What if Finn had died? How often have you thought about that since you left the theater? Is it frequently?
There is an obvious moment in Star Wars: The Last Jedi when he might have. In the final act, hoping he can buy his friends some time by stopping the advance of the First Order’s battering ram, Finn steadies himself and attempts to fly directly into it. “I can’t let them win,” he declares with a kind of heroic fatalism, as his desert jalopy sheds hunks of scrap metal.
Maybe it was “won’t” he said—same difference, considering what we were all convinced was going to happen. Drifting into certain doom he breathes deeply, closes his eyes, and the cockpit gets deafeningly quiet as he welcomes what would have been a logical death. His newest sort-of love interest, Rose (played superbly by Kelly Marie Tran), saves him and then calls him on his bullshit, and not for the first time in this movie. After watching the kiss they shared, some part of you felt a little cheated.
Exactly what made you feel that way? What made us feel that way?
Let’s go back and unpack why that death we and he never got would have been logical. I don’t mean to imply that flying himself into the space battering ram was a plan that made sense. It wasn’t. In fact, there’s nothing to suggest that if Rose hadn’t T-boned his cruiser and rescued him from this idealized RESISTANCE HERO version of himself, that the First Order wouldn’t just, you know, get another battering ram or destroy the old rebel base with a variety of other weaponry on hand. I’m talking “logical” mostly in that it might have been practical, considering this new trilogy has far too many infectiously charming characters whose faces look good on posters, but don’t seem to have an awful lot to do. Specifically Finn and Poe Dameron, who are two halves of an essentially Han Solo–ish character. Or maybe Benicio Del Toro’s DJ is the essential Han Solo–ish character. Maybe none of them are. Maybe, Rian Johnson seems to be wondering in the film he wrote and directed, the Han Solo–ish character isn’t as essential as we all thought it to be.
Going back to The Force Awakens, when Finn picked up the lightsaber to face Kylo Ren in the woods on D’Qar, he had been stumbling backward into doing the right thing.
He begins the second chapter of his story attempting to jump ship again, and gets corralled into an interminable casino sequence that sets him up to go iso once more, this time against Brienne of Tarth. He faces his onetime superior in Captain Phasma—the living, marching, tin-cased embodiment of the Rules—and bats her into a yawning, flaming void of nothingness, which I believe counts doubly as closure and comeuppance. Now officially, self-avowedly “rebel scum,” Finn dying for the cause is what could reasonably follow. If Star Wars had killed him, then the character’s redemption arc would be tied up with a bow. But killing Finn is one thing. Killing off John Boyega is something else entirely. John Boyega, who captured our—OK, my—heart by slicing his way out of the ends with a katana and a road flare in Attack the Block. As in, John Boyega, press tour MVP. John Boyega, one of the few black characters in the new Star Wars films, who’s rather important to this newer, more diverse saga. John Boyega, who, after thousands of white fanboys cried out in anguish over his casting in The Force Awakens and were super-duper ignored, spake thusly:
Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron character could have died in that sandy village in the beginning of Episode VII. It was written that way at first, until J.J. Abrams wizened to what we all knew already—that warm fuzzy feeling we get each time we look into Isaac’s eyes. It’s the stuff entire Tumblrs are made of. Poe Dameron, while inconvenient, is also kind of indispensable. You see the problem here.
As Kieron Gillen, who pens Star Wars comics for Marvel, has said—which I think goes double here, considering the substantial amounts of time and money that go into making a Star Wars movie—assume the creators had a good reason for making the choice they did. Even if your first instinct is that some inadvisable compromises were made between creators and higher-ups. Each death in this new set of movies made narrative sense on some level. Snoke was cleaved in half so that Kylo Ren could run. Rose’s sister died a dramatic, fiery death to bring the cost of the half-cocked suicide missions the Star Wars franchise runs on into sharp contrast. Blogfather Chris Ryan raised another good point: This is a Star Wars movie made by someone who grew up watching Star Wars movies. And once you finally get your hands on the toy you’ve always wanted, you’re going to play with it.
Guess what—ships are bombs now. Even the music filtering up behind General Leia Force-flying through the vacuum of space sounded like beady-eyed wonderment. It read like something Johnson had dreamed of since 1977, when the CGI wasn’t quite up to snuff. And suddenly he made it real at the precise moment we, the audience, began to make peace with losing Carrie Fisher for good. And then we got another hour with her. Of course that brief moment in the sun raises all sorts of other issues, the main one being that the only option available to J.J. Abrams now seems to be explaining Carrie Fisher’s grand exit in Episode IX’s title crawl. Barring another trip to the uncanny valley, that is.
The other problem Abrams has to solve now is what to do with Finn, who is still alive. Finn’s big moment is exactly like something that has happened in the anime series Cowboy Bebop, which Johnson has expressed fondness for before. His favorite episode is “Pierrot Le Fou,” but this was in “Wild Horses.”
Spike Spiegel, Cowboy Bebop’s main character, is out of fuel and burning up on reentry. He is about to die, and he is OK with that. The senselessness of his particular sacrifice becomes more apparent when he’s rescued, only for us to learn that he may not be all the way safe. It’s played for a joke, and he’s back the following week, but Spike explains his character, and indeed the whole show, in a single line of dialogue: “Whatever happens, happens.” Accept the mystery, detach from the outcome, be here, now. He rubs off on his cohorts, particularly one character, Faye, an amnesiac who gradually comes to terms with the fact that who she was in the great big Before doesn’t have much bearing on the hereafter. Sound like anything you’ve seen recently?
Come to think of it, nearly all of the characters in The Last Jedi wind up in a similar place. Finn is 10 toes down for the Resistance; Poe, having finally learned his lesson, is ready to lead it; Rey mastered her backhand; Kylo Ren made it out of middle management. They’re all squarely positioned to do the same things these characters have always done, over and over, Alec Guinness in, Ewan McGregor out, for decades. Maybe Kylo was onto something: “Let the past die; kill it, if you have to.” Master Yoda too—“We are what they grow beyond.”
If you really think about it, TLJ was a movie about joining or not joining—family, the Jedi, the Sith, the Resistance, the First Order, the endless and all-consuming fight. Considering Episode IX has the unique opportunity to be something totally new, maybe it will be a movie about opting out. The idea of balance in the Star Wars universe, until now, has been an extreme, endless binary—light rises to meet dark, light kills dark, dark rises again, and so on. Nine films in would be as good a time as any to explore whether or not it could even be done a different way.