Because George Lucas modeled the original 1977 Star Wars on classic movie serials like 1936’s Flash Gordon, the films that followed in the series have followed the pattern, and relied on similarly chapter-based quest plots. Big missions, like the attempt to blow up the second Death Star in Return of the Jedi, get broken down into smaller sub-missions, each of which keeps teetering on the brink of failure, necessitating yet another risky scheme. It’s a hooky way to tell a story — one cliffhanger at a time.
One of the main narrative threads in Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi follows that same blueprint… at first. Then Johnson throws in a twist, which severely divided fans when the movie first came out in December 2017. When the heroes of the Resistance realize that the First Order has been tracking their fleet, they seek the services of a master codebreaker in the high-end gambling resort of Canto Bight, to disable the beacon. Ex-stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) and mechanic Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) slip into the city, but quickly get arrested. In jail, they meet a wily thief named DJ (Benicio Del Toro), who helps them escape, then later breaks them into a First Order stronghold. But DJ proves untrustworthy. Though he gets Finn and Rose where they want to go, he also sells them out, revealing the Resistance’s secret plans and getting a lot of people killed. Star Wars missions often go awry, but this one goes disastrously wrong, having pretty much the exact opposite effect of what was intended.
This big switcheroo irritated a sizable number of viewers. Critic Alyssa Rosenberg summed up the complaints in a Washington Post article, writing that DJ’s betrayal “renders the entire plot we’ve seen pointless,” and that the entire Canto Bight sequence is a “disgracefully bad bit of storytelling.” At ScreenRant, Matthew Erao describes the whole subplot as “roundabout” and “moot,” and complains that an action setpiece where Finn and Rose ride around on the city’s prized racing animals, the fathiers, “leads nowhere.” But the film’s March 27th release on DVD and Blu-ray offers a chance to carefully reconsider these scenes, and their significance in the story.
In Johnson’s DVD / Blu-ray commentary track (recorded before The Last Jedi was released), his only real justification for the DJ twist is that he did it to defy expectations, and reaffirm that his movie wasn’t going to hit the old Star Wars beats in the same way. Referring to the franchise’s rogues, Johnson says, “We’ve always been conditioned to see them come around.” His DJ, on the other hand, is a knavish Han Solo type without a mitigating heroic streak. He’s an amoral crook who suggests there’s no real good or bad side in Star Wars’ endless interplanetary conflicts. “It’s all a machine, partner,” he shrugs.
Does DJ’s cynical attitude — which is also arguably Johnson’s argument — ruin the movie? Certainly not in terms of box office. The Last Jedi made well over a billion dollars internationally, and has a 91 score on Rotten Tomatoes, an 85 Metacritic score, and an “A” CinemaScore. But a very vocal contingent of Star Wars devotees strongly dislike the movie, blasting everything from Johnson’s apparent bias toward the female characters to the grim fate and dark backstory of the series’ iconic hero, Luke Skywalker. In Vanity Fair last year, Joanna Robinson succinctly summed up a lot of the backlash, from the reasonable to the reactionary.
Whether longtime fans like Johnson’s choices or not, though, it’s been odd to see the Canto Bight subplot dismissed as a waste of time, when it’s so clearly central to the film’s fundamental themes. Prior to The Last Jedi’s release, former Jim Henson’s Creature Shop designer Neal Scanlon told Syfy Wire that the look of Canto Bight is important, because it expands Star Wars’ design sensibility into an entirely new area. Previous Star Wars films have largely dealt with down-and-out characters scraping by in junkyards and slums, but Canto Bight is a haven for the decadent super-rich, who’ve been largely untouched by what’s happening with the First Order and the Resistance — aside from taking money from both.
This has always been an element of the movie series: the idea that the everyday lives of farmers, slavers, gangsters, and mining magnates continue while wars are being waged elsewhere. The Last Jedi makes this point explicitly, suggesting that the fight for freedom and democracy is voluntary, and not something that’s dragged in every citizen across the universe.
That’s highly relevant to The Last Jedi’s coda, which again deviates from what the series has done before. After a fairly conventional Star Wars shot of the battle-scarred heroes regrouping on the main deck of the Millennium Falcon — the kind of image that would ordinarily lead directly to John Williams’ rousing exit theme — Johnson cuts back to Canto Bight, where the impoverished, oppressed stable boys and girls are already sharing the legend of how Luke Skywalker returned to the fray to stall the First Order and buy his friends time to escape.
Earlier, these same kids witnessed Finn and Rose wrecking the casino, challenging authority, and freeing the fathiers. They actually helped the two Resistance members get away, and were left with Rose’s ring as a memento. The message: what the Resistance is doing matters. It’s inspiring and important, and it’s leading to change in unexpected places.
Much has been said (bitterly, at times) about how The Last Jedi appears to insist that everything past generations loved about Star Wars has to die. But that’s not where the movie ultimately lands. Instead, what the audience sees for two and a half hours is scene after scene where even the moments of triumph are accompanied by heavy losses and destruction, until all that’s left are a handful of people and an ideal. And as Luke Skywalker himself points out when he’s training Rey, this ideal — a conception of a balance and equality in all things — shouldn’t belong just to an elite few. That’s “vanity,” Luke says.
On a very basic storytelling level, the Canto Bight sequences fulfill a purpose common to Star Wars: they give a few characters a task and a little time to build their relationship through shared danger. That gives the movie another storyline to cut to, in order to keep the pace brisk and the tension maximized. It produces another action sequence, and a sense of a larger universe full of busy, diverse activity and threats. There’s a big chase scene (rendered in a style similar to the other films’ adrenalized setpieces), some funky-looking alien creatures, and even a bit of slapstick.
Some viewers were turned off by all of the above, regardless of how it works into the story, or whether the heroes accomplished anything meaningful. Which is fine. Not everyone laughs at the same jokes, or is thrilled by the same action. But Finn and Rose’s mission also serves a thematic purpose. No matter what they set out to do, what they actually accomplish is to give the downtrodden hope, and a reason to one day join their cause.
That’s part of the grand Jedi tradition, to win by losing. Finn and Rose fail at their gambit, and nearly lose their lives in the process. But Obi-Wan Kenobi proved all the way back in 1977 that losses for the Jedi are only temporary. “If you strike me down,” he tells Darth Vader, “I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine.” The Resistance goes the same way. Their failures on Canto Bight may have far-reaching ramifications. They lose a battle, but they stand to win the ultimate war.