect what characters are currently struggling with: Poe, grappling with his need to play the hero and, as Leia puts it, constantly "jump in an x-wing and blow stuff up," is the most restricted character throughout the whole story, confined to the Rebel ships while his friends move freely around the galaxy. It eats at him and forces him to actually learn from his mistakes, rather than just running off to the next big battle. Finn, still working through the trauma he suffered as a First Order soldier, finds himself enchanted with the splendor of the casino that he and Rose visit. And why shouldn't he be? The man forced into conformity for so many years—who rejoices in just having a name—is of course going to go gaga over the flair and individuality that the upper class show off while gambling. It's only when Rose points out that this spectacle was built off the backs of slaves that Finn rethinks his awe. We're then given an excellent contrast to the now sterile-feeling casino: wild grass where Rose releases her steed. It's this small act, an acceptance of and communion with nature, that invokes her reasoning, "Now [the journey] was worth it."
In fact, natural, untouched settings play a key role in The Last Jedi, most notably when it comes to Luke's sacred island. At the start there seems to be a very clear dichotomy between him and Rey. Luke has embraced this land fully, catching fish with his crazy long pole or drinking the disgusting looking green milk from... whatever those things are, chugging it with enough enthusiasm that half of it dribbles down his beard. Rey, despite her own life fending in the desert, doesn't see much worth in this lifestyle, "I've seen your daily routine. You're not busy." It appears to be a clichéd 'the Master is one with nature/life and the Student has much to learn' scenario... until it's revealed that Luke has completely cut himself off from the Force. Despite his teachings, he's entirely out of balance, forsaking anything he considers 'dark' because of where he fears it might take him. Rey, meanwhile, embraces the death and destruction around her, to an extent that actually scares Luke.
Though it's played for laughs, I found it poignant that Rey continued to destroy things in her training attempts; be it blasting holes in the wall of her hut or accidentally cutting through a massive stone so it tumbles off the cliff. She explores a natural part of the island (that really creepy hole) even after Luke berates her for being drawn to it. Rey welcomes darkness, not accepting it like Kylo, but not ignoring it like Luke either. She, among the three of them, is the only one to acknowledge that it's the flip-side of the universe's coin; the other half of the Force's whole.
Luke needs to relearn this in a big way. Hesitating to burn the sacred tree—"Don't strike out of anger," he later tells Kylo; "Fight for what you love," Rose tells Finn—Yoda appears from the afterlife to bring down a massive lightning strike, happily destroying this holy place and the Jedis' first texts. Because it's okay. Luke has forgotten that destruction and death are as natural as life. Sometimes you have to let the past die in order to reach for the future.
That's what Kylo thinks he's doing, but as Luke rightfully points out, he hasn't let go of anything yet. Kylo is haunted by his past instead.
Which brings me to my final point regarding environment in this film, namely that sometimes a lack is as important as an abundance. Meaning, fans have spent the last year theorizing about Rey's parentage. She can't really be the daughter of nobodies, they said. She can't actually be from a place like Jaku, notably labeled as the closest thing to "nowhere" that the galaxy possesses. But she is. Rey is a nobody from nowhere and I think that's pretty wonderful. Because up until now everything has been about the Skywalkers, a family that (as Luke points out) has achieved the status of legends. Had Rey been from this or another prestigious line, it would have just crafted a message that only those already born into greatness can hope to achieve it. Because that's what the original films gave us: great and mythical family members fighting among themselves.
But now there's a new generation, a group of nobodies hailing from nowhere. Rey is an orphan dumped on Jaku for drinking money. Finn was just a cog in the First Order's machine. Even Poe is just another Rebel born to two other Rebel parents... what's so special about him? Nothing, yet that right there is the point. All these faceless people, rising up and doing something amazing with their lives.
We've had six films of the Skywalkers' drama. Now, as they move on, I'm glad to see this new generation taking their place. The Force is all about balance and I'm thrilled that these new films understand that "nowhere" is just an important a place as "somewhere."