Even viewers who loved The Last Jedi tend to point to its trip to Canto Bight — the luxurious planet full of well-heeled gamblers and wealthy libertines — as a misstep. It’s been decried as pointless, indulgent, and ultimately inessential to the other major events of Episode VIII.
But while not the strongest element of The Last Jedi, that sojourn to the casino planet is vital to Finn’s arc, to the animating ideas at the center of the film, and to the movie’s parting shot, in a way that fully justifies its inclusion in the movie, even one already pushing a 2 ½ hour runtime.
The excursion to Canto Bight is, admittedly, the most Prequel-like aspect of the new trilogy thus far. It’s dripping with CGI in its phony-looking exteriors, in its creatures both in and outside the casino, and its awkwardly-composited chase scenes there to inject some action into an otherwise less-explosive portion of the film. It’s also the most overtly political section of the movie, with Rose delivering speeches about war and subjugation that approach the level of subtlety of George Lucas’s senate floor dialogue.
But the Canto Bight adventure still serves a purpose – namely to deepen Finn’s connection to the Rebellion beyond his concern for Rey, and to help extend his arc from the prior film.
When we meet Finn in The Force Awakens, his chief (and arguably only) motivations are self-preservation and fear. He doesn’t leave the Stormtrooper brigade out of a sense of nobility; he does it because he can’t take the death and destruction all around him. He doesn’t rescue Poe out of a sense of altruism; he does it because he needs a pilot to get him off of the First Order cruiser. And he doesn’t link up with the Resistance and travel to Starkiller base because he wants to strike a blow against tyranny; he does it because he cares about Rey. That’s his arc in the first movie – going from running to save your own butt to fighting to save someone you care about.
The Last Jedi extends that character development even further. Here, Finn is still devoted to Rey, but his loyalties only go that far. He tries to bail on Leia & Co. in the name of escaping the Resistance’s scrap with the First Order and to take the twin counterpart of Rey’s beacon to somewhere that she’ll be safe. Finn isn’t invested in a movement; he’s invested in a person, and while that’s commendable on its own terms, writer-director Rian Johnson uses the casino-set portion of the film to give him a reason to be more than just a loyal friend, but also a freedom fighter.
In short, he sees what this war, and the people who profit from it, are doing to the people below their notice, who have little chance of ever setting foot into a place like Canto Bight as guests rather than a servants. He looks upon the pillars of wealth built on the backs and blood of these endless battles, and his empathy for those crushed under the First Order’s bootheel grows wider. Instead of seeing Rey alone, he starts to see the numerous folks who are touched by this conflict, benefited by it and kept down by it, and realizes that this is a cause wider than any one individual. It’s a bit clumsy at times, but this portion of the film is vital to making Finn a more complete hero and giving him a reason to find common cause with his allies.
The other recurring complaint about Finn’s part of The Last Jedi is that it’s pointless to the main plot of the film. The critics aren’t wrong to point out that the events of Episode VIII would have turned out the same, or arguably even more successfully, if Finn and Rose had never embarked on their search for the codebreaker. The duo could not stop the hyperspace tracker, and worse yet, they put DJ (Benicio Del Toro’s otherwise nameless character) in a position to not only sell them out, but to sell out the entire Resistance.
And yet, this is in keeping with the overall theme and tack of the film – where each of our main characters not only makes serious mistakes, but then contends with them, learns from them, and figures out how to do better. Luke struggles with the ways in which he failed Ben Solo and only finds peace when he reckons with that. Rey believes that she can turn Kylo Ren to the light side, but only ends up pushing him further into power before she returns to save her friends. Kylo Ren thinks that by destroying the emblems of his past he can move forward, but only finds himself lonelier, more haunted, and more fruitless, however more powerful he may be after the attempt.
And Finn tries to act apart from the Resistance, from the people who’ve saved him and helped him recover, only to realize that he cannot, and no longer wants, to go it alone. He realizes that the problems the galaxy is facing cannot be written off in the name of self-preservation or personal loyalties. Finn fails. He fails hard. But he also grows. He looks at his mistakes, at the person he might become if he stays on this path, and instead chooses a different one.
That’s the role DJ plays in the film. He is the nihilistic opportunist, the one convinced that — because this struggle between light and dark, between empires and republic, goes on and on and on while the folks in that casino sell their wares to both sides — he need not take a side himself. DJ’s only interest is his own, like Finn’s was when he originally ran away from the First Order. But Finn sees the way that DJ washes his hand of the conflict, the people who are hurt and whose lives are threatened, including Rey. He sees DJ’s casual indifference to the war being waged, so long as it doesn’t affect him.
It’s in these moments — where the choices of one myopic individual threaten to wipe out everyone Finn cares about and turn over the galaxy to those who would see them destroyed — that Finn not only internalizes that broader struggle, but knows it’s not a fight he can sit on the sidelines for anymore. It’s why, in his nearly-final moments, Finn goes from fleeing to try to save his own life, to attempting to sacrifice himself to save the lives of others, and it’s a vital part of that growth.
In that, Finn connects himself to something larger. That notion of a grander cause is what gives the Resistance hope even in defeat, when it must recover from its own missteps. That notion of rebellion will outlive Luke, will outlive Finn, and may even outlast a hearty bucket of bolts of like R2-D2. Because it lives on in the hearts and minds of the next generation, like the slave children who are still stuck on Canto Bight, who look up the stars and find inspiration in the deeds of heroes like Finn, and grow up to become heroes like Rose.
Could the trip to Canto Bight and its aftermath have been executed better in places? Absolutely. Many of those CGI excursions could have been reduced or excised altogether. Freeing of the dog-pony creatures was too on-the-nose as a metaphor. Finn and Rose’s great escape lacked the visual thrills that the rest of the movie had in spades. And these parts of the film are far more direct and didactic than the storylines involving Rey, Poe, Kylo, Luke, or Leia.
But they’re also essential to deepening Finn’s commitment to the rebel cause, worthwhile for including him in the film-wide theme of making mistakes and learning from them, and vital to give us a sense of the next crop of hopeful, unknown champions, there to be inspired by the heroic deeds of the last, and set to sustain the ideals and the fight that can outlast any attempt to squelch it out. That trip to Canto Bight may be the part of The Last Jedi most like the Prequels, but unlike that rightfully-derided trilogy, it’s also necessary and laudable in how it fits into the larger story being told, of an individual, a cause, and a movement that are developing before our eyes.