And with that title, I already feel the eyes of the internet upon me. Which is kind of the point. I wouldn’t be posting this otherwise.
Plus, it’s my website. I can post what I want. So there (despite a few internet commentators who have actually posted, in pure seriousness, the XKCD strip about “being shown the door” regarding content on my own website, without any trace of irony or acknowledgement of the ridiculousness of their demands).
Enough navel-gazing. This editorial is about The Last Jedi, specifically about what went wrong with one small part of it, and how it could have been fixed.
Because let’s be honest: There was a lot wrong with Star Wars: The Last Jedi. It definitely wasn’t Star Wars Holiday Special levels of bad, but at the same time … Well, let’s just say there were a lot of Star Wars fans out there who had thought that they’d never seen anything in the series that could possibly perform worse than the prequels.
Yeah, talking about something that didn’t work in The Last Jedi is easier than shooting fish in a barrel. Suffice it to say, its creators pretty much set the bar about as low as it could possibly be set without reaching Holiday Special levels. I remember seeing Facebook and Twitter posts from people I knew, dedicated fans, talking about how they’d gone back and seen it a second time, hoping they’d missed something critical the first time around.
Yeah, you’ve probably seen some measure of this controversy. Personally? It’s not at all without merit. The Last Jedi kind of came across as a film that didn’t understand what Star Wars was about past the visual element. And sure, we got some great scenes—the battle with Snoke’s Praetorian Guard is a six-minute slug-fest that is absolutely one of the more fantastic Star Wars fights—but we also got some stuff that really dropped hard.
One of these, which I want to talk about today, is Finn’s butchered character arc. Actually, butchered isn’t the proper term. More … grossly mishandled character arc.
Which is a real shame, because honestly, taken as it was presented, I genuinely think Finn’s story and arc is one of the best ideas of the movie, and one of the best, most cleverly self-aware bits of storytelling the series has attempted in the films.
It’s just … as I said, mishandled. Very badly. To the degree that this neat idea, this cool concept, is buried under the deluge of … blah … that the rest of the film becomes. So much so that a lot of people straight-up missed it completely. When I’ve talked about this film with others and brought it up, quite often I get a “Oh wow, you’re right! Now I see it!” from them … But that doesn’t save the movie.
So what was it that was so clever about Finn’s character, and where did it go so wrong? Well …
Okay, a bit of backstory for a second regarding Finn, just in case you forgot. Finn is a former stormtrooper. Raised from a young age to be a stormtrooper and little else. Which is why, in the first movie he featured in (Episode 7), he spends a good chunk of it not really knowing who he is outside of “the traitor stormtrooper.”
Basically, he’s a blank slate, and he knows it. Which makes what he starts doing in The Last Jedi all the more clever. One part of his character that was established in The Force Awakens and carried on through to The Last Jedi is Finn’s love and admiration of heroes. From the moment in TFA when Han Solo tells him that “it’s all true, all of it,” Finn’s obvious admiration that there can be these pivotal heroes who save the day is a pretty solid part of his character.
So in TLJ, they did something really clever with it. Finn, knowing that he’s a blank slate, and knowing that everyone is in trouble, spends the whole movie trying to be a hero by—wait for it—one by one emulating other heroic archetypes from the Star Wars series. He tries to be a different kind of hero in each major part of the movie, discarding one archetype and moving to the next as the archetype doesn’t suit him (read, things don’t go well). He tries being the brooding, doesn’t talk to anyone hero who does what’s right by him, he tries the rogue, etc etc. If you watch the movie and pay close attention to Finn, you start to pick up on it. Even at the very end, when he decides “Well, maybe I’m the kind of hero that sacrifices himself to save everyone else.”
This is actually a really cool bit of almost self-examination from a Star Wars film, plus there’s a good concept behind it, as Finn figures out in the end: The kind of hero we are isn’t necessarily trying to be the heroics of someone else, but being the hero we can be, the one that’s us.
This is a genuinely cool character arc! Except for the part where almost no-one picked up on it? Why?
Well … unfortunately, there is a very obvious reason: Rose.
Okay, hold off, hold off. I can hear the Tumblr crowd lighting torches from here. It’s not a problem with the actress, or the sex of the character. Or the actress. Put the torches out. That’s not the issue.
The issue, and I think at the root of why so many people disliked the character, was that she was two things. First, she was poorly written with regards to being a part of the story. Second, her character as written had no real momentum or development capacity alongside Finn’s.
That is the real problem with Rose’s character. Rose doesn’t mesh with Finn’s character. Not his arc, not his journey—NONE OF IT. And that results in a mess of two characters trying to play off of one another when they have nothing to play off of.
Look, there’s a place for the one-note, pie-in-the-sky characters Rose was written as. They do good with established heroes, or sometimes disgruntled, self-doubting ones. Characters like Rose work in a multitude of other places. One of those, however, is not alongside a character struggling to discover who he is. It’s not a dynamic that lends itself to good character interactions, dynamics, or interplay.
I’ve talked on this site before about foils. Foils are characters who are at odds with one another, even if on the same side. Differing worldviews, differing approaches, etc. Foils are a classic piece of literature because two characters that are foils for one another automatically have chemistry. They react with one another by the basis of their design, and encourage character growth.
Think of the classic “buddy cop” film. Any of them. Those characters are always foils, because it allows them to play off of one another. Sometimes they start off despising one another. Sometimes not. But as foils, they play off of one another as they move forward. Crud, the first Star Wars film? A New Hope? Who was one of the favorite characters?
Han Solo. A direct foil to Luke Skywalker’s character. Luke was innocent and untested but burning with vigor. Han was jaded and experienced, while careful with his hot-headed impulses (sometimes). This dynamic between them meant that Han and Luke were almost always sniping at one another. Which in turn led to developing their characters for the audience, and then development of said characters once the audience had seen who they were.
Foils are great for establishing and developing characters. And The Last Jedi fails to tell Finn’s story properly because Rose’s character is not a proper foil for his own developing story. The two don’t mesh. It’s like watching Santa Claus and the Ice Cream Bunny. The first thought on anyone’s mind is “What do these two have to do with one another?”
And yes, that is a real movie. Look it up!
But anyway, it’s a shame, because Finn has this great idea for a character arc—exploring different hero tropes and archetypes from Star Wars to find his own—and yet he’s partnered with a character who has no interaction with that arc. Rose’s story is “Go rebellion! Yeah!”
Again, this is not the actress’ fault unless she was the one that wrote those lines and created that character. I blame the director and the writers for the mess we got. Kelly Marie Tran played the character she was given. It’s not her fault it was a poor character with very little to work with. The director and writers made poor decisions, not her. And dang it, they should have been aware enough to know what they were doing. I question their talent for storytelling.
Okay, so enough of that. This post had the word “fixing” in the title. So how could we fix Finn’s misfired character arc?
Simple. Cut out the Rose we got, and insert a Rose (or another character) that’s a foil.
It’s actually not that difficult. Crud, barring changes the rest of the film needs, it could proceed somewhat as normal. Send Finn off on his own with a mission. Have him try to be the “suave, roguish hero” and botch it up. Land him in the same prison cell he did in the film. Where he meets up with a character that is his foil. Alien, human, male, female … doesn’t really matter. What matters is that this character is a foil to Finn’s.
So what would a good foil for Finn be? Well, Finn’s trying to be a hero. Make this character a jaded individualist. Someone who doesn’t believe in heroes, despite having plenty of pluck and skill. Give this character their own talents and skills, but have them be a foil to Finn. Have them mock his attempts at being a hero.
Then, when this new character breaks out (or however they get out), have First Order Agents show up looking for Finn and assume this foil is his resistance contact. Bam: Forced together. And suddenly you have a character that adds to Finn’s arc and can even develop as well. Finn continues trying the different heroic elements, this foil along for the ride and serving as a counterpoint to each archetype he tries.
That’s it! That’s all the change needed! Giving Finn a foil would let both characters shine. It would show off his character development and direction much more cleanly than the final film did. Plus, it would allow Finn to drop the “wide-eyed idealist idiot-ball” that Rose’s character carried around (again, bad writing, not actress) and play things true to his character (as well as the foil’s), which would fix a few other issues with the film.
Right, that’s all I have to say on this topic. Again, I loved the idea of Finn’s arc. I find it very clever for a Star Wars film. But it was saddled with a character that wasn’t a foil, a character that didn’t help establish it or give it room to shine. Crud, most of the audience missed it. I remember saying I liked the idea behind it after I saw the flick and getting a bunch of blank looks. At which point I listed off some of the archetype moments Finn tried (and failed) and got a bunch of wide-eyed “Oh wow, that’s cool!” moments of realization.
It’s a great idea. It was just buried by virtue of being partnered with a character that did nothing to bring it anyone’s attention or even invite any amount of growth.
Ah well. What’s done is done. I just really wish we could have seen Finn’s character with a foil, not a mire. It would have changed a lot.