Why Star Wars: The Last Jedi will be better than you think

The Star Wars saga surged resoundingly back to form with The Force Awakens in 2015, starting a new trilogy while proving things really could get better after George Lucas' lukewarm prequels. Rogue One continued the franchise's winning streak the following year, but we don't blame you if you're still feeling a little gunshy about Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. The ingredients are all there for an incredible Star Wars installment, but there's always the risk it'll miss the mark. What if it's even worse than The Phantom Menace? Never fear, film fans—chances are it's going to be awesome, and here's why.

Rian Johnson has a unique creative vision

Episode VIII director Rian Johnson has a terrific track record. His Breaking Bad episode "Ozymandias" is one of the best in the show, Brick is a unique low-budget action movie, and Looper is one of the best time-travel movies ever made. Johnson has a way of working within genre fare while adding his own unique twist; he's adept at making movies that aren't just fluff popcorn blockbusters, but are still entertaining as hell. He trusts that the audience is smart enough to follow his lead.

As much as we love Star Wars, the franchise is trapped in its own success. The last two movies have been great, but not exactly innovative. That's why we need someone like Johnson to come and shake things up, in terms of style as well as writing. Expect excellent (yet restrained) action scenes, fascinating world-building, dark humor, and—most importantly—moral ambiguity.

Johnson also has history on his side. The second Star Wars film, The Empire Strikes Back, earned widespread acclaim partly because creator George Lucas chose Irvin Kershner to direct. Kershner was able to come to the franchise with fresh eyes and a unique artistic vision. Combining an established, fascinating universe with an outside perspective created the best film in the franchise—and history could be repeating itself now. The Force Awakens introduced us to the world of the sequels, and now Johnson will add a new set of ideas, taking the franchise in a unique direction. This is his chance to make the next Empire Strikes Back. In Rian we trust.

Johnson is pulling influences from excellent old school films

Movies don't come out of nowhere. Every director, screenwriter, and actor has their influences—and Johnson's influences for The Last Jedi are excellent. As he told Empire, his Last Jedi palette draws on 12 O'Clock High, Three Outlaw Samurai, and To Catch a Thief.

This tells us a lot about what we can expect. Three Outlaw Samurai is well-known for its swordfight choreography, which should get any fans of lightsaber fights pumped, and To Catch a Thief is an Alfred Hitchcock mystery involving betrayal and hidden identities. The most interesting influence, though, is 12 O'Clock High.

Filmed right after World War II, 12 O'Clock High tells the story of bomber crews over Europe, and it was so realistic that the United States military used it as a training film. We're guessing The Last Jedi will include a lot of military action, and really dig into the psyches of the Resistance members. 12 O'Clock High broke new ground by realistically portraying PTSD in the pilots. Often, Star Wars glosses over the emotional toll of war; if Johnson is taking his cues from 12 O'Clock High, that seems likely to change. Thrilling dogfights are also on the menu, so get excited. Nothing beats watching X-wings kick Sith trash.

Laura Dern and Benicio del Toro are in it

Like any good sequel, The Last Jedi is expanding the cast to introduce new characters into the saga. These aren't just second-rate actors, either: we're seeing Benicio del Toro and Laura Dern join the Star Wars universe.

Dern has multiple Oscar nominations, but most people know her as Dr. Ellie Sattler from Jurassic Park, the most badass paleobotanist ever. She's a frequent David Lynch collaborator and is noted for her complex, emotional roles—the range and talent The Last Jedi needs.

We're really excited for Benicio del Toro to get involved in the galaxy far, far away. He's brought to life some of the most memorable (albeit crazed) characters in movie history, and there's just no guessing who his Last Jedi character might be. You don't cast Benicio del Toro to just ape off a bland character archetype—you let him bring somebody totally new to life, and he always delivers.

The footage showed to Disney stockholders sounds awesome

Being a Disney shareholder must be amazing, if only because you get to see all the cool stuff coming out before everyone else. Those bigwigs got an early taste of The Last Jedi, and fortunately for those of us who can't invest millions of dollars in the Mouse, somebody leaked what they'd seen.

It sounds awesome. According to the leaker, there was a shot of Luke in a cave asking someone (presumably Rey): "Who are you?" Other shots showed Rey spinning and training with the blue lightsaber, and a scene described as "Rey's hand, in slow motion, with all five fingertips touching the ground and pebbles and dirt hovering around her hand." But the most exciting is a possible space battle.

We're stitching this together from the leaks, but it seems likely. There was a shot of Leia with her back turned to a big hologram showing the positions of giant ships. Another shot echoed Rogue One, showing fighters flying through a big fleet blockade. Poe and BB-8 were flying in their X-wing together and another shot showed an X-wing coming in for a rough landing. The Force Awakens didn't give us an epic space battle, but after seeing Rogue One we know that modern effects can make them insanely cool. Now we just have to wait until December to see one in The Last Jedi…or break open the piggy bank and invest in Disney.

Exotic new locations

The Force Awakens was pretty great, but one of the few disappointments was the locations. None of the planets were really that interesting; they were just the stereotypical desert planet, forest planet, and ice planet. The Last Jedi isn't making the same mistake.

Early set leaks show The Last Jedi filmed in Dubrovnik, Croatia, with the city standing in as a swanky, urban Star Wars resort. Photos from the set show it lit with neon and filled with weird aliens. There was even a leaked photo showing a speeder exploding. Whatever's happening on this planet, it's certainly exciting. We can't wait to see a populated, urban planet instead of just hanging around in galactic backwaters.

The other leaked location is described as Mars with snow. The planet has red dirt and a light dusting of snow, especially on banks and rims of buildings and rocks. Leakers report that a First Order base is here, with the architecture looking pretty similar to what we saw on Starkiller base. We also know the crew was filming at Salar de Uyuni, the world's largest salt flat.

We could see the New Republic

Pablo Hidalgo is one of the main guys in charge of developing the story and lore of Star Wars. Fans tweet him all the time asking for clarification about story elements, looking for news or fishing for accidental slip-ups. Those efforts are rarely successful on that last count—except once, when Hidalgo accidentally let slip that we're finally going to see the New Republic.

Remember, the New Republic was the main galactic government during The Force Awakens. The Resistance was a paramilitary organization dedicated to doing what the New Republic didn't have the political spine to do: fight the First Order. But when their capital planet was blown to pieces, fans wondered if we'd ever see them—and when one asked Hidalgo, he replied that the New Republic was still around, and they weren't out of the fight. We're paraphrasing, since Hidalgo quickly deleted the tweet. He'd said too much. (Or Disney sent out a hired assassin.)

We didn't forget. Get ready to see the massive military force of the New Republic. The Resistance just doesn't have the ships to stand toe-to-toe in a big space battle with the First Order, so they're going to need some help. Hopefully, this will also let The Last Jedi move away from the retread Rebel vs. Empire plot that The Force Awakens borrowed. Time for something new! X-wings are cool, but we want to see the big boys duking it out.

It's being filmed in IMAX

Bigger isn't always better…unless we're talking about IMAX. Disney and IMAX recently signed a contract extending their partnership through 2019, which means if Disney wants sweet IMAX cameras, they're getting them. This is excellent news for Star Wars.

The last two Star Wars movies have used IMAX, and anybody who's seen them in the format knows it was awesome. Johnson has already confirmed he's using IMAX cameras, and we've seen set photos of the big cameras at Skellig Michael, the Irish isles serving as the set for Luke's hideout planet Ahch-To. What's happening on Ahch-To that asks for IMAX? Maybe Rey's training isn't peaceful. Whatever happens, we'll see it in glorious 70mm.

We can really dig into the mythology of the universe

One of the best things about sequels is that they don't have to worry about all the introductory elements of the series. Since they don't have to introduce everything and keep the plot moving, sequels can incorporate more complex plots.

The biggest thing we want to see is a look at what Luke's been doing. In Return of the Jedi he toyed (however momentarily) with the Dark Side. Did he give that up? We know he had an academy that failed, and we know he went missing. What motivated him to just peace out? Why didn't he stay around to clean up the mess? Kind of a jerk move. It's clear our heroes know who Snoke is before the events of The Force Awakens, so it seems strange that Luke didn't get involved to stop him.

There is a lot to explore here, and it seems Luke's view of the Force might have changed since the original trilogy. Plus, we have to find out more about Snoke and Kylo Ren. Specifically, how do the Knights of Ren play into everything? We saw them briefly in Rey's "Forceback" scene, but we still have so many questions—and now that the story is moving, we can get some answers. Hopefully they don't involve midichlorians.

New canon story possibilities

Spoilers ahead for those who aren't totally caught up on Star Wars canon and are planning on reading the books and comics: the new canon has done a bunch of interesting things with the background of the sequel trilogy, and opened up a ton of possibilities.

The novel Empire's End gave us a ton of juicy tidbits that will certainly play into The Last Jedi. At the end of the Galactic Civil War, Palpatine sent ships out into unknown regions of the galaxy, and very few came back. But after a few missions, Palpatine started getting messages from a super-strong Dark Side entity—probably Snoke. Chances are, Snoke is from somewhere so weird and distant that even Palpatine didn't know it existed. It's even implied that Snoke is the source of all Dark Side powers, or at least living at the source.

The novel also offered us an interesting clue into Rey's parenthood. While Palpatine was receiving those transmissions, his scientists found an ancient laboratory on Jakku filled with star maps. This should get Knights of the Old Republic fans excited. Palpatine used the lab to store life forces, but when the final battle between the Rebels and Empire happened over Jakku, the lab was wrecked and some of them possibly escaped. Is this the origin of Rey? That would be weird… but unique.

There are so many other new plot threads that can be woven into The Last Jedi. For example, the Empire was organizing a defense against insanely powerful threats from outside the galaxy while they were fighting the Rebels. In the period between the original trilogy and the sequels, there were roving Dark Side cults trying to buy ancient Sith weapons and artifacts for mysterious purposes. All these ideas are really exciting, and Disney has let fans know about them before the movie comes out. They'll certainly play a role. The Mouse House always has a plan.

Everybody loves the script

The biggest reason to get pumped for this movie is that according to everybody involved, Rian Johnson has created something truly special. It's not just random set technicians going "Yeah, that movie was kind of cool when I was working on it." This is the main cast.

Daisy Ridley is usually pretty secretive about what's going on behind the scenes, but she did say the script was "very good." Thanks, Daisy. Adam Driver had more to say, describing the tone of the movie as "different" but not necessarily "darker." According to Driver, "[Rian Johnson] trusts [that] his audience is ready for nuance and ambiguity. He's not dumbing anything down for someone and that's really fun to play."

That sounds great, but these are people in the movie. They aren't going to go on camera and trash it if they still want a job. Skeptics can take comfort in Greg Grunberg's comments, however: Grunberg plays Snap Wexley and is good friends with J.J. Abrams. Supposedly after reading the script, Abrams was insanely jealous that he didn't write it himself. So the guy who made The Force Awakens thinks The Last Jedi is better? We're in for a treat.