Finn: Choosing his Fight

Today’s post initially started off as a Scene It?  post until I realised there was a lot more I wanted to say than I initially thought. In this post I want to discuss two different scene from The Force Awakens, and briefly lighting on a few others, in order to analyse a part of Finn’s journey throughout the film. Played by John Boyega, Finn, or FN-2187 in our first scene, is one of the main trio in the new Star Wars trilogy and in many ways he is one of the characters that goes through the most character development throughout the film. At the heart of Finn’s journey, I believe, lies the search for an independent identity. The two scenes I want to contrast here are taken pretty much exactly from the beginning and the end of his journey in The Force Awakens and hopefully by the end of this post I’ll have explained why I find the change in Finn between the two absolutely fascinating. So, let’s dig in.

The first scene I want to look at is when Finn and his group are sent to Jakku to retrieve part of the map leading to Luke Skywalker. Initially the masks and suits do their trick and it is impossible to identify which storm trooper we might be supposed to empathise with. The Storm Troopers are the faceless, nameless threat we are used to from the Originals and they are the Enemy. Although The Force Awakens didn’t go very much into depth explaining the training and brainwashing of the Storm Troopers, it does state this is indeed what happens. In a way, these new Storm Troopers are even more dangerous than the Originals Storm Troopers because of their extended lack of identity, while also making them more vulnerable because they are being actively manipulated. As such, the Sequels Storm Troopers represent a mobilised youth, one which has been formed by a fundamentalist movement and is being used in their martial causes. The willingness of the Storm Troopers to fight, then, does not come from themselves, there is no independent identifying with the cause or personal care for the outcome. Part of this discussion, then, is to see how the consequences of being raised for someone else’s cause affect Finn.

To return to the scene, what is it then that first makes Finn stand out from the rest of the troopers? It is his response when a fellow trooper is shot that allows us to identify him because it leaves an indelible mark on him. I mean this in both a physical and emotional way. When his fellow Storm Trooper is shot Finn hardly pauses before running to their side. His response to a comrade’s pain is as instantaneous as his response was when the hatch of the ship opened and he ran out. However, the lack of response from any other Storm Trooper shows that this isn’t a trained quality but rather one which belongs to Finn. It’s established from early on, then, that Finn is caring and it is the only thing we know about his innate personality.  The mark the fallen Storm Trooper leaves, the bloody finger prints trailing down Finn’s white mask, is both a physical and a psychological mark, I believe. Not only does it confront Finn and the audience with the fact they are mortal, but also with the fact they are in a war zone. From the novelization and background novels to the film, it becomes clear a lot of the Storm Trooper training is in simulations, which will most likely have given them a very clinical impression of what fighting means. The sudden physicality of the horror that is war shakes Finn out of his training and makes him hesitant.

Perhaps no moment better sums up Finn’s feelings than the gifs below:

These gifs are from FYSW.

A lot is happening in this short frame. Not only is there now a clear difference between Finn and the other Storm Troopers in how they look, he now also acts differently. He raises his blaster shakily, unwilling to take up his position. His little glance over at the other Storm Troopers, who are all seemingly confident in their communal actions, shows how much of the Storm Trooper mentality is a shared one. Everyone around him is following orders, is doing what they were trained/created for, without questioning it and the peer pressure this creates has its effect on Finn. He is here engaging with danger but not in the instinctual way he responded to his comrade falling in battle. J.J. Abrams then  lets the camera focus in solely on Finn, slowly removing all the other Storm Troopers and characters from both the audience’s viewpoint as well as Finn’s thoughts.

Finally all we see, and all Finn has to work with, is he himself. Surrounded by fire and mayhem, Finn finds himself in an active situation of war and he has a choice: to participate in the action or to walk away from it. I have seen some criticise this moment for the apparent “ease” with which Finn decides not to take part. A film only has so much time to show certain internal processes and this scene has to convey a lot in only a  few minutes, while still progressing the plot. Finn starts this scene off with an identity forced upon him and his actions commanded by others. In the perception of many it is not heroic to choose not to fight, to either turn your back on fighting and putting your weapons down. I am not saying that only fighting makes one a hero, but the perception that the two are somehow related lingers with many people. Undoubtedly it also plays in Finn’s mind. This choice, however, is one made by Luke Skywalker in The Return of the Jedi when he throws his lightsaber away and it is a character-defining choice made by Finn here when he puts his blaster down. It is not Heroic with a capital H and Finn doesn’t look like a hero here. Rather, he looks alone and lost, caught in a situation which comes to change him.

What this choice does is cut Finn loose of who he thought he was and what he knew. His instinctual choice to reach out to someone who has fallen has now left him alone and in danger. Him removing his helmet gives the audience a very clear look at how his world has been shaken. It also establishes his personal look for us, but it is immediately taken away as Captain Phasma commands him to put his helmet back on. The suppression of his identity has become a problem for Finn once he realises that the identity created for him doesn’t actually fit him. As such, however, this also affects his self-worth. The reason he exists, to be dramatic, no longer holds any value for him and the question that lingers for Finn now is what value he himself holds.

His realisation that his purpose is now void impacts Finn’s journey for a lot longer through The Force Awakens than one might expect or think after a first viewing of the film. On Jakku we again see Finn very willing to jump to someone’s aid when he sees Rey being attacked. Clearly this impulse of Finn’s is still a part of him, although his new flight instinct is even stronger. Throughout the following scenes Finn is a very big supporter of the idea to get as far away from Jakku and the First Order as possible. He still doesn’t want to fight, doesn’t want to confront what he left behind. He is forced to do so, however, on Takodana when talking to Maz Kanata and to Rey. This admission of fear and guilt makes him want to run and so he does. He still sees himself as alone. This moment, however, is also where a turning point for Finn takes place. The mindless destruction caused by Starkiller Base brings Finn running back. Finn spends a lot of time running in The Force Awakens, both away from and towards things. This time his caring for others has brought him straight back to the danger and he is forced to once again take up weapons. It is interesting that Rey goes through the exact same cycle of events on Takodana, running from the castle because she ‘wants no part in it’ and running back the moment she realises those she cares for are in danger. Finn also runs after Rey being taken by Kylo Ren, noticeably abandoning his weapon.

What I’m trying to establish here is a pattern in Finn’s behaviour where his instincts to run and to care are constantly intervening with each other. He both takes up weapons and throws them away, torn between fighting and stepping down. Neither of these seem mandatory to being a Storm Trooper and hence both are crucial in Finn trying to create an identity for himself. The only cause he has ever had to fight for, or even live for, wasn’t his own and it leaves him lost. The reason Takodana is crucial is that Finn realises that he has come to care for Rey and that this requires him to act. His willingness to take on the mission to Starkiller Base is not motivated by a desire to destroy those who manipulated him, he has no idea how to even go about that. Rather, his instinct to care has become a defining character trait which projects him onwards. I think it also matters here that, as such, Rey didn’t require his help to be saved. Finn’s efforts are rewarded by her gratitude for the thought behind his actions. Rey and Finn are continuously positively encouraging each other to develop and that is much more important than some realize. In the end Finn’s decision leads him straight to a confrontation with Kylo Ren, a main player in the creation of his previous identity as Storm Trooper.

Again we have one scene which has to convey an incredible amount of information and development, not just for Finn but also for Rey and Kylo Ren. Although Finn and Rey are running away at the beginning of the scene, they approach the danger together, actively stepping towards their fight. When Kylo Force flings Rey back Finn once again has a choice to make, but by now he has a cause to fight for. Rey is behind him, he can only assume wounded or knocked out, and he is her only defence. However, this moment isn’t just for her. This is also a chance for Finn to show he is more than a “traitor” or an ex-Storm Trooper, that he is his own person who can stand up for what he beliefs in. Now is the time for him to step up and in many ways his actions here beautifully round off his development throughout The Force Awakens. If there ever was a heroic pose it is the one below.

As said above, and by Yoda, ‘Wars not make one great‘ and fighting is not a direct path to being a Hero. But rather Finn has here discovered that his caring for people and his belief in them is a cause worth fighting for. Throughout the course of The Force Awakens Finn is building an identity for himself, one which is affirmed by the other characters, one which he himself has control over. His being torn between running from and running towards the fight ends here as he, quite literally, takes a stand. It is Finn and Finn alone who gets to decide how he acts in this situation. In engaging Kylo Ren in a fight he realistically doesn’t stand a chance winning, Finn very clearly chooses his side, chooses his fight. And this fight also gives us the only real moment of “aggression” we ever see of Finn. Unlike his fights on Jakku or on Takodana, Finn doesn’t wait to be commanded or for his enemy to come at him, but rather he charges at Kylo, forcing the fight upon him rather than the other way around.

What makes Finn a fascinating Hero with a capital H is that his actions aren’t motivated by desires for power, glory and influence. Rather, The Force Awakens gives us a hero in development, someone who actively struggles with the aggressive identity given to him and who has to come to a decision as to the role he wants to play in the world. It is important that we know what motivates a character and throughout The Force Awakens it becomes increasingly clear that for Finn it is that he has chosen to care and therefore has chosen to get involved. Choosing your fight is as important as choosing to fight, and of these two the former choice is the definitive one for characters, in my eyes. It is what defines who they are, what they stand for and how they can inspire the audience.

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