The Last Jedi's Biggest Storytelling Innovation

Unlike most entries in the Star Wars saga, Rian Johnson’s film actually explores the systemic oppression the Resistance is fighting against—and the movie is all the more fascinating for it.

Kelly Marie Tran and John Boyega as Rose and Finn in 'Star Wars: The Last Jedi'
Disney / Lucasfilm

This article contains major spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

For 40 years, the Star Wars saga has largely been one of good guys and bad guys, of the Rebels and the Empire, of the Light Side and Dark Side of the Force. Those straightforward, elemental stakes were crucial to George Lucas’s original pitch for the space-opera series. J.J. Abrams said that when he began devising the story for Star Wars: The Force Awakens—the long-awaited seventh episode of the franchise that came out in 2015—he quickly realized the film had to return to that good-vs.-evil dynamic, even though Return of the Jedi (a.k.a. Episode VI) had ended with the downfall of the Empire.

“We very consciously tried to borrow familiar beats so the rest of the movie could hang on something that we knew was Star Wars,” Abrams said after the film’s release. A bold group of Rebels doing battle against a monolithic Empire was thus recast as an independent Resistance fighting off the new threat of the First Order, with both sides consciously styling their look and their tactics after their forbears. Abrams’s decision was simple almost to a fault—but forgivably so, given how much additional work the director had to do in terms of setting up the film’s new characters.

Rian Johnson’s Episode VIII, titled The Last Jedi, has far more of an open canvas to work on. Its ensemble is firmly in place—the burgeoning Jedi Rey (Daisy Ridley), the First Order defector Finn (John Boyega), the charming pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), and the villainous Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), formerly known as Ben Solo. Johnson’s film also features a significant new character named Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), who joins the Resistance—still a ragtag gang of underdogs battling an imposing, fascist force. But because it has more time to do so, The Last Jedi actually digs into the underpinnings of this ongoing good vs. evil battle for the first time in the franchise’s long history, defining the heroes aligned with the Light Side by more than just their righteousness.

In 2015’s The Force Awakens, Abrams intentionally left the background of the Resistance vague, giving the group the aesthetic imprint of the original films’ rebellion to make them all the easier to root for. But this decision led to some genuine fan confusion. What was there to resist? At the end of 1983’s Return of the Jedi, the Rebels won—the Empire was toppled, the evil Emperor Palpatine was killed, and a New Republic rose in its absence, restoring peace and democracy to the galaxy. But more than 30 years on, in The Force Awakens, the Empire has been replaced by the insurgent First Order, who similarly borrow the iconography (stormtroopers, TIE fighters, a lot of chrome) of their predecessors. “That all came out of conversations about what would have happened if the Nazis all went to Argentina but then started working together again,” Abrams said of his new villains.

So in The Force Awakens, the Resistance was positioned as a military response, led by a hero of the last war (Carrie Fisher’s Leia), and surreptitiously supported by the New Republic (which isn’t allowed to have an army, to discourage any backsliding into tyranny). But then the Republic is destroyed by a First Order sneak attack, and when The Last Jedi begins, the Resistance has been reduced to just a handful of ships, desperately fleeing through space in search of a new base. After the triumph of the last film (in which the Resistance blew up the First Order’s planet-exploding weapon, Starkiller Base), the rebels’ new situation feels surprisingly dire. But it also fits in with Johnson’s main storytelling aim in The Last Jedi: to tear old things down and map out a real future for this franchise.

This goal of slowly moving away from the past is why the film summarily dispatches Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), the Palpatine stand-in of The Force Awakens, leaving the First Order in the hands of young Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). It’s why legacy characters like Han Solo and Luke Skywalker exist only to support the saga’s new faces before shuffling off this mortal coil. And it’s why Finn’s arc in The Last Jedi is mostly one of understanding—of realizing the purpose, and power, of the Resistance’s rebellion as something more than a means of escaping his own predicaments. In The Force Awakens, Finn is a First Order stormtrooper who breaks free of his brainwashing and gets swept up in the Resistance’s efforts almost by accident. Even his big hero moment, smuggling Han Solo onto Starkiller Base, is only to try and rescue his friend Rey—the larger concerns of the rebellion aren’t on his mind.

When Finn wakes up in The Last Jedi, he’s similarly only interested in Rey (who has left to find Luke Skywalker), and quickly decides to abandon the Resistance fleet because of their desperate situation. He’s caught mid-escape attempt by Rose, a below-decks engineer on a Resistance freighter, who has none of his dubiousness over their shared cause. Her sister, a gunner, heroically dies in the film’s opening sequence; Rose doesn’t want her sacrifice to have been in vain. Quickly enough, she and Finn are drafted into a risky mission to combat the First Order’s tracking of Resistance ships.

Rose is a wonderfully sneaky character, in that she’s set up as a plucky sidekick but almost immediately becomes a crucial teacher, and equal partner, for Finn. Her certitude about the Resistance is not tied up in a noble idea of heroism, but in her understanding of what they’re trying to overthrow. She was born on a mining colony, she tells Finn, that was stripped of resources by the First Order and then blitzed for weapons testing. When the two journey to a casino city draped in finery named Canto Bight, Rose rolls her eyes at Finn’s delight, pointing out that it’s a haven for arms dealers that runs on slave labor.

During their travels, Finn and Rose meet DJ (Benicio Del Toro), a thief who happily sells his skills to the highest bidder and tells Finn there’s no moral absolutism in the galaxy. “It’s all a machine, partner,” he warns. “Live free, don’t join.” At the start of The Last Jedi, Finn might have believed that: He’s still a runaway from the First Order trying to get as far away from the action as possible. By the end, he’s committed to taking them down, slaying his evil former master, Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie), in a charged showdown on a First Order ship. “You were always scum,” she scoffs. “Rebel scum,” he replies proudly, embracing an identity he’d once tried to escape.

Johnson roots that rebellion in Finn’s trauma (he was brainwashed into service by Phasma and her cronies as a child), but also in the oppression Rose shows him on Canto Bight, which extends beyond the heartlessness of the First Order. The gleeful alien gamblers and slavedrivers of the casino city aren’t in stormtrooper outfits pointing guns at people, but the system underwriting them is, and by the end of the film, Finn understands why it’s worth toppling. Star Wars has sometimes lacked this kind of worldbuilding; in the original movies, viewers learned the Empire was capable of evil acts like blowing up entire planets, but we didn’t really see the wider impact of their tyranny. This kind of vagueness even led to some people defending the Empire as the true heroes of the saga.

Johnson, though, uses The Last Jedi to underscore the power of the collective. Star Wars has always been a franchise about big, Joseph Campbell–inspired hero journeys—Luke Skywalker becoming a Jedi, Han Solo swooping to the rescue at the last minute, that lightsaber flying into Rey’s outstretched hand. But in The Last Jedi, Poe’s hotshot heroics are constantly dismissed and slapped down by Leia and her second-in-command Holdo (Laura Dern), both of whom know he’s after personal glory as much as anything else. And Finn’s final lesson comes as he tries to mount a suicide run in the film’s final battle, aiming to martyr himself to briefly forestall a First Order attack, until Rose knocks him out of the way to save his life.

“That’s how we’re gonna win. Not fighting what we hate, saving what we love,” she tells Finn. It’s a motto that might sound trite, but it’s a beautiful summation of what Johnson is trying to grapple with. The First Order is evil, yes, but the Resistance isn’t just good because they’re against them; the rebels are also trying to create a better world, and to protect a cause the rest of the galaxy can rally to. It’s a message Johnson drives home with the film’s final image—one of the stable boys on Canto Bight, sweeping the steps for his master, and looking up at the stars, dreaming of a more hopeful future.