After nine viewings of The Last Jedi, I can certainly say in agreement with many viewers that the Canto Bight sequence is probably the least interesting in the film. But I’ll never call it meaningless.
Saying something is a boring scene or the least exciting in the movie is a far cry from saying that the scene should have been cut from the movie or that it was meaningless, and the sooner we realize that the better off we will be. We have come to associate importance with excitement – the biggest fight scenes, the most emotional moments, the most breathtaking visuals. Those scenes, typically, are the ones we remember and the ones we enjoy most. That’s not a bad thing.
So you’ll never find me defending the Canto Bight sequence as the most exciting, and you’ll never find me listing it anywhere near the top of my favorite scenes in the movie. Some might, but it seems the overall consensus says otherwise. But here’s what we absolutely must realize: though it might not be as exciting, the Canto Bight sequence is actually crucial to the film. Why? Because it’s all about character development (and it does drive one key plot point, too)!
Before saying the Canto Bight sequence is meaningless, we must step back and consider that there are numerous ways in which a scene can get meaning, and one of the most important is character development. A lot of the character development in The Last Jedi was a bit more subtle (at least judging by the misunderstandings out there about it), and the Canto Bight stuff was a very good example of this. Rather than being meaningless, it was a crucial plotline to the character development of two of the main heroes.
I would argue that the biggest development taking place with the Canto Bight mission is actually someone who didn’t travel to the planet: Poe Dameron. In The Force Awakens, we are introduced to this hotshot pilot who is the best the Resistance has got, and he leads the daring aerial attack on Starkiller Base – ultimately, he’s the one to deal the final blow to the superweapon. Flying high off of his success, we meet him at the very beginning of The Last Jedi as he devises a plan to allow the Resistance to fully evacuate from D’Qar. Poe confronts a First Order Dreadnaught head-on and alone, taking out the surface canons so that the bombers can make their attack run. The only problem? General Leia Organa orders Poe to disengage and retreat, not press the attack. Poe defies the General’s orders, and though the Dreadnaught is destroyed, the Resistance loses most of their bombing fleet. Poe sees the mission as a success, but Leia sees differently, telling Poe to “get your head out of your cockpit” and that “there are things that can’t be solved by jumping in an X-Wing and blowing things up. I need you to learn that.” Leia knows that she can’t lead the fight forever. The entire Resistance is essentially built of people who know, love, and trust Leia and who were personally recruited by her, but she can’t keep it up forever. She sees in Poe the potential to succeed her as the Resistance’s leader, but he has a lot of learning to do. He’s a brash, sometimes careless, hotshot pilot who despite his piloting skills and heroics was just responsible for defying orders and getting the bombers destroyed.
Poe is fiercely loyal to Leia, but the crap hits the fan when a First Order attack wipes out the entire Resistance leadership, with an unconscious Leia as the sole survivor. Up steps Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo, a longtime friend of Leia’s. Poe has clearly heard of her, but hasn’t met her. He assumes that, because Leia trusted him, Holdo must too – so he wants in on the plan. Holdo isn’t so sure, however, and rightly identifies him as dangerous; besides, Leia had already demoted Poe to Captain for his reckless Dreadnaught actions. Because Holdo doesn’t tell Poe of the plan, he arrogantly assumes that there must not be one – so he takes matters into his own hands, sending Finn and Rose to Canto Bight to find the Master Codebreaker, infiltrate the First Order, and disable the hyperspace tracker – all without Holdo knowing about it.
As the situation keeps getting more dire, however, Poe storms the bridge to have a word with Holdo, demanding to know the plan. She attempts to reassure him that there is one by quoting Leia, and Poe soon finds out that Holdo’s plan is to load the transports and leave the Raddus. He’s furious and calls Holdo a traitor as he’s escorted off the bridge, and then blurts out to Finn and Rose – with the shady DJ hearing everything – about Holdo’s secret plan. Poe, convinced by now that Holdo is a traitor, stages a mutiny, confident his plan will work. Leia deals with Poe, while Finn and Rose are apprehended, having failed their mission. Not only that, but because Poe was careless with Holdo’s plan, DJ heard it all and sold them out to the First Order. Holdo’s plan to launch the transports would have worked if Poe hadn’t gotten in the way!
That is the beauty of the way Rian Johnson tells this story: it isn’t what we expect. I mean, we expect our heroes to succeed no matter what. When Poe decides to take on a massive First Order Dreadnaught BY HIMSELF, absolutely nobody in the audience doubts him. Why? Because we know he’s one of our heroes. So similarly, when Poe sends Finn and Rose to Canto Bight, nobody doubts him, and when Poe stages a mutiny against Holdo, we assume he must be right. When the Canto Bight mission fails, when we realize Holdo is a heroic leader, and when we realize Poe is indirectly responsible for the massive losses the Resistance takes, it’s a blow to our expectations: our hero failed. Is that allowed?
Yes, and it’s a massive lesson for Poe’s character that he probably wouldn’t have learned otherwise. The thing both Leia and Holdo realized is that the Resistance was never going to be able to confront the First Order in a head-on battle. The Last Jedi Visual Dictionary states that there are 32 Star Destroyers in pursuit of the Resistance, and all they have is one flagship. They’re not going to win that fight; rather, the Resistance needs to survive. They need to keep the spark of hope alive, and if they do, that spark will be the fire that burns the First Order down and restores the Republic. Poe comes full circle by the end of the movie. In the attack on the AT-M6 walkers and First Order canon, Poe realizes that it’s a futile suicide run and calls the remaining pilots off – a stark contrast to his actions earlier in the film. He’s learning to lead. When Luke Skywalker walks out to confront the First Order by himself and Finn wants to help him, it’s Poe who realizes that Luke is buying them time to escape because they’re the spark – a stark contrast to his lack of understanding of that earlier in the film. He’s learning to lead. That’s why, when Poe says “follow me” and everyone looks at her, she tells them to follow Poe and grins. This is what she’s been waiting for; she knows Poe can fly, but he needs to learn how to lead. Through the events of The Last Jedi – primarily his actions surrounding the Canto Bight storyline – Poe learns his lesson the hard way. It might be even harder for the audience, since we’re not used to our heroes failing in such drastic ways in the course of a movie. Poe is a much richer, better character in this movie, and it sets him up to take over command of the Resistance in Leia’s place (which will have to happen in Episode IX, due to Carrie Fisher’s death).
At times in the film when I first watched it, I thought it felt like Rian Johnson simply didn’t know what to have Finn do, so he sent him on a mission with this new character to an interesting new environment. But the more I watched and the more I thought about it, the more I can begin to see the importance of the Canto Bight mission for Finn too when it comes to character development.
The Force Awakens developed Finn to a point, giving him something (someone) to fight for. He defects from the First Order, and all he can think about is getting as far away as possible from them. He’s on the run, and nothing that Han, Chewie, or Rey say or do changes that. Finn leaves the group and sets out for passage to the outer rim, where he can disappear, when the First Order strikes: they launch an attack that wipes out the Hosnian system, dealing a crippling blow to the New Republic’s leadership and fleet. Finn returns and finds Rey missing, and soon sees her being carried off by Kylo Ren and the First Order. So he travels with Han, Leia, and Chewie back to D’Qar, where he reunites with Poe and is solely focused on rescuing Rey. When he tells Han and Chewie he can disable the shields if he’s on the planet, he’s only motivated by saving Rey (he even says as much when they’re on Starkiller Base). And the last action Finn takes in the film is fighting Kylo Ren in the forest, trying to save Rey.
It shouldn’t be a surprise where we meet him at the beginning of The Last Jedi, then: he’s still only motivated by Rey. He’s ok hanging with the Resistance while there’s peace, as he’s waiting for Rey to return, but once the situation becomes dire he takes Leia’s cloaked binary beacon and is going to defect, all in an effort to save Rey. It’s the exact same motivation he had in The Force Awakens. But Rose? She calls Finn a Resistance hero, and he’s taken aback. He knows as well as the audience does that he’s not truly a Resistance hero, because he doesn’t care for the Resistance – all he cares about is Rey. He IS a hero because of his actions in defecting from the First Order and helping in the destruction of Starkiller Base, but he’s not about the Resistance.
Rose catches on, and soon the two hatch a plan for how to save the Raddus: sneak onto the Supremacy and disable the active tracker. Poe green-lights the plan, and in a key moment Finn hands him the beacon for Rey – for the first time, Finn takes a step toward the cause. He’s going on a mission for the Resistance. Throughout the course of the Canto Bight sequence (and beyond into the Supremacy infiltration), Rian Johnson sets up dueling pictures of what Finn could become (I’ve seen some describe it as the angel and devil on Finn’s shoulders). In Rose, we have a character who hates the First Order and who is emotionally invested in the cause of the Resistance. Her sister, Paige, died protecting the Resistance, and they were raised on a world oppressed by the First Order. She rightly hates the new regime, and she wants to do whatever she can to stop it – but not just stop it, she wants to save what she loves. Isn’t that what Finn wants? He wants to save Rey – but in Rose, there’s a picture of someone who is fighting for the cause in order to save what she loves; those things don’t have to be mutually exclusive. But on the other hand, we have DJ, a character whose nickname is derived from his motto of “Don’t Join.” All DJ is motivated by is getting paid and getting by; he’s not fighting for a cause. He teaches Finn that the same people who supply weapons to the First Order are those who supply weapons to the Resistance, saying that it’s all a machine. DJ represents a picture in neutrality, and it’s a possible path for Finn to explore if he continues down the path of “don’t join.”
Finn comes to realize that he can’t stay out of it forever, and when DJ tells him “they blow you up today, you blow them up tomorrow” in a very cavalier attitude, Finn defiantly says, “you’re wrong.” Being that passive, neutral, and emotionless isn’t an option for Finn. He and Rose escape – with Finn defeating Phasma (in many ways confronting his past rather than hiding from it) – and land on Crait. It seems hopeless, but it’s Finn who speaks up, saying that people believe in Leia and that help will come, but they need to take out the canon. It’s Finn who suggests confronting the First Order head-on, a stark contrast to his statement in The Force Awakens that “there’s no fight against the First Order, not one we can win.” He flies his ski-speeder alongside Poe, Rose, and the others, heading straight for the oncoming First Order assault. And when Poe calls off the attack becasue of the horrible odds, it’s Finn who keeps going. He’s fully ready to give up his life to stop the First Order, and he would ave gone through with it had Rose not stopped him. That’s when she provides her final lesson to Finn of the film: it’s not about fighting against something, it’s about fighting for something. She saved Finn because, for her, the fight is only worth it insomuch as she’s saving what she loves (Finn).
The Last Jedi sees Finn finally take a side. He stops running from the First Order and embraces the fight of the Resistance. This wouldn’t have happened, however, without him coming into contact with Rose, without him going to Canto Bight to get a picture of those who don’t care about the war, and without him meeting DJ to give him an example of what someone who doesn’t join looks like.
There’s of course more going on with the Canto Bight storyline – such as Rose’s character, Broom Boy (Temiri Blagg), and the Fathiers – that we haven’t discussed, but my point in writing this has been purely to hopefully give an illustration of why the Canto Bight sequence is important to the film. We must not call it meaningless, because while we might not find it to be the most exciting, the impact it has on some of the film’s main characters is incredibly important and worthwhile. Perhaps we just don’t like character development happening in this way.