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.
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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.