“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story,” wrote Russian playwright Anton Chekhov. “It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.” You may know this principle as Chekhov’s Gun: If you see a rifle on the wall in the first act, it should go off by the end of the play.
Or to put it in The Rise of Skywalker terms: If Finn (John Boyega) has something to tell Rey as they sink into what seems to be a quicksand-style death on the planet of Pasaana in the first act, we should damn well know what it is by the end of the movie.
But the silence on this front is so deafening, so antithetical to the laws of good drama, that even casual moviegoers — the ones who don’t care about the Emperor’s hyper-convenient return or Rey’s trilogy-bending Palpatine reveal — leave the theater scratching their heads. Was Finn going to say he loved her, or what?
Director and co-writer J.J. Abrams appeared to clear up the confusion at a screening for the Oscar-awarding Academy on the day Rise of Skywalker opened. We reported as much at the time, as did others: J.J. says Finn was going to say he was Force sensitive!
Except when you drill down on the tweet from a blogger who overheard and reported Abrams’ statement, you discover the director didn’t say it publicly, or even during the Q&A following the screening. He said it privately to at least one unnamed attendee afterwards, and he was careful to qualify it: That’s what he thought Finn was going to say, but … hey, guys, it’s not canon or anything.
It has come to my attention that I may have not worded my post as accurately as I could’ve. JJ said it meant to him that he wanted to tell Rey he was force sensitive, but purposely left it open ended which is even worse. If he’s the director and that’s how he feels, why not do it https://t.co/bc6ONdSB64
— kaila ren (@ar1aster) December 22, 2019
Where to even start with this information? Well, first off, it seems to confirm our worst fear about Abrams and storytelling, the one I outlined in my initial non-spoiler review: He’s a people-pleaser who wants to be all things to all fans, who likes to distract us with sound and fury, and doesn’t really know how to wrap up a tale. “What do you think?” he reportedly asked the attendee who raised the question.
Which seems such a cop-out that I hope the attendee responded: Dude, it’s your damn movie. Why did you raise the question in the first place? Why make a promise you don’t mean to keep?
To test the totality of the confusion, I asked Star Wars fans on Twitter what they thought Finn was going to tell Rey. This was the afternoon after the night it hit theaters, so my respondents were the hardest of the hardcore attention-paying fans. Interestingly, it was a three-way split in the replies. Some thought he was going to say he was Force sensitive; others that he loved Rey. (John Boyega himself later shot that one down on Twitter, but offered no alternate theories in its stead.)
And then there was a third explanation, the one I thought I’d spotted in my second screening: Finn knew about Rey Palpatine. “You don’t know what she’s going through,” Finn tells Poe after they crash-land the Falcon on Kef Bir, the planet with the horses and the Death Star wreckage. “Leia and I do.”
Luke’s ghost knew about Rey Palpatine, and in a flashback sequence he reveals Leia saw it too, but decided to train her anyway. So it seems feasible to assume Leia had told Finn to keep an eye on her.
But Finn could also be saying he and Leia know because they’re Force sensitive and Poe isn’t. (A weird flex, but OK.) And J.J. seems to want us to have multiple interpretations.
So in short, at least until the novelization of Rise of Skywalker is released in the spring, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
He was trying to tell Rey that the writer was unfamiliar with the concept of Chekhov’s Gun?
— Tommy Dyer (@TommyDyer) December 20, 2019
Telling someone you’re Force sensitive seems like way too much of a humblebrag to choose as your last words. On the other hand, it would jive with Finn’s other clunky open-ended dialogue in the film, where he talks meaningfully about having a “feeling” that a given course of action is correct.
Finn shares this information with fellow ex-Stormtrooper Jannah, who confesses that she too just has feelings about stuff. Abrams has no time to tell us any more about this, but it may be yet another open-ended invitation to create your own headcanon. Were the First Order stealing Force-sensitive kids and brainwashing them into becoming stormtroopers, perhaps?
This seems like an important point to clear up, one way or the other — especially given that Finn’s story is the most original part of the entire sequel trilogy. We’ve seen Dark Side family revelations in Star Wars films before (Luke/Leia and Rey/Kylo Ren); we’ve seen the morally gray smuggler become a hotshot pilot for the good guys (Han and Poe).
But not until Finn took off his blood-streaked helmet in The Force Awakens had we seen a single human being under the stormtrooper bucket. (We’re not counting the Clone Troopers, who all looked like Jango Fett, and are an entirely different thing from Stormtroopers, as you should know by now.)
It was such a surprise, and a welcome one, that Abrams used Finn as the very first character in the very first Force Awakens teaser. Finn also handles his first lightsaber in that film, shortly after Rey does, and fights with it before her. Surely if he was Force sensitive, they would have been developing as Jedi on parallel tracks.
But at some point, it seems, Abrams lost interest in Finn’s path to the Force. (To be fair, Rian Johnson didn’t develop Finn’s Force narrative in The Last Jedi either.) Result: He appears to be developing more slower than Rey, almost as if he’s some kind of second-tier Jedi.
Which … is kind of problematic, given the representation situation. (The film also seems overly concerned with giving Rey a last name she chose; Finn, so far as we know, is still walking around without one.)
Finn and Jannah are two thirds of the black characters in Rise of Skywalker (Lando Calrissian is the third, and Lucasfilm strongly suggests that he is Jannah’s father — but Lando’s potential Force sensitivity, given that he may share her blood, isn’t mentioned.)
If Finn and Jannah are both developing in the Force more slowly than Rey, who has it in her bloodline courtesy of Palpatine, then the movie is effectively suggesting they are second-tier Jedi. Rise of Skywalker may thus feed into a form of the unconscious bias that has been around for years in the movie business, on screen and off.
The biased treatment given to black superheroes (and yeah, Jedi are pretty much superheroes) is something that HBO’s Watchmen exposed so adeptly this year. It was something we hoped Star Wars had moved past when Samuel L. Jackson played Jedi Master Mace Windu in the prequel movies. Abrams would no doubt be horrified at the notion that his movie has come anywhere close to any kind of unconscious bias.
He didn’t intend it, surely as he didn’t intend to signal anything negative with the movie’s notably reduced role for Rose Tico. It just so happened to come after Kelly Marie Tran, who plays Rose, was harassed off social media.
But at the same time, Abrams did not care enough about Finn to tell his story in full — or even to hew to dramatic convention enough to let Finn tell Rey the most important thing he had to say. He has not thought enough about the fact that Finn is left effectively voiceless; he seemed not to spot that audiences are confused when they leave the theater over something that required a simple resolution.
Somewhere, the ghost of Anton Chekhov is silently shaking his head.