When "The Last Jedi" blasts into theaters this week, fans the world over will be introduced to the new remote planet of Crait.
"Crait started with a very graphic idea of red underneath white, and how that could transform during the course of a battle," director and writer Rian Johnson said in a recent interview about the penultimate chapter in the latest "Star Wars" trilogy. "But the bigger idea behind it is it’s a mineral planet, and when it snows, it’s salt that’s snowing down on you, and any crevice is filled with crystals."
Much like the paradise world of Scarif featured in "Rogue One" and filmed in the tropical beauty of the Maldives, Johnson chose to bring the planet of Crait to life using a real location here on Earth. His perfect natural star? None other than the remote, alien beauty of the Salar de Uyuni, the world's largest salt flat.
Spanning 4,086 square miles, the Salar de Uyuni is located in southwest Bolivia at an elevation nearly 12,000 feet above sea level. The geographic oddity, almost entirely flat, was formed by prehistoric lakes that dried up thousands of years ago and left behind their salt-rich contents. By some estimates, more than 10 billion tons of salt cover the region today.
Underneath its salt crust, extending several feet in some places, sits a massive pool of brine rich in lithium carbonate. By some estimates, the Salar is home to more than 50 percent of the world's lithium reserves, making it a tempting industrial target for companies interested in mining the soft metal for batteries in everything from phones to electric cars.
The Salar's distinction as a world wonder extends beyond its great white expanse. During the rainy season, from December to March, the flats fill with water, creating what's been described as the "world's largest mirror." Like the silvery (though more deadly) mudflats of Britain's Broomway, it's often impossible to tell where the sky ends and the land begins.
The mirror effect, as many of the 60,000 tourists who visit the remote region each year can attest, is akin to walking on the sky.
"It is surreal," wrote one tourist. "A thin layer of water in Salar de Uyuni creates such stunning reflections that probably no words would be enough to describe this incredible beauty. The endless horizon on the lake is any photographer’s dream-come-true to play with depth and perspective."
For professional artists, the Salar de Uyuni opens up creative opportunities impossible to find elsewhere in the world. Photographer Eric Paré and contemporary dancer Kim Henry earlier this year completed a photo project that took advantage of the salt flat's unique ethereal beauty with stunning results.
"We thought that Uyuni would be the perfect place for our art," Paré told MNN. "The giant mirror to reflect the light, the unique colors, the texture of the ground and the sky, and the fact that there’s no light pollution — there’s nothing else like it."
Of course, for those just looking to have a bit of fun, the Salar's extreme flat, unending white expanse also allows for an endless array of creative perspective illusions.
In "The Last Jedi," Crait is the site of an abandoned Rebel base that the forces of the First Alliance flee to after the events of "The Force Awakens." Much like the Battle of Hoth in "The Empire Strikes Back," the evil First Order manages to track the Alliance and deploy the full force of its ground forces.
And yes, these guys are coming back to spoil the party as well.
While the salt flats of Crait in "The Last Jedi" appear nearly identical to the ones in South America, they do have one notable difference. When disturbed, the surface on Crait reveals a bizarre red dust underneath, which contrasts spectacularly with the white surroundings. One need only look at the craft speeding towards the enemy below to see that this effect will make for quite the memorable scene.
"I wanted them to feel really rickety," Johnson said of the ski speeders. "At some point we came up with the idea of having this open cockpit, like a biplane, or a World War I plane. Also, I knew that they had to have this stabilizing ski, because I wanted to take advantage of the red and the white on Crait, and kick up that red, and have that jetski spray behind them."
Perhaps inspired by the culpeo, a fox that feeds on rabbits and other rodents around the Salar de Uyuni, Johnson created a crystalline creature on Crait called the vulptex (the latin word for fox).
"It was just a logical thing of how would a creature evolve on that planet," he told StarWars.com. "The idea of it being kind of a crystal chandelier with fur seemed really beautiful and worked with the story."
Should you wish to visit the Salar and take in its otherworldly beauty, there are plenty of tour companies that will shuttle you out to the flats. Many of the hotels on site are built using massive blocks of salt and boast such amenities as dry saunas, steam rooms, whirlpools and, of course, saltwater baths. There's also an antique train cemetery dating back to the 19th century, ghostly relics of a mining industry long abandoned.
"It’s really hard to describe, but it had a really profound effect on me," documentary director Mike Plunkett, who chronicled the salt flats in the film "Salero," said in an interview. "The salt flat is about the size of the state of Connecticut. When you’re driving out there, it feels like you’re like in a sailboat on the ocean. Only on the salt flats, you can step out of your boat and walk on the water. It’s incredible. It’s hard to judge distance. It’s very disorientating. It has a power over you psychologically. You feel the presence of the landscape."