All this week, in lieu of a longer review, we’ll be publishing a series of spoiler-filled micro-essays about different aspects of ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’, which, to our surprise, has become the most controversial film in the series. First up, we have analysis on two deeply divisive fronts: Rose and Finn’s mission on Canto Bight and why it matters to us and the characters, and Rey’s vision in the cave on Ahch-To and why it’s in the film. Of course, SPOILERS follow.
Why Rose Matters
The “Master Codebreaker” subplot, in which Rose and Finn head to Canto Bight — the home of the uber-wealthy and ethically challenged — to find help in breaking into Snoke’s ship, is by far the one unanimous criticism I’ve encountered across all fan divisions. I think it’s a bit unfair how much this is hated: It’s something I myself was a bit taken about by the first time I saw it, generally because how unexpectedly it’s incorporated into the narrative, but it’s a subplot that’s really essential to our understanding of these characters. Why? Let’s dig into Rose a bit first: She’s a true believer, and that’s something essential in a franchise that’s all about the failure of institutions in the face of overwhelming darkness.
The Original Trilogy begins with the dissolution of what few checks remain on Palpatine’s power and the descent of the galaxy into Civil War, the Prequel Trilogy is about the utter failure of the Jedi to see past their dogma and their own power and the subsequent collapse of the Order and Old Republic once evil began to rise. You can also see this same theme explored in the new Expanded Universe canon, as the demilitarization of the New Republic occurred soon after the Empire’s collapse, and, much like in pre-WWII Europe, the government was caught off guard by the development of a new and powerful totalitarian regime. This, in turn, led to their destruction at the hands of the First Order.
Rose is the first idealist that we’ve been allowed to see act out of pure kindness in some time- that one should fight for what they love regardless of the odds — in quite some time. I’m actually having trouble thinking of a character like her that’s not portrayed in a skeptical light: Saw Gerrera’s sect in Rogue One are portrayed as nutjobs that straight-up torture people, just like the Empire, and Jyn Erso’s group is motivated by a number of different factors — pragmatism, revenge, faith — rather than a moral imperative. She’s got the backstory for a revenge plot, with the death of her sister in the first act, but Johnson refuses to go there.
Instead, he allows her to effect her own change in the world as she knows it by liberating the racehorse-like creatures hidden in the stables. We’re able to see the cruelty that these animals endure by their handlers and their jockeys, we’re able to see the whole of the evil class structure that props up their sport, from their abuse of orphan help all the way up to the rich men cheering in the stands, and we’re able to stare into the eyes of those poor critters as they look to her for hope. But she’s on a clock, and needs to make a quick escape, given that the whole of Canto Bight’s police force is bearing down on her and Finn.
She chooses to liberate them, to save the things that she loves from the people that she hates. Paul Dano in Okja would be proud.
It is a beautiful little hero moment for her (which also adds an interesting and uncompromised element of class struggle to the Star Wars universe), a small act of kindness in a vast galaxy of cruelty, and it has a deep effect on Finn as well. Up until this point, the former Stormtrooper has only ever acted out of self-interest: He likes the girl on Jakku, so he rolls with her and tries to save her life a bunch (that’s his whole motivation for going to Starkiller Base at the end of The Force Awakens), and it’s a happy accident that he winds up helping the Resistance instead of hiding away from it all with a pair of junk traders he meets in Maz’s castle.
Finn is still not heroic at the start of The Last Jedi, even by his own measure — recall how he shirks the word once Rose finds him piling his stuff into an escape pod — and it’s only until his interests, ensuring that Rey has a safe place to go back to, align with Rose’s that he’s able to agree to this mission. Her fundamental goodness is what moves him to accept the premise of the Resistance, to hold off Benicio del Toro’s DJ — the embodiment of his previous dilemma at its absolute nadir — and his insistences that “both sides are just the same” and that the only way to survive in this universe is to exist in a grey area, to say he’s “rebel scum” to Phasma as she’s consumed by fire. Hell, it’s enough even for him to potentially sacrifice his life for the Resistance and his friends on Crait at the end of the film. She, of course, saves him from his martyr’s death, and I think Johnson’s only mistake here is not having Finn kiss her after she says the line. There’s enough there, I think, to justify that choice.
We can keep the fireworks in their rightful place, though.
Rey’s Vision in the Cave
This is admittedly more confusing than people, I think, want from their cave visions, especially without the benefit of hindsight. You remember the scene, I think: Drawn to the power of the Dark Side presence beneath Luke’s island on Ahch-To, Rey decides to hop down into a small cave, where she’s instantly submerged in cold, dark water (this changes her hair, which is just great). She walks up to a giant crystal wall, where she sees her reflection, and she touches it. To her surprise, she’s transported to the other side of the wall, where she’s stuck in a seemingly infinite line of Rey’s waiting to touch that same surface.
Eventually, she makes her way to the front of the line, knowing that it was going somewhere after all, and she begs for the wall to show her her parents. Two shadowy figures walk towards her, but they merge into one being: Rey herself, reflected. It’s not quite Luke cutting down Vader in the cave on Dagobah and finding his own visage inside the broken mask, but it is interesting and thematically relevant to a large reveal.
It’s all actually about Rey’s parentage — that she was the child of scrappers who traded her away for drinking money. This has been insanely controversial for a number of ridiculously horseshit reasons, as all of the leading fan theories, save for the one that was closest to the actual truth (that her parents were Jedi students at Luke’s school, even if it defied the Jedi dogma), were either based on nostalgia for the old EU (Palpatine’s clone, Han’s daughter/Kylo’s sister), hideously cruel (Luke’s daughter), or downright preposterous (Obi-Wan’s granddaughter).
It’s an effective inversion of Luke’s big twist and temptation in Empire — that he matters in an uncaring galaxy, that he’s not just a farm boy, and that, if he partners with his father, he can rule where he’s supposed to be — whereas Rey is totally worthless, that she is just a junk trader with force sensitivity, and that if she partners with Kylo, she can surpass her station in life and rule over the Galaxy. Rey’s anonymity is suggested in this sequence by the vast numbers of her waiting in line for their moment at the wall, and her final moment of discovery is both a prediction of her choice and ultimately perhaps its initial suggestion.
The wall, in a way, is telling her that her parents don’t matter, and that for all her care about their identities, that won’t change what is fundamentally Rey about her and that her choices are all that matter. It’s also saying that she should only be defined by who she is, especially against Kylo, who’s entire offer to her hinges upon her acceptance of her own worthlessness and her ceding that to him. No matter what he says, if she says yes to his offer, they would never be on even footing. So she must control her own destiny in order to find her proper place in the universe, and ultimately that leads her towards the light.
Be sure to come back tomorrow for a discussion of two contentious characters: Vice Admiral Holdo and the Jedi Master himself, Luke Skywalker. Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus.