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Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Force in Focus: Solo

Spoilers, obviously, if you haven't seen the movie yet (and based on those box office numbers, a fair number of you haven't).


I've been on the record as saying I've never been a big Han Solo guy, and as a result, I wasn't terribly excited by the prospect of a standalone Han Solo movie. Somewhat ironically, that perspective perhaps served me best, as I ended up going into this movie with a relative shrug (I mean, it's a Star Wars movie, so I had some excitement, but nothing like I had for the previous three films of the Disney era), but came out of it having greatly enjoyed the movie, hungry for more.

Solo is by no means perfect - the seams of the script (and the troubled production) show in places, the first half almost seems like a different movie than the second, and I have my quibbles with some of the choices made - but for the most part, I really enjoyed it. It tells the kind of story I wanted it to tell (something with high stakes for the characters, but low stakes for the galaxy) and avoids filling in too many of the dots for Han leading up to A New Hope (I was really, really worried it was going to end with Han & Chewie walking into the cantina just before they meet Ben & Luke).

Ultimately, Solo did what the franchise needs to do in order to become an ongoing engine of films, something the old Expanded Universe novels managed to do: tell a story set in the Star Wars universe, but which isn't primarily about the overarching narrative and mythos of Star Wars. Solo is first and foremost a western heist movie (it even has a train robbery!) that just happens to be set in the Star Wars universe. The surroundings are comfortable and familiar (blasters, aliens, the Millennium Falcon), but it's not concerned with advancing the politic state of the galaxy or the ongoing struggle between the light and dark sides of the Force. Instead, it is using those trappings as the foundation for a fun action-adventure story with a specific perspective (in this case, a film Western), highlighting one little corner of the larger Star Wars galaxy.

The franchise will always needs the "episode" movies to provide a spine to the overall narrative and create new settings & scenarios for other stories to build on, but it also needs movies like this, a way to tell fun & different stories with a variety of characters and from a variety of creators with familiar trappings, but also their own story to tell. I went into this movie feeling like the last thing I wanted was a solo Solo movie; I came out of it hoping Disney would make more, because I'd love to see another adventure like this, of Han & Chewie (and Lando), set in the remaining gap between the end of this movie and A New Hope.

Things I Didn't Like

Some Iffy Plot Points
I'm still not sure why the Empire showed up on Kessel when they did (yes, there was a line about how they were responding to Ellthree's rebellion, but why do they care? I can fanwank an answer, but I shouldn't have to) nor why they sent TIE fighters out after a random freighter, other than "because the script needed them to".

Han...Solo
I'm also not a huge fan of the Empire giving Han his surname. I mean, the whole "he's alone, so he's Solo" thing is fine, but as a deserter, it would have made more sense for him to adopt the name after he left the Imperial army (then again, Darth Vader never noticed there was a Skywalker living on Tatooine, so the Empire's casual disregard of surnames is at least consistent).

The Death of Val 
Given the character has, to date, the biggest role ever for an African-American woman in a Star Wars film, it's a shame Val was killed off within the movie's first half hour (and all because of a pretty shoddy train heist plan; I'm not sure why Val couldn't have blown that bridge from a distance, except that the movie needed her on it to die). The relationship between Han & Beckett is good (and thematically important, in terms of Beckett representing who Han wants to be while also operating as a cautionary tale about the life he's about to enter), but it also would have been interesting to see how things played out if Beckett died during the heist and Val survived.

Too Much New Stuff
Every new Star Wars movie feels the need to introduce new aliens, vehicles, and equipment into the universe, and that's fine, but I really wish not every movie had to introduce so much new stuff (especially when the movie is already operating within a well-defined era). Here, we get the AT-Hauler, and another TIE fighter variant, and a bunch of new aliens. I wouldn't mind so much if the new stuff was used alongside more of the existing stuff, but it rarely is. Instead of making the galaxy feel like one big connected place, it makes each movie seem more like its own standalone entity.

The Opening Weekend Take
Plenty of online ink has already been spent dissecting, prognosticating and pointificating about Solo's relatively dismal opening weekend (and ongoing) numbers, and I won't re-litigate all that here. I'll just add that it bums me out, because as much as I wasn't looking forward to this movie specifically, I now really want to see more movies like it (and direct sequels to it), and the box office numbers suggest that probably won't happen. Also, that I hope Disney doesn't overreact/learn the wrong lessons from these numbers (in that there's some very specific reasons this film isn't doing as well, and those reasons shouldn't/don't have to apply to future films).

Things I Liked

Han & Chewie's Meet Cute
Much like the way Force Awakens reveals that Han & Leia didn't quite live happily ever after following Return of the Jedi, I'm still struggling to reconcile the new, canonical, first meeting between Han & Chewie with the one that existed for decades in the old Expanded Universe (in which Han, in of the first expressions of his deeply hidden but innate goodness, is drummed out of the Imperial military for freeing an enslaved Chewbacca). After all, just because something is different, doesn't mean it's inherently bad, and this version hews pretty close to the spirit of the original. I did, however, absolutely love the subtitles of Han's broken Shyriiwook as he explained his plan to Chewbacca in the Wookie's native tongue. 

Lando
Not surprising, Donald Glover's Lando was fantastic, from his roguish charm to his outlandish attire, from his jaded selfishness to his grief over Ellthree's death. Forgot putting him in another Solo movie; give Lando his own film already.

Enfys Nest
The twist that Enfys Nest is really a teenage girl, and that her Marauders are actually proto-Rebels, is fantastic, and ties in nicely with the movie's "Western in Space" framework as well as its "Empire ascendant" setting. This is a character (along with the Marauders as a whole) that I'd love to see featured in some future stories.

Willow!
Warwick Davis has popped up in nearly all the Star Wars films since he played Wicket in Return of the Jedi, though often in some kind of mask and rarely with any dialogue. Given that this film was directed by Ron Howard, and released the same week, thirty years later, as the Davis-starring, Howard-directed Willow (a personal favorite), it's appropriate that he finally got a few lines in this movie, as the bazooka-wielding Marauder.

Okay, fine, there's some damned Twi'leks
While this movie still went too far out of its way to populate its backgrounds with entirely new aliens (why couldn't that six eyed alien playing Sabacc next to Han have been a three-eyed Gran, instead of something new?), there were at least a few familiar aliens, including Twi-leks, a Rodian, and one of those Two-Tubes aliens from Rogue One.

Darth Maul
I have no idea where LucasFilm plans to go with Maul (and whether or not the film's poor box office take will scuttle those plans); I certainly don't want to see a Maul vs. Han kind of thing, and the revived Maul's character arc has already been closed on Rebels (so there's limited things future films/stories can do with him). Regardless, his appearance in the film did a fantastic job of tying the two (canonical, but often overlooked) animated series into the film universe. It probably wasn't the wisest choice in terms of helping the movie as a standalone entity, as it likely left many non-hardcore fans scratching their heads more than anything (and even us diehards who watched the series and were aware of Maul's post-Phantom Menace resurrection immediately started trying to fit this appearance into Maul's established timeline, so much so that I totally missed some little details, like the whirring of his mechanical legs as he stood up, until the second time I saw it), but anything which helps break the animated series (and the Prequels) out of the ghetto they sometimes get relegated into is a-ok in my book.

Expanded Universe Nods
Perhaps moreso than any other Disney-era film, Solo was packed with nods to old EU stories and canon, using them in the best possible way, as non-intrusive hattips to longtime fans in places where acknowledgement of the old canon does the current story no harm. For example, it is said that Han will be going to the Imperial Academy on Carida, which is a carryover from the EU (thankfully, there doesn't appear to be any indication that Kyp Durron was in the spice mines on Kessel). This film needed to name the site of the academy, and there wasn't any narrative reason it couldn't still be Carida, so they used it, rather than changing it just for the sake of changing it.

Similarly, Han wins the Falcon from Lando playing Sabacc, just as past stories suggested, and while the game play itself doesn't exactly gibe with previous descriptions of the game (likely to make it easier to follow for movie audiences), the screenwriters didn't just make up a new game and call it something else.

There's also the skull in Dryden Vos' office, which resembles that of Xim the Despot from one of Brian Daley's old Han Solo novels, and Lando's dictated journal entry mentions the Shaaru, who were a species in one of his old EU solo stories. Glee Anselm, the planet on which Beckett hoped to retire, is the homeworld of Jedi Knight Kit Fisto (the green guy with head tentacles killed by Palpatine in Episode III). The planet where Han meets Beckett and his crew is Mimban, a name taken from Splinter of the Minds's Eye, one of the earliest Star Wars spinoff novels. Even Han being from Corellia, and the capital city being called Coronet, are all from the old EU and weren't technically canon until this film.

I'm not one of those crazy nuts who wants to burn Star Wars to the ground because the pre-Disney stories have been rendered Legends, but it's nevertheless always nice when the new canon finds unobtrusive ways to acknowledge the old stuff as a wink to us old timey fans, and this movie is packed with those kinds of things.

8 comments:

  1. Another EU nod/easter egg I enjoyed: when Q'ira broke out some martial arts on Kessel and said she had learned "Teras Kasi", my childhood video-gaming memories flooded back: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Star_Wars:_Masters_of_Ter%C3%A4s_K%C3%A4si

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    1. Oh yeah, that was great! I love that Teras Kasi has been canonized.

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  2. Speaking of "Star Wars nuts" and the presence of (or more accurately, the lack of) WOC in the franchise...did you hear about Kelly Marie Tran (aka Rose Tico from "The Last Jedi")?

    She deleted her IG account because of the constant harassment she received since the movie was released. :-(

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    1. Oh yeah, I've been following the story on Twitter. It's pretty sad (and enraging) what these ignorant morons do to people in real life, even moreso given how much it completely flies in the face of the message being presented by the thing they claim to love. :(

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    2. I know, right? The incessant b!tching about Rey, Finn & Rose being female, a person of color or a combination thereof has been - considering the message of the movies - disheartening. But sadly, not all that surprising...especially considering the state of the U.S.

      Though it was cool to see Mark Hamill speak out in her defense.

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    3. Yeah, while the section of fandom carrying out these attacks is disheartening, the way the part of fandom that isn't stupid monsters has rallied around the actors being attacked has been good to see.

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  3. @Austin: I'd have preferred one of the Hutts behind Vos,instead of Maul as we need SW films that don't always have Jedi or Sith, particularly a Han film given his dismissal of the Force in A New Hope.

    The Star Destroyer being in the Maw is referencing Kevin J. Anderson's Jedi Academy Trilogy where the Empire had an installation there.

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    1. As I said, I certainly don't want to see any kind of direct Maul/Han showdown, where he's like, blasting at Maul and Maul is deflecting the shots or something. But I don't mind Maul being behind the criminal cartel, if only because that's consistent with his actions in CLONE WARS (where he and his brother built up a major crime cartel during the Clone Wars). So his particular involvement makes more sense than if it was, I dunno, Darth Vader behind Crimson Dawn.

      As for the Maw, in the movie, it was specifically the gravity well/black hole thingee that sucked in the space squid, which isn't quite the same thing as it was in the Jedi Academy trilogy (where it was more a cluster of (barely) navigable black holes). So they lifted the name from the books moreso than the actual thing, but that is nevertheless appreciated as well.

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