by Jamal Igle
(Warning: This essay is filled with spoilers for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker)
Four years ago after viewing the first new Star Wars movie in a decade, the J.J. Abrams directed Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I wrote a piece that discussed the journey of John Boyega’s character “Finn” in that film. I addressed what some people thought was a slight at the least of his not being a potential Jedi, due to how the film was initially marketed. Two hours ago as of this writing, I watched what has been described as the final installment of the Skywalker saga. A rousing and incredibly entertaining film that moves at a breakneck pace from start to finish, it’s still sitting with me as I type this. I decided that it’s time to revisit Finn’s journey and a revelation that seems to have been missed by a number of the film’s detractors.
The film, directed once again by J.J. Abrams, with a script by Chris Terrio and story credit by Jurassic World writer/director Colin Trevorrow has followed the same tradition of divisive opinion created by this franchise over the last 20 years. People either really like it or really hate it (I fall in the former camp) and certainly that controversy also pertains to Finn, ably performed by the charismatic Mr. Boyega. Introduced in The Force Awakens as a Stormtrooper who decides to defect from the First Order after witnessing the slaughter of innocents at the hands of the villainous Kylo Ren (played with tortured aplomb by Adam Driver) and Captain Phasma (the imposing Gwedolyn Christie), Finn has very little backstory at first. Finn has no aspirations to be a hero, let alone join the Resistance. He only knows he needs to get as far away from them as possible. He enlists captured X-Wing pilot, Poe Dameron (played with cocky swagger by Oscar Issac) to help him escape from the Star Destroyer where Finn serves as a janitor. After a harrowing escape and forced landing on the planet Jakku, Finn meets a young scavenger named Rey (played by the talented Daisy Ridley) who has recovered Dameron’s droid companion BB-8, bearing the plans for the First Order’s ultimate weapon, Starkiller Base.
Through a series of events, Finn is conscripted into the Resistance, along the way growing feelings for Rey and learning about the Jedi and The Force. Finn’s motivation shifts from escape to finding and rescuing the captured Rey. He even battles one of his fellow Stormtroopers with Luke Skywalker’s blue lightsaber (albeit unsuccessfully), seeming to foreshadow Finn’s future in the franchise. He breaks into the base, guiding Han Solo (Harrison Ford returning to a role that he’s famously wanted to kill off since The Empire Strikes Back) and Chewbacca, even getting one up on Phasma by making her leap into a garbage chute. However, towards the climax of the film, Finn faces Kylo Ren, the grandson of Darth Vader and the son of Han Solo and Leia Organa and is beaten and ultimately saved by the film’s true heroine, Rey. The revelation that Finn was not in fact a Force wielder and potential Jedi upset a lot of African American viewers. I had a different experience, however, once I realized that Finn was not the Luke Skywalker of the story, but the reluctant everyman hero similar to Han Solo.
Flash forward two years to the release of the second film of the current trilogy, Star Wars: The Last Jedi (written and directed by Rian Johnson, who also directed on of my favorite noir films of the last 20 years, Brick starring Joseph Gordon Levitt) debuting to huge box office numbers and more divisiveness among fans. Picking up literally minutes after the end of The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi finds Finn recovering from his wounds at the hands of Kylo Ren. Suddenly jarred awake during the evacuation from the planet D’Qar with the First Order nipping at their heels, Finn is still only concerned with finding Rey. Upon discovering that the First Order has found a way to track the fleet through hyperspace, Finn decides to leave, taking the beacon Rey would use to return and keeping her safely away from the fleet.
While making his way to an escape pod, Finn meets a grieving Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), a maintenance worker whose sister Paige sacrificed her life during the film’s opening battle sequence. Rose had been stopping potential deserters when she stumbles upon Finn, who she regards at first as a hero but is disappointed when she discovers he’s planning to jump ship as well. Rose tases Finn and as she wheels him towards the brig, he tries to explain his plan, hoping she’ll be sympathetic.
We discover that Finn, in spite of his lack of any real skills in the last film, is actually very intelligent, matching Rose beat for beat in technobabble. Hatching a plan with Poe and Rose to find a master codebreaker who can get them onboard Supreme Leader’s Snoke’s ship in order to disable the tracking device. The duo must travel to Canto Bight, a world populated by the rich and well-to-do. Keep in mind that Finn has very little experience with the wider galaxy as a Stormtrooper, taken from his family as a child and conscripted into service. Finn is dazzled by the bright lights and opulence until Rose shows him the dirt just beneath the surface. He sees the suffering of child slaves working in the stables and others and begins to build a moral center for himself. His new found outrage does get challenged by DJ (Benicio del Toro), an underworld codebreaker that he and Rose meet after they’re captured and thrown into a detention cell. On the journey back to the fleet, DJ points out that the people who got rich selling weapons to the The First Order also sold weapons to the Resistance. “It’s all a machine, partner,” DJ says sardonically. ”Live free, don’t join.”
Once on the ship, the trio make their way to the aforementioned tracking device, only to be captured before they can reach it. DJ betrays their plans to use the Resistance fleet’s main transport as a decoy to allow the other ships to escape to a nearby uncharted Rebellion base on the planet Crait. It’s here where we see Finn begin to truly blossom. After a desperate Kamikaze attack on the First Order fleet by Vice Admiral Holdo, we find Finn surrounded by the wreckage, with Rose trying to point the way to an undamaged shuttle. Suddenly, Phasma approaches, surrounded by Stormtroopers. After some of the cannon fodder are dealt with by BB-8 (having commandeered an AT-ST), Finn, armed with a Z-6 Baton takes on Phasma. Though seemingly dispatched by Phasma at one point, Finn has one of the best moments in the film when he smashes her helmet open. She looks at him angrily calling saying, “he was always scum!” to which he wryly replies, “Rebel Scum.”
That brings us to the latest installment of this venerable and surprisingly controversial franchise. This film does a lot to flesh out not only his character but those of Daisy Ridley’s Rey and Oscar Issac’s Poe, but Finn is my focus here. Finn has come full circle in many ways over the course of this series. Once unsure of his place in the universe, Finn is working hand in hand with the Resistance. Supportive, dependable, ready to rush headlong into danger. Finn discovers that he’s not alone in the universe, but not in the way you would imagine.
The Resistance must find a device that will allow them to travel to a hidden Sith stronghold on the planet Exegol, where they will confront the resurrected and quite mad Emperor Palpatine and his “Final Order” of a fleet of Star Destroyers armed with Death Star level weaponry. They travel to Endor, the site of the final battle of Rebellion against the first galactic Empire (spoilers for Return of the Jedi, a movie that came out in 1983) where Finn meets Jannah (Naomi Ackie, making her franchise debut) another former Stormtrooper who, like Finn just felt the need to escape from her circumstances. He feels a kinship with her, and we start to see that Finn has accepted the Force as a real construct, as something that’s making things happen. Finn is given a battlefield promotion to General, bravely leading a risky assault on the deck of a Star Destroyer and helping to take down the Final Order’s ships as people from all over the galaxy rise up to lead one last assault against this gravest of threats.
It’s only during the climax of the film that we discover something else. Throughout the film, Finn says that he feels something more with Rey, something that Leia also feels. Finn alludes that there’s something he needs to tell Rey but never gets around to it, being interrupted at different points. It is only at the film’s climax, when Finn feels Rey dying, having used everything in her to stop Palpatine. Finn, the everyman hero we were introduced to in the first movie is Force sensitive, opening the potential to a wider universe. It felt as if my faith had been finally rewarded, even if it wasn’t in the manner I would have thought.
I don’t know what the future will have in store for these characters. Knowing the franchise’s history, I’m sure there will be plenty of future exploration for these characters in other media, if not another film. Who knows where they will go, or if he’ll fulfill the promise laid out in this series?
So here’s to FN-2187, thanks for being what I needed you to be. A window, into a new galaxy at a time when compelling characters are rare.