(Note: This post contains spoilers for “The Last Jedi” and “The Force Awakens.”)
If there’s a major difference between “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” and its predecessor, “The Force Awakens,” it’s that “The Last Jedi” moves a whole lot slower.
That’s definitely not a criticism. “The Force Awakens” sprints from scene to scene, its characters barely able to take a breathe before they’re off to their next adventure, their next crisis, or their next problem to be solved. Moments in which newfound buddies Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega), or de facto mentor Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and potential apprentice Rey, actually get to talk to each other are few and far between.
“The Last Jedi,” on the other hand, invests a whole lot of time in it characters. Even though the movie separates its three good guy leads, Rey, Finn and Poe (Oscar Isaac), it gives each of them plenty to do and expands on who they are, what they’re like, and what motivates them. Even newcomer Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) gets plenty of attention in the movie, and her time spent with Finn gives an angle on who the Resistance is and what they’re actually all about.
“The Force Awakens” is almost criminal about how little time it devotes to its characters. Poe’s situation is obviously the most egregious — lots of interviews with the filmmakers have pointed out how Poe was originally slated to die in the TIE fighter crash early in the movie, but the script was later changed so he would survive. But we also get very little about who Finn and Rey are as people. We know Finn was a stormtrooper who wasn’t up for slaughtering innocents, and we know Rey is a scavenger waiting on her absentee family to return to her. But most of their time together is spent running, dodging, and fighting, and it’s rare that the characters have time to talk in a way that reveals much about themselves.
“The Last Jedi,” on the other hand, is full of character moments that start to fill in the blanks about the heroes. Rose and Finn’s mission to Canto Bight is a big one; we spend a bunch of time learning about Rose’s background is a poor kid in a galaxy that’s apparently too big to take care of all its citizens. She feels a connection not just to its people, but to the other creatures that inhabit it and are all too often overlooked in “Star Wars”: its animals. Rose is a Resistance fighter because she’s seen the world from the other side of the glass. She fights not just because of the threat of the First Order’s military force, but because she wants to try to clean up the galaxy from the ground up.
The mission to Canto Bight is also a chance to build on who Finn is as he spends time with Rose. Until now, Finn’s motivations have been clear and almost exceedingly simple: First, he wants to save himself; then, he wants to save Rey. He doesn’t really get much deeper than that. But by the end of the movie, we see him throwing himself into a suicide run to save the Resistance from the overwhelming might of the First Order. He’s basically making recompense for his past failures — by the end of “The Last Jedi,” Finn isn’t engaging in heroics because he should, he’s trying to make up for not doing more. He’s seen a more personal side of what the Resistance fights for. As a stormtrooper, Finn was a faceless body to throw at a firefight until it as won; as a Resistance fighter, he’s willing to sacrifice himself because that’s what it takes to help everyone.
“The Force Awakens” didn’t exactly leave much to work with for Poe Dameron’s character, and while we’ve seen that he’s a great pilot, “The Last Jedi” forces him to figure out how to be a leader. That’s an element he’s clearly lacking — he sees victory as more important than anything else, and he’s more than willing to send people to their deaths to achieve it. But he spends all of “The Last Jedi” learning about whether the risks are worth the reward.
Poe’s willing to make the hard calls, but he can’t see anything beyond the enemy. It takes his time spent with Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) for Poe to learn not only to try trusting someone other than himself, but to also recognize that bravery isn’t all that matters.
It’s the movie’s time spent with Rey and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) that’s the most useful, though. Ren Especially was largely a big, Darth Vader-shaped blank slate in “The Force Awakens.” We knew almost nothing about him except his conflicted feelings about the Dark and Light sides, and his motivations largely boiled down to “I’m mad.” Ren’s moments with Rey reveal a person behind the darkness, and his relationship with Snoke (Andy Serkis) suggests Ren has been continually searching for, and being let down by, parental figures. His search mirrors Rey’s, and both have come to realize they have to rely on themselves and their own judgment.
Both Ren and Rey were largely defined in “The Force Awakens” as being devout fans of the past without really recognizing their own identities. They spend “The Last Jedi” talking to each other, and in so doing, figuring themselves out. It’s almost a shame that Rey and Ren’s last moment together, in which he asks her to join him, didn’t end with more ambiguity. Both are realizing they have to make connections of their own, and follow their own leadership. It’s easy to see how Rey, desperate for a family, could see the relationship she’s been searching for in Ren — and the same with him, as a guy who keeps finding himself disappointed by the people he tries to follow and rely upon.
It all works to weave a much deeper portrait of the people involved in “Star Wars” than “The Force Awakens” provided. In that movie, events more or less kept falling on people, forcing them to adapt. In “The Last Jedi,” everyone has a great deal more agency, and are finally given time to breathe, to make decisions, and to drive their own fates. It’s not perfect, but it’s a great deal more interesting than the previous installment.
Ideally, “Episode IX” will see the conflicts within all these characters continue to grow, change, and intersect. “The Last Jedi” gave many of the characters of the new “Star Wars” trilogy time to grow apart from one another, but at its core, “Star Wars” is a story about friendship and sacrifice for one another. The second movie ends by bringing most of the main characters back together — hopefully its finale will keep them there to let them interact, conflict, and most important, change each other even more.