Original TFA screenwriter Michael Arndt has said in interviews that a big problem he faced in drafting that movie was that no matter how hard he worked on making the new characters compelling, as soon as Luke Skywalker showed up he pretty much took over the movie. That's why the structural solution to that problem was to postpone Luke's appearance to the very end of that film, which always struck me as one of the things that TFA genuinely got one hundred percent right. TLJ gives us Luke...and he nearly does take over the movie, but Rian Johnson carefully structures things so he doesn't.
The focus remains, mostly, on our three new main characters: Rey, Finn, and Poe Dameron. I had problems with these characters to varying degrees last time out. As well as they were played onscreen by their respective actors, the characters were all problematic as written. Less so the case with Poe, but Rey and Finn were only sketched very broadly, with no clear explanation at all of their motivations or desires. Rey is Force-sensitive and is pining for the return of the family that left her on Jakku, but so little is given of her backstory that it's a surprise every time another of her considerable abilities is shown. (This is not the same claim that some dippy fans made of her at the time, calling her a "Mary Sue".)
Finn, on the other hand, has skills but develops conscience out of the blue in a situation where that shouldn't even be a possibility, and he forms an instantaneous bond with Rey that almost borders on creepy. Very little about Rey or Finn is explained or shown, and TFA never really gave either character a real, genuine desire, either. As I noted at the time, characters have to want things, and they have to want them for reasons. On either score TFA gave almost nothing to go on.
So here's TLJ, which fares much better--in a way.
Rian Johnson doesn't so much rectify the problems in TFA's characterizations as he pretty much ignores them. He instead takes Rey and Finn and Poe at this point and gives them very clear motivations and desires, even as those change as events warrant throughout the film. There is never a moment's doubt as to what these characters want at any particular point in Johnson's story. This is huge, because for me it led to a lot more investment in the characters.
Poe Dameron came off best in TFA, because he's basically a pretty simple archetype: the action-loving flyboy ace pilot. He's kind of Han Solo and Wedge Antilles blended into one character, always up for an adventure and action. He's the guy who is most likely to stop and smile at the camera just long enough for a CGI twinkle to be added to his teeth.
In TLJ, Poe gets a more meaty storyline (and a bit more problematic in other ways). He's still a brilliant pilot, but now he's the one who chafes against his superiors, the one who always wants to err on the side of action rather than fleeing and trying to live to fight another day. He even goes so far as the defy General Organa's orders in the film's opening battle sequence, not for one second considering the price paid for a temporary victory or the possibility that retreat might be the best course of action. He questions his superiors constantly, flying into rage when he's not told what "the plan" is and when it involves yet more retreat.
There's an unfortunate note of sexism in Poe's reactions throughout the movie. He respects Leia, but not enough to not defy her order and get all the bombers destroyed in an effort to blow up a single
On the other hand, we have Finn, whose story in this movie might be my favorite. (This despite lots of fans who thought his story was utterly useless, but more on that.) When last we saw Finn he was comatose after getting his ass kicked to within an inch of his life by Kylo Ren. And when first we see him now, he's still comatose (it's only been a few days) in a medical capsule of some sort. He awakens suddenly, breaks out of the medical capsule, finds Poe, and asks the one question on his mind: "Where's Rey?"
One of TFA's oddest character moves was Finn's entire set of motivations. No hint was ever given as to why he felt the sudden need to defect the First Order (and no, seeing his buddy's blood on Jakku is not a good reason, not for a stormtrooper who has been assigned to a mission so important it's being led by Kylo Ren and Captain Phasma herself--would you take a total rookie on a mission like that?), nor was any convincing explanation ever given for his instantaneous attachment to Rey. Shared trauma and adventure can explain a lot of it, but not that level of pure devotion. That's where Rian Johnson had to start, though, and start there he does. Finn's first thoughts are of Rey, and then his thoughts turn obsessively to protecting her when he realizes that if she follows the signal of Leia's beacon, she'll fly right into disaster.
His solution to this problem is to snatch the beacon and get himself away from the Resistance fleet, so Rey won't go anywhere near it so long as it's being relentlessly pursued by the
Finn is no coward. But he does have an odd set of priorities. And that's what changes for him in TLJ.
Rose is dragging Finn off to the brig when he susses out the situation (the Resistance fleet can be tracked through hyperspace) and he quickly figures out not only how that's happening, but how it can be incapacitated. This too will keep Rey safe, but here's something interesting: after he meets Rose, Finn never mentions Rey again.
He becomes invested, focused. He and Rose work very hard to make their plan work. It eventually fails completely (and more on TLJ and failure in a later installment of this series), but there are two key moments when Finn's thoughts are driven to crystalize and he makes his choice. First is when he faces Captain Phasma in combat, gets the better of her, and corrects her when she calls him scum: "Rebel scum. And then when the only chance for the Rebels (by this point in the film we're not even calling them "the Resistance" anymore) to survive is for Finn to destroy himself, he decides to do just that. (This whole scene seems to me, by the way, an allusion to the classic Star Trek episode "The Doomsday Machine".)
Of course, Rose won't let him. She crashes her speeder into his, sustaining bad injuries as she does so, but before she lapses into unconsciousness, she tells him, "That's how we'll win. Not by destroying what we hate, but by saving what we love." This is one of TLJ's best moments.
By the end of the film, Finn has grown. He has learned and he has truly become a part of something. That's not a redemption arc, it's just an arc, and it's a good one. He still loves Rey--the embrace they share when they are reunited, after she moves the rockpile, makes that clear--but he has found something new to believe in and to belong to. In the last scene he is standing over an unconscious Rose, just as Rey once stood over him.
Finally, a common theme I heard about Finn's story is that it's just filler, that it doesn't really go anywhere or add anything. Take it out and everything else plays out the same, doesn't it? Maybe, maybe not. Again, failure is a theme of this movie, maybe the theme of this movie, and in that sense it's important. But even moreso is the movie's very last scene, when the stablehand kids are sharing the amazing story of what's happened on Crait. That one little boy goes off to sweep, calling the broom to his hand with the Force. But he stops and looks up at the sky. He is wearing the ring that Rose gave him, the one with the Rebel insignia on it. Finn and Rose met that kid earlier, and here he is, looking at the sky and holding his broom in such a way that the handle almost looks like a lightsaber.
That might make Finn and Rose's story the most important subplot in the film, as Star Wars transitions beyond the Skywalker family saga. Finn and Rose made a connection, and that connection seems destined to inform the future.
So there we have Poe, Finn, and Rose. But what of Rey? She gets a post of her own...but first, a detour into some more thoughts on Rose and Star Wars fandom in general of late.