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Themes of The Last Jedi


Waiting for the opening crawl for Episode VIII, I thought about what I wanted The Last Jedi to include. What stuck in my head was I wanted to 'learn something.' I think I assumed there would be plenty of action, daring rescues, a bit of humor and amazing spectacles. (First SPOILER among many to follow - there are) But, I ask a bit more from movies like Star Wars. As foolish as this perhaps sounds, I wanted this movie to always be about something. More than Rey's parentage or the mystery of Snoke, I wanted some greater message from the experience. 

Rose Zico and Finn in Canto Bight.
So what did I learn? Towards the end of the movie, Rose prevents Finn from sacrificing his life (most likely in vain). Catching up with her, Finn asks her why. Rose's reply, "to save what I love," stuck with me. In ways both big and small, this movie invested a lot of energy into describing and elaborating upon that message. The heroes are never more heroic than when they are looking to rescue each other and never more in error than when they strike out against what they hate or fear.

Reading up on the behind-the-scenes development of the movie, I came across this interview (http://deadline.com/2017/12/star-wars-the-last-jedi-rian-johnson-ram-bergman-interview-spoilers-deleted-scenes-lucasfilm-plans-1202227741/amp/) with the creative team behind The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson and Ram Bergman. When asked about their process, they mentioned that they knew early on the movie would revolve around the three main characters: Rey, Finn, and Poe. Each character's arc through the story would be developed by their interaction with two other characters, forming triangles of relationships. It's through these relationships that characters develop during the movie. They also described it as the 'spine' on top of which everything else grew.

In various ways Poe (Oscar Issac), Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega) learn a similar lesson: confronting the object of hatred and fear does not inherently make someone a hero. Heroes save people - as many as possible for as long as possible. What I like about The Last Jedi is this message appears as a natural outgrowth of each character's conflict. Take Finn's role in the movie for example. One of the complaints I've seen most often about this movie revolves around the Canto Bight episode. From the standpoint of advancing the plot's conflict (will the resistance be snuffed out?) this escapade is fruitless. Finn's attempt to save the fleet fails and he ultimately winds up more or less where he began. And if this side-adventure was simply about advancing the plot, that would be a valid criticism. But it is not - Canto Bight is more about Finn's growth as person specifically, and the overall message of the film more generally.

Finn is an interesting character to me because his nature (his basic personality type) often seems in conflict with his instinct (his gut motivation). Finn, while clearly a person driven to protect others, is also a person inclined towards flight when confronted with peril. In Force Awakens, the massacre at Lorr San Tekka's village on Jakku brings his nature and impulse together. After a companion dies in his arms, he then watches fellow storm-troopers gun down helpless villagers. He decides to get out, a self-serving impulse which leads to a friendship -of-convenience with Poe Dameron. His first encounter with Rey follows a similar trajectory, an urge for self-protection at war with his desire to protect friends. His actions throughout that movie are either trying to protect his friends or getting as far away from danger as possible. His ultimate heroism in the service of the Resistance occurs almost despite himself. Knowing this central fact about his character explains much of his actions in the beginning of The Last Jedi. After his encounter with Kylo Ren at the beginning of the movie, Finn is injured. Waking up, he learns in rapid succession that his friend Rey is on a distant planet and that the First Order are bearing down on the fleet, which cannot escape. For an instant Finn's nature and impulse harmonize and he sets to find Rey and get as far away from the First Order as possible. Cue his failed attempt to commandeer an escape pod and stunning by Rose Tico.

After patching up this misunderstanding, Finn and Rose hatch a plan to get the entire fleet out safely. Rose's motivation is clear - to have her sister's sacrifice mean something. Finn's motivation is a bit more complex. Does he want to help the fleet and his friends? Of course. But is his attempt to help them another kind of escape? Clearly.

After running afoul of Canto Bight's security service they encounter a thief and code-breaker named DJ. DJ, according to Johnson and Bergman, represents the other end of Finn's relationship triad. Where Rose is concerned with fighting for something, DJ's view of the conflict between the Resistance and the First Order is more jaundiced. In a pivotal moment, DJ exposes that the arms dealers and death merchants of Canto Bight sell war machines to not only the First Order but also the Resistance. "They blow you up today and you blow them up tomorrow," he says as a parting shot at the absolute emotional nadir of Finn's arc.

The line I quoted at the beginning of this essay happens after this. The Resistance has found temporary refuge on the mineral planet Crait, but the First Order readies a terrible weapon to crack open their citadel. Finn makes a desperate run towards the weapon, attempting to sacrifice his own life as one last gesture against the forces arrayed against his friends. But it doesn't require too much reflection to realize this is simply Finn's instinct to flee in another guise. His rickety craft is disintegrating around him, its weapons already melting into uselessness by the heat of the First Order's weapon. By the point of Rose's intervention it must be as clear to him as it is to the audience how futile this gesture will be. Sacrificing his life without hope of helping his friends is only one more type of flight. It is after Rose saves him that the lesson of his experiences becomes clear. He cannot fulfill his nature as a protector by running away from the First Order. Protecting means ensuring the safety of those he cares about. It is in dragging Rose's unconscious body back to the old Rebellion base that his plot line reaches its true resolution. He has saved whom he loves.

The point is the journey Finn takes from a well-intentioned but brittle young man to a true hero. His journey provides both the overall message of the film but also its emotional heft. Heroes don't exist to struggle against what they hate. They exist to protect what they love. I honestly loved this message and felt it to be one of the most timely messages of any movie in the franchise since A New Hope. In years like the one we've all just lived through, defeating a foe isn't nearly as much of a priority as keeping a spark of hope alive until the conditions are right for it to catch fire.

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