The Last Jedi redux: how Rose and Finn succeeded

WARNING: SPOILERS

This post follows from the last one, which you may want to read first.

At least in these early days, one of the most common gripes about The Last Jedi is that the Rose/Finn subplot ends up being a “red herring” and a failure. I put “red herring” in scare quotes because I don’t think that holds up. Nor do I think their failure is what it seems.

On a second viewing, this theme emerges even more clearly: individuals and institutions will fail. It’s inevitable. It’s no accident that the most ringing endorsement of failure as a teacher comes from Yoda, one of the oldest and wisest characters in all of Star Wars.

So what matters, when the things you thought you could trust fail you? Ideals, translated into actions. Saving what you love, as Rose Tico says and does. Passing on what you have learned – the uplifting and the painful alike, as Yoda says and does. “Too many losses. I can’t take any more.” Leia pleads to Vice Admiral Holdo, as Holdo – like Rose – prepares to sacrifice herself to save what she loves. “Sure you can,” Holdo replies. “You taught me how.”

And most of all, inspiring others to discover their own, inherent capacity for heroism. Rey becomes great because of her choices, not because of her parents. (Just like Luke and Leia, both orphaned in A New Hope, before later stories saddled them with the ugly burden of predestination.) Poe learns that there are other ways to prevail besides blowing up the bad guys, and that he has more to offer than his skills as a trigger man.

“We are the spark that will light the fire…” The movie practically beats us over the head with it. Resistance as an ideal rather than an institution. Military success is not the answer, at least not at this moment. Surviving, passing on hard-earned truths, and inspiring others is.

Seen in that light, the arc of Rose and Finn – from the fleet to Canto Bight, from Canto Bight to Snoke’s flagship, from the flagship to Crait, and through the battle on the surface – is a grand “show, don’t tell” of the movie’s central theme. Yes, Rose and Finn fail to save the Resistance in the way that they thought they would get to (“this is not going to go the way you think…”). That hurts, but failure is part of life.

Crucially, though, they inspired the people whose lives they touched along the way. That ending scene, with the kids on Canto Bight retelling the story of their heroes, is not a red herring, a distraction, or a poorly-considered swerve into Phantom Menace territory. It is the entire point of the movie. The first flickering of the fire for which the Resistance is the spark. And it wouldn’t have happened without Finn and Rose. They lost the battle, yes (it happens a lot in middle movies of trilogies). But along the way, they might have won the war.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

I grew up with Star Wars, and it took me a long time – and no small amount of pain – to realize that knocking out the Death Star’s main reactor is a romantic, happily-ever-after metaphor for success – and a piss-poor model for how any kind of conflict ever gets resolved in the real world. Just because you drop the perfect verbal diss doesn’t mean that the argument ends and the credits roll. One can, occasionally, “win” an argument purely on points, but even that is rare. And I’ve never seen, or heard, anyone win emotionally. There is always pain to deal with afterward, and a necessary working out of apologies and reconciliations (unless the relationship is truly over, or you are a psychopath). Real life is almost never as simple as the movies. That’s okay, too – not all entertainment should be escapist, but it’s fine if some is. And it’s perfectly reasonable if escapist entertainment gives us simpler victories and neater resolutions than real life, just as it gives us more attractive people to watch, snappier dialogue, and X-Wings instead of minivans.

But it’s also refreshing for me, personally, when a series that I love transcends the easy answers and embraces the inevitability of loss, pain, and complicated, delayed resolutions. That’s the most important way in which the new movie follows in Empire‘s footsteps. The Last Jedi is not about 42-year-old Star Wars fans getting more of what worked before (obviously, and maaaan are some of them burnt about it). It’s not about the Original Trilogy characters winning forever – Luke swooping in to save the day by wiping out the First Order, or Leia leading the Resistance to victory. It’s not even about Rey, Finn, Rose, and Poe “winning” – at least not at this moment. It’s about the rest of the galaxy, for which the kids on Canto Bight are emblems.

Maybe ironically, that hierarchically nested set of “It’s not about you” realizations ends up being pretty damned satisfying for this particular 42-year-old Star Wars fan. I’ve known that it’s not about me for a while – from the first time I held my infant son and realized that I was no longer in the leading edge of life on Earth, but just another link in a very long chain, with other generations on either side. That is a bracing, bittersweet thought. I love Star Wars, but I want Star Wars that I can unironically reference while contemplating such things. And now I have it.

Is The Last Jedi perfect? Of course not. That’s ludicrous, especially on the movie’s own terms. It doesn’t have to work for everyone, any more than Rose and Finn needed to save everyone on those transports. It just has to inspire us with new possibilities.

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8 Responses to The Last Jedi redux: how Rose and Finn succeeded

  1. Pingback: Spoileriffic first thoughts on The Last Jedi | Echo Station 5-7

  2. lordvankar says:

    Good blog, and good points. I saw Star Wars 40 years ago at the age of 12 in the theatre, and it was what inspired me to lead a different life than where I could have gone. So as for inspiration, The Last Jedi did disappointment in some ways, as having read a lot of the EU novels I expected Luke to do some amazing jedi duels, and jedi mind tricks, but instead got something a little more fitting for this movie and to where it is leading. I have only seen it once, but will be seeing it again next week, hopefully with a better perspective on the characters new and old. I did like what they did with Leia, though. It was a little surprising and appreciated.

  3. Matt Wedel says:

    Thanks for the kind words, and thanks for commenting and sharing your thoughts.

    I saw Star Wars 40 years ago at the age of 12 in the theatre, and it was what inspired me to lead a different life than where I could have gone.

    That is really cool. I feel like a lot of people these days would not want to admit something like that. But they should! Art should move us, and we feel free to be moved by it. Not just moved emotionally, but moved to new courses of action.

    So as for inspiration, The Last Jedi did disappointment in some ways, as having read a lot of the EU novels I expected Luke to do some amazing jedi duels, and jedi mind tricks

    Oh man, I had a serious case of EUitis to get over a couple of years ago. My immersion in the old EU really colored my enjoyment of TFA the first time out. But now I’ve come around to the idea that Star Wars, at least for me, is like Batman. There’s no one definitive Batman story. But there are lots of good Batman stories, which are not all mutually consistent. I liked TFA and I love TLJ, but I still like Dark Empire and my son and I are still playing a Dark Empire campaign in the roleplaying game, even though that future is no longer canon. In fact, we keep switching back and forth between our Dark Empire and TFA campaigns.

    Also, arguably Luke does the most amazing Jedi mind trick of all at the end of TLJ.

    I did like what they did with Leia, though. It was a little surprising and appreciated.

    Yeah, absolutely. For me, that was the Yoda-lifting-the-X-Wing scene of TLJ: the massive and unexpectedly awesome display of the power of the Force. I mean, what Luke does later is way beyond, but c’mon, Luke’s a Jedi Master. Leia’s use of the Force was, as you said, both surprising and appreciated.

  4. Mike Taylor says:

    My heart agrees with you completely.

    Still, my head was kind of nonplussed when Poe’s great plan for saving the Resistance was go off on a side-quest on Planet Of The Rich and track down the Galaxy’s Greatest Hacker. I agree that the “failure” of the mission is satisfying in a way that an outright success would not have been; but it doesn’t really feel like the kind of mission people in that situation would have gone on in the first place — especially given the extremely tight time deadline. (If the Resistance flagship had had week of fuel instead of two days’ worth, it would have made more sense.)

  5. Matt Wedel says:

    Several things arise. First, I had read your comment before I went to see the movie the most recent time (on December 24), so I was keen to take another look at the genesis of the plan. And even Poe, Finn, and Rose think it sucks. After learning that they need the high roller from Canto Bight, Poe even asks Maz Kanata if there’s not any other way, and she shuts him down. The Resistance-within-the-Resistance go for it not because they think it’s a good idea, but because they’re truly desperate.

    Second, to get a bit specific and nitpicky – the movie undermines Maz a bit. She is certain that the high roller is the only being in the galaxy, other than herself, who could get Rose and Finn onto Snoke’s flagship, but then they get thrown into the same cell with a goofy dirtbag who can do the same thing. Now, I’m willing to forgive a certain amount of serendipity, but there aren’t many possibilities: (1) Snoke’s flagship isn’t that great of a challenge (unlikely), (2) it is a big challenge, but it turns out that awesome slicers aren’t that rare (undermines Maz – she doesn’t know what she’s talking about), or (3) it is a big challenge, awesome slicers are that rare, and Rose and Finn just got stuuuuuupid lucky (deus ex machina screenwriting). And I think the third possibility still undermines Maz. Am I missing any others?

    Third, there is maybe a discussion to be had about meta-ness of bad plans. Like, if a plan strikes the audience as stupid, but the characters go for it, is that bad writing? Does that point out the desperation of the characters, or does it just seem like we, the audience, have not been convinced about either the soundness of the plan or the level of desperation of the characters? What about if a plan strikes both the audience and the characters as stupid?

    There is an anecdote about the writing of A New Hope – it might be in the book Skywalking by Dale Pollock – where in a certain scene one of the characters was going to say, “This is boring.” And someone, maybe Lucas, maybe Kurtz, said, “No, don’t do that, if the scene is boring even to the characters inside it, it doesn’t belong in the movie. Rewrite it so it’s not boring, or cut it.” That’s not precisely the same situation, but I think it’s sneaking up on a general truth about things that characters find unpalatable, that audiences also find unpalatable.

    Finally, regarding your last point about a week of fuel versus a few days – it all depends on how long hyperspace travel takes, doesn’t it? And on this score, the movies have relentlessly wrecked everything we thought we knew from non-canon sources. For example, in virtually all pre-2005 Star Wars books, games, etc., there was the sense that hyperspace travel was time-consuming. You could get from one end of the galaxy to the other, but it would take months. Even hypering between adjacent systems might take a couple of hours. Then in ROTS, Palpatine senses that Anakin is in trouble and – at least going by what we are shown on screen – his shuttle seems to make it from Coruscant (in the Core) to Mustafar (in the Outer Rim) in just a few minutes. Little enough time anyway that Anakin has not died of his wounds. In Rogue One, the rebels on the U-Wing make it from the heart of Imperial territory back to the base on Yavin in just a few hours. And now in TLJ, it seems that either the escaping Resistance jumped coincidentally close to the one planet in the galaxy that had what they needed, or jumping across the galaxy takes next to no time at all.

    So, fine, you can get from anywhere in the galaxy to anywhere else in basically no time. That’s good for some kinds of stories, not so good for others. The idea of trade routes, of spaceliners with cabins, of needing to amass ships or materiel near a target system before an attack – all of that goes out the window if you can get from one end of the galaxy to the other in a few minutes, or a few hours at most. Even the idea of “deep in Imperial territory” doesn’t make much sense – what does the idea of “territory” or any kind of border mean when enemies can jump all the way across your “territory” in no time? Borders, fronts, supply lines…all meaningless.

    On the other hand, maybe that explains why everything in the Star Wars galaxy is armed, even civilian ships. When bad guys might show up out of hyperspace at any moment, from anywhere, it’s not such a crazy precaution. (Okay, I strongly suspect the real reason is that the screenwriters didn’t want to be arsed with worrying about travel times. But speculative worldbuilding is fun.)

  6. Mike Taylor says:

    The Resistance-within-the-Resistance go for it not because they think it’s a good idea, but because they’re truly desperate.

    This is good to know, but evidently the film didn’t sell that notion well enough if I didn’t pick up on it from a single viewing. (And I still think they could have significantly wound down the inappropriateness of the plan just by saying the Resistance had a week instead of couple of days.)

    Yes, the inexplicable plethora of uber-hackers is a bit silly.

    I think it’s sneaking up on a general truth about things that characters find unpalatable, that audiences also find unpalatable.

    Right. If the writer, director and actors have done their jobs properly, then we are identifying with the characters. We’re feeling what they feel. So don’t make them feel bored.

    Yes, I remember in RotS being rather nonplussed that Palpatine turns up in time to save Anakin. We know from the first film that the jump from Tatooine to Alderaan takes at least long enough for plenty of conversations and games of Space Chess. We know that even with a good ship and a skilled pilot the Kessel Run takes 12 parsecs — and whatever that means, it surely means that the journey is not instantaneous.

    You nailed it with the observation that instant-hypertravel is good for some kinds of stories, and hypertravel-with-duration is good for others. But I do lament that the Star Wars universe seems to be telling both kinds of stories without even noticing the implications.

    That said, I don’t see what any of this has to do with the the Federation potentially having enough fuel to manoeuvre in real space for a week vs. a day. Even if impulse drives and warp drives use the same kind of fuel, you could easily write it so that the amount remaining is enough for one jump plus some amount of manoeuvring.

  7. Matt Wedel says:

    It does seem like worldbuilding on the fly. Like, how do we know that hyperspace engines work this way? Because the plot just told us.

    Sometimes it’s nice when the constraints go in the other direction. Like Larry Niven’s stories – the plot goes where it goes because of the physical (and sometimes psychological) constraints on the system, not vice versa.

    I realize that Star Wars isn’t hard SF and shouldn’t have to pretend to be, but past a certain point the plot-driven worldbuilding can’t help but come off as lazy, incoherent, or both. It does seem to be a particular failing shared by TFA and TLJ. I have noted before that the larger-scale worldbuilding and plot messiness in TFA doesn’t bother me too much while I’m watching it, because moment-to-moment there is enough fun and interesting stuff going on to sweep me along. I guess you could say that the local fun drowns out the global problems.

    With TLJ, it’s not the moment-to-moment fun, per se, but more like dramatic momentum. A sense of predestination had come to haunt the Star Wars saga, and the sundering of the characters from their expected paths has a curious effect: precisely because the characters are all headed into uncharted territory, their arcs acquire a little more momentum. They’re not just going into an uncertain future, it feels like they’re hurtling into it – and we’re hurtling along with them. I think that is the source of most of the buzz that I feel while watching TLJ, and immediately after.

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