"The Last Jedi" and the teaching tool of failure
Spoilers for “The Last Jedi” lie ahead. You’ve been warned.
“A great teacher, failure can be,” croaks an old friend in one of the best scenes ever offered in the Star Wars universe. No, this didn’t come in the original trilogy, or in any film directed by George Lucas. The line, delivered by Yoda in Rian Johnson’s “The Last Jedi” to a stunned Luke Skywalker, perfectly summarizes why the latest Star Wars film may very well be the best.
That’s a bold statement about a bold film, and naturally any such proclamation carries with it some of my own bias. But “The Last Jedi” reaches the rarified air of “A New Hope” and “Empire Strikes Back” while easily surpassing the ground carefully laid by “The Force Awakens.” That’s not a knock on what has come before; it’s a statement on the risks taken by Johnson in a film that has stakes. That isn’t afraid to push characters new and old to incredible new places.
A common critique of “The Last Jedi” is lobbed towards the Finn and Rose storyline for its lack of weight and impact towards the plot. My counterargument borrows Yoda’s words: Those who see their failure as inconsequential “heed my words, did not.” Not only did the entire Canto Bight sequence do some important world building outside of the typical good-guy, bad-guy action we’ve seen plenty of in the Skywalker Saga, it allowed Rose to show Finn (and the rest of us) what the Rebels are all about.
Think about it: For five movies Rebels have fought against the Empire primarily because Storm Troopers are the bad guys. Yes, in “A New Hope” we see the Empire blow up a fucking planet, but why did the Rebellion start before that? Even Luke doesn’t seem all that interested in joining Old Ben Kenobi on his “damn fool idea” before his aunt and uncle are burnt to a crisp (he does offer up his assurance that he hates the Empire, despite earlier claiming his desire to join the Imperial Academy, so, whatever).
For once, we get to see the industrial war complex that helps fuel the eternal conflict that keeps the war in Star Wars churning. To claim Canto Bight is inconsequential is to miss the point of the film altogether. Finn and Rose fail, and that failure costs many lives. That matters. Poe fails, too, and his immediate failure costs lives. That matters, too. Luke’s failure before “The Force Awakens” (which is detailed in flashbacks) is what makes this entire trilogy possible.
How each character responds to their failures moves their arcs forward in exciting and interesting ways. For Poe, it’s becoming a leader under the watchful eye of Leia and then Vice Admiral Holdo. For Finn, it’s first learning to fight instead of run; and then it’s learning why he’s fighting in the first place. Those two learning experiences dovetail on Crait, as Poe realizes he’s brought his team on another suicide mission. As his arc closes by ordering a retreat, it appears Finn’s has as well when he doubles down on running down the cannon.
That’s where Rose steps in. Her character, first introduced as a wide-eyed fan girl, quickly assumes the role of a no-nonsense leader. Rose never looks back from the moment she stuns Finn into an escape pod; that’s one of the best character decisions made in the film. She helps guide Finn through Canto Bight, and again on Crait as she saves the “dummy” by wrecking his ship at the last moment. Her next line is one of the most poignant of the entire series: “That’s how we’re going to win. Not by killing what we hate; by saving what we love.” That’s Star Wars.