‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’ Is Dumb Luck Wrapped in Toxic Themes
by David Blue
The repugnant missteps of ‘Star Wars’ in the hands of Ron Howard and the long-awaited conclusions about the nature of cinema’s luckiest character to which they lead.
It's opening night at the Bagdad Theater on Hawthorne in Southeast Portland and hardly anybody’s bothered to show up. Less than 20% of the venue’s 500 seats are occupied by the time the host takes the stage to introduce Solo, but those who are here for the last Thursday showing have been shouting, whooping, and gurgling bad approximations of wookiee noises since the screen cut to black from its ad slideshow. If my middle row can be assumed an accurate sample, only a handful of these are “fans” enough to feel compelled to wear a Star Wars t-shirt. As I grab my last cocktail, the bartender tells me that only 300 folks showed up for the evening matinee, though he himself was “excited” to see the movie — one of a minority among Portlanders, apparently, who still give a shit about Star Wars.
By design, Solo: A Star Wars Story is a slightly more complex film than The Episodes in the same way Rogue One was, if a bit better executed, narratively. First, please rest assured that Alden Ehrenreich assumes the Han Solo persona as truly as anyone could — he triumphed through a ridiculously extensive casting process, and is certainly handsome enough (if not more conventionally so than his predecessor) to consistently look the part. He actually bears an unsettling resemblance in features and mannerisms to one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met and that through-and-through boyishness particularly makes sense here, set in Han’s formative, earnest youth — the stated purpose of the film’s existence. Franchise fanatics, then, should be content. (It’s a good thing CGI-ing the main character in a live action film isn’t quite a low-risk option yet.) And yes, Donald Glover completely steals the vain, infinitely stylish Lando Calrissian and inevitably makes one wish to see him cast again. Personally, I am very tired of seeing Woody Harrelson, though all the components of his public persona should all but ensure his likability. From what I saw in Three Billboards, I’d concede that he is as talented of an actor as I am capable of appreciating, but his role as Tobias Beckett in Solo couldn’t possibly be substantial enough to actually make use of his craft.
Though I don’t believe in “spoilers,” or use of the term to bait readers, it’s worth stating for the record what everyone should know by now: there simply aren’t spoilers in a Star Wars movie — every human being on Earth knows too much about the formula to ever have any of these films’ comparatively irrelevant plots “ruined.” The most surprising, historically-significant decision of this whole production was the omission of the traditional yellow type opening crawl over a backdrop of distant stars, which I genuinely found myself missing. (Apparently it wasn’t present in Rogue One, either — I just failed to catch it.) I was very pleased to see my own number one favorite device of the franchise used within this film’s first ten minutes: crimelords and gang leaders as hugely magnified variations of the creeping and crawling creatures our instincts are planned to abhor. Solo’s first villain — the gigantic, wormlike boss Lady Proxima (Linda Hunt) — is completely inconsequential, and only appears in a single scene, but the practice of grossly oversized monstrosities leaving absolutely nothing of a baddie’s essence to be extrapolated by the audience from nuance is one of very few ways these films are let loose, and it openly shits on the more pretentious viewer’s assumptions about good writing, which I think big money movies should feel more comfortable doing, generally.
This first act begins on Han’s home planet Corellia — the bleaker urban, industrial, working-class counterpart to the clean capitol cityworld Coruscant — with his rather predictable mission to escape Lady Proxima’s sphere of control with his girl, Qi-ra (Emilia Clarke,) who could and should have been more creatively named, given her importance not as her own character with depth to develop (a no-no for a female role, Gourd help us,) but as Han’s mirror image to grow darkly apart, proving that he — The Good Guy — is unquestionably more morally fortified than anyone else in the whole goddamned universe. After having been drug through so very many, I couldn’t tell you at this point how to make the introductory escape action of this sort of production more exciting and less formulaic. Big surprise — their plan goes awry, and Qi-ra is prevented from leaving the planet with Han, who’s immediate (and I mean immediate)solution is his enlistment in the Imperial Navy via the recruiting station right there in the damned spaceport (during which the film takes the liberty of seizing his surname’s explanation) to serve the English in their grand conquest of the universe. Bizarrely, he manages to serve as a grunt for three whole years of complicity in unmentioned atrocities until he encounters the disguised criminal Wise Old Woody in the middle of pulling a job with his two-person crew. The team doesn’t agree to bring Solo along until he meets an asset in Chewbacca for the first time as he briefly inhabits another of the classic Star Wars trap: the hungry monster in a shadow-filled mud pit, but is spared the wrath because of his introductory grasp on Chewie’s shrieking language (called Shyriiwook) in which he manages to sufficiently pitch the advantages of his survival, and the two escape, chained together. Observing the addition of Wookiee to the deal, the crew briefly debates the prospect’s new value in providing “needed muscle,” which convinces Woody to return for them and kicks off a series of case studies in this film’s bizarre attitude toward the commodification of the oppressed.
However, in a rare depiction of his volition, Chewbacca is briefly consulted before the two seek to be formally included on the job, and is even asked around a campfire, later, what he’s shooting for in life at the moment, to which he responds “finding my family/tribe.” Despite having spent a whole three hellish years in the trenches with the British, the romantic Han Solo declares his primary motivation for all of it still lies in his desire to return to Corellia and rescue Qi’ra. In their stolen Imperial ship, the lot descend on a snowy mountain-traversing Maglev to steal the Uranium it’s transporting in a scene that’s straight up jacked from animated family classic The Polar Express, but… oh no!… A gaggle of “marauders” called the Cloud Riders (yet another throwaway proper noun) roll up on those speeder bikes from Endor (except these can fly,) and screw up everything so badly that both of Woody’s crew end up dead and the booty scuttled. After the fact, Woody reveals to Han that the job was contracted by yet another carelessly-named crime syndicate — Crimson Dawn, and that his only possible course of action is now vigorous brown nosing to its leader, Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany) ((aka Scarred Jarvis,)) in the waning hope he’ll spare his life to make another attempt. Following this information, he firmly suggests that Han and Chewie fuck off, lest their faces become known in the underworld, dooming them to serving it forever, apparently. Already, this vague presumption of Han’s purity which all of the protagonists must constantly venerate in martyrdom is getting tiresome, as is the dynamic of his insistence against them.
Naturally, both Chewie and Han end up along for a visit to Scarred Jarvis’ tower yacht, where the latter very conveniently stumbles upon none other than his long lost love, Qi-ra in the bar. Despite having spent the past three years at war in unspeakable conditions thinking only of how to liberate and be reunited with her, he isn’t bothered to express more than the moderately-excited and surprised hug you’d expect of someone who’s just run into the kid down the cul-de-sac from their childhood home who used to ride her bike over for popsicles on Sunday afternoons. While he does rehearse for her the tale of their reunification as his one motivation for everything since they were separated — including his presence there, “right now,” he follows the profession up quite abruptly with the sly suggestion that they fuck as soon as possible. True to trope, she is jaded and indefinite as she distantly implies her binds of servitude while flashing the tattoo of the extremely-forgettable and innocuous Crimson Dawn logo on her right wrist. (The total lameness of the brands in this movie must be intentional. I can think of no other explanation.)
The evil Scarred Jarvis is then introduced, quickly stealing the crown for Best Host of all Star Wars Antagonists before politely asking Woody why he shouldn’t kill the lot of them. As per his infinite luck, Han pulls the idea of stealing unrefined Uranium out of his ass, which has somehow never occurred to anyone else in the room, despite their unanimous top-of-the-head knowledge of the single location where it is mined. Shortly, the merry three plus Qi-ra conveniently in tow are off to a casino-esque establishment to find Lando, who Qi-ra describes as “attractive, stylish, charming,” and like adjectives, to Han’s obvious sexual chagrin, which is furthered by his subsequent loss of a card game with Lando’s ship — the Millennium Falcon, of course — in the stakes. Of course, the attractive, beautifully-dressed black man only bests Solo — the earnest, simpleton, Good Guy white dude who wears the same outfit for decades — in front of Qi-ra, the female prize by way of sleight-of-hand, the film shamelessly playing on that strange insecurity white guys have about their partners’ secretly everpresent and very powerful temptation to dump them without warning for black cock. Further emasculation is inflicted on poor little Han when Lando turns his oh-so-crafty (actually just very charismatic) charm upon Qi-ra, who reveals that she’s the boss of the gig. The final blow to Han’s dickitude is cast when he tries to enter the negotiation between the two and Lando chides “the adults are speaking,” but eventually agrees to provide them a lift for a 25% cut, so the lot make preparations to leave.
Enter my new favorite character of the franchise, Lando Calrissian’s co-pilot, L3–37 (voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge,) or “L3,” the proudly sentient, violently revolutionary pro-rights droid who is introduced as she is pleading with two fighting droids in a square cage surrounded by screaming spectators (easy does it on that thematic slavery) to circumvent their “fighting programs” because they “don’t have to do this.” Though Lando and the crew behave like her duress is foolish and unimportant — pulling her away to the Falcon — she is allowed another opportunity to free droids very soon, but not before Solo’s single short private conversation between two female characters.
On the way to Kessel, Qi-ra stops by the cockpit and converses with L3. Until recently, I was unaware of what’s largely regarded as the worst habit of male writers with female characters: if and when they have a one-on-one conversation between another female character, it’s only about other male characters. Sure enough, L3 begins by insisting to Qi-ra that Han is in love with her, insisting by the objective findings of her sensors — which Qi-ra uncharacteristically denies like a bashful little girl before L3 continues on about Lando’s longtime love for her, and why it must remain unrequited, which we are encouraged to laugh at by the doubt Qi-ra voices without much hesitation regarding the hypothetical union’s sexual mechanics because it’s so preposterous.(I’ll get back to that in a moment.)
When the team arrives on Kessel and infiltrates the mine, L3 creates a “distraction” when she begins removing the restraining bolts from droids in the control room, calling the practice savage, or uncivilized, or maybe barbarian — I don’t quite remember. As she frees them without any noticeable detraction from her duties as Seth Green of the heist — hacking controls, remotely opening doors, and all that — the droids begin to help free others in an exponentially multiplying circle of liberation until they become a rowdy mob who’s cute acts of rebellion are spaced throughout a few minutes of screentime in short jumpcuts off the other crew as they fight deeper into the mine. With the most significant emphasis ever placed upon Chewbacca in Star Wars history, he halts when he spies slave Wookiees struggling to find off enforcers and informs Han that he’s going to break off and assist them. Since Chewie’s only allowed to speak to the audience through Han’s retorts and never directly, it’s impossible to know how he phrased it, exactly, but from my perspective, his appeared to be the expression of a wish to do what Han had to agree to release him to do, as would a master, not a “partner.” Of course, Solo does agree, albeit hesitantly, because he’s The Good Guy, while quite inconsiderately expressing his desire to see Chewie again soon instead of wishing him success. However, releasing him to free his people (as per his primary life goal, expressed before,) means that Han has to load twelve of the super heavy unrefined Uranium tubes onto the cart all by himself and push it fully loaded at least 50 whole yards without the assistance of his big strong slave. Boy, what a pain in the ass! He’s spared his laboring, though, when Chewbacca returns after no time at all with the enslaved Wookiees he’s just heroically rescued, who he then immediately asks to assist his master in pushing the cart — performing the same labor they were forced to do under the enslavement they were supposedly liberated from, seconds before.
The heist has inadvertently (nice, huge emphasis on inadvertently) ignited a slave rebellion throughout the mine, which serves the crew only as a distraction for the guards. The chaos is interrupted a half dozen times or so by those jumpcuts back to the control room of adorable little droids enacting their pitifully amusing revenge on the equipment — slapping a keyboard with a cookie sheet-like pan, stomping on a control panel, etc. — while L3 shouts parodical quasi-Marxist battlecries, which… yes… include referring to the freed droids as “comrades.” She even radios Lando at one point and triumphantly proclaims that she’s “found her true calling.”
If and when a female character has a one-on-one conversation with another female character, it’s only about other male characters.
By the time the Uranium cart is within its last few yards of the awaiting Falcon, the riot has reached the landing bay and the guards around its perimeter have readjusted their priorities to disabling the ship’s landing gear. This interrupts Lando in the cockpit, who has chosen this time to work on dictating his autobiography because he’s a man who bothers to dresses himself well and is therefore oh so maniacally, comically, and unreasonably vain! How berserk! Still looking good as hell, he emerges and stands on the ramp to cover the rest of the crew’s return and loading of the dangerous Uranium with blaster fire, shouting the obligatory intermittent “come on, hurry up,” until L3 appears, also firing a blaster and shouting until she arrives in front of Lando, before noticing some commotion(?) with droids behind her and turning around, again fervently shouting more liberation cries. Lando doesn’t budge from the Falcon’s side, but yells after her, until he watches as she is shot repeatedly and falls, prompting him to run to her side. Filmed unnecessarily gruesomely, her head and shoulders separate from what’s left of her lower body when he first tries to hoist her up. Of course, his recklessness gets him shot in the arm, so Chewie returns to carry them both to the safety of the ship, where the injured Lando holds her head lovingly in his arms for her last moments, repeating “I can fix you, I can fix you.”
Now, I understand that Star Wars movies (or their reviews, for that matter) are not the sort of entertainment one seeks out in order to examine the dynamics of power structures or elaborate cultural symbolism, but they all contain a significant amount of both. The sterile, cold, and bureaucratic Galactic Empire is the British Empire, the Rebellion and the Republic are the United States or its colonial precursors, the Jedi are vaguely Native American, and the Death Star is the Boston Tea Party. You’ve recognized this, I’m sure because it’s shoved in your ears most explicitly by their accents, and less so in your face by aesthetic influences, tactical philosophies, command etiquette, and posture, even. Solo’s main character is soaking in American Old Westness, which may or may not have led to its liberal saturation with the themes of individual rights, slavery, and liberation. Regardless, they’re certainly present, and most of them disturbingly for comedic effect.
As a silent character to the audience, it’s understandable that Chewbacca had too many limitations to occupy a strong second to Han Solo’s lead in the narrative’s eye, and perhaps the relationship between the two as portrayed in the previous films reeked so strongly of servitude that it was an inevitable element when the time came to write them their very own movie. In direct contrast to the firm place of all droids in the social hierarchy of the last 9 movies — addressing humans as “Master,” unapologetically spoken of as property, and traded and/or gifted as such by both protagonists and antagonists, etc. — what we see of Lando and L3 together is a genuinely and complexly affectionate partnership between equals, which Solo makes an effort to emphasize, if only to laugh at.
In response to the forced violence between two drones for spectator sport, L3 is completely enraged, and she cries (among other things) “we are sentient!,” but her distress is trivialized as hysterical distraction (see: Django Unchained.) When she suggests to Qi-ra that Lando (who is already illegitimized as a cheating narcissist, and therefore effeminate) is attracted to her, it’s a joke (which many in my audience laughed at) at the expense of her trivialized sexuality. After she triumphs and declares the liberation of her kind to be her true cause, she is immediately destroyed fighting for its sake, yet her ideology is not once acknowledged by her fleshy companions, and her body is quickly gutted for the data on her “central processing unit” as it’s interfaced with the Falcon. Granted, Lando does thoughtfully muse “she’s part of the ship now” shortly afterward, which would be nice, if you’d forgotten his last words were an outright lie. Lastly, it’s worth noting how apathetic the main characters themselves are toward the Kessel miners, especially as they are packing up to leave, when the camera pans over the chaotic struggle between the liberated and their guards in very close proximity to the awaiting Falcon, yet there was not a suggestion that they would even consider letting them take refuge from the violence in their very spacious freighter. Aside from Han’s or Qi-ra’s, Solo treats liberation as charming or amusing, nothing more.
Anyway, the crown jewel of Solo for many fans will probably be the scene of the infamous Kessel Run, when Han Solo and Chewbacca first take the helm(?) of the Millennium Falcon with Lando injured and L3 dissected, using her “navigational database” to plot a very risky shortcut around the scary space cloud by the scary space squid and the scary space hole in order to make it to the site of the refinery before the volatile Uranium explodes. Once there, darn old flakey Lando fucks the hell of in the Falcon right as the Cloud Riders roll up, but whoa! their leader is actually a very young woman with freckles! She describes the atrocities of Crimson Dawn and suggests that Han (who’s now the established decisionmaker for whatever reason) give them the Uranium in order to establish “the beginning of a rebellion,” which we can safely assume is The Rebellion, which does beg one to wonder why Solo never once bragged among the later rebellion about having started the whole thing in the other films, considering that — whaddya know — he says yes!
Woody, however, says he’s going to retire upon the news of this decision before immediately reappearing again on Scarred Jarvis’ yacht after he’s revealed to have betrayed the Uranium ruse to him. Qi-ra ends up killing Scarred Jarvis, saving Han, but after promising to follow him and escape, she rings up the late Scarred Jarvis’ boss — a Sith Zabrak who, I would argue, is not necessarily Darth Maul, though he probably is — and informs him that her boss is dead and she’s assumed his post. As Han and Woody meet again in an Old West standoff (complete with sand,) the latter insists one more time that Qi-ra is not who Han thinks she is (as Jarvis and Qi-ra herself have also said repeatedly,) describing her as “a survivor,” before Han kills him in self-defense.
Finally, after seeing the Cloud Riders off with the Uranium, Han finds Lando once again in a card game — this time taking care to disable his sleight-of-hand device beforehand so that he wins the Millennium Falcon, “fair and square,” and we cut to Solo (who seems remarkably upbeat considering the recent betrayal of the lover he’d longed years to reunite with) and Chewie in her cockpit as they tie in that one last knot by declaring their destination, Tatooine, before roaring off into hyperspace, leaving the credit roll in their wake.
Solo treats liberation as charming or amusing, nothing more.
Over two years ago, I concluded my first work for Extratone about The Force Awakens by arguing that Star Wars on the big screen should be allowed to die in favor of investing the time, energy, and funding they require in the pursuit of something new, but the industry still appears to believe that nostalgia is a surer bet where profits are concerned, at least, even after two whole decades of mind-numbing reanimated properties. I didn’t catch The Last Jedi until recently, which was remarkably well-done measured against the others as a Star Wars movie, but certainly didn’t aim to achieve much more. Clearly, there must be some truth in Hollywood’s cowardice about original properties- especially when it comes to the sort of fantasy armed with potent but unguided emotional bombs that define the Star Wars universe, so it wouldn’t make much sense to revive my old diatribe, here. (Though I can assure you that I will be relentless if this horseshit continues for much longer.) The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, though, were episodic titles for the family, and these spinoffs that began with Rogue One are supposed to be for… well, I’m not entirely sure. In reality, they’ve only moved the proverbial bar up a very wee bit to the family who occasionally says “shit,” because they’re not intellectually stimulating enough to justify themselves as Big Boy-only productions. Or, they wouldn’t be, were they not part of this franchise.
The truth is, the fans have grown up, and they… I… will still buy a ticket for the smallest crumb of hope that a product of this huge machine will be capable of making us feel even a fraction of what we felt as children watching the original films. For me, The Force Awakens actually did, once, in that blast of horns before the opening crawl, but it hasn’t happened since, and I should certainly stop expecting or wanting to expect that it will. For others, it’s still working. Though there was a fraction of who I expected to be in attendance with me, they did laugh at a handful of (mostly fascist) moments, and whooped, hollered, and even clapped for a few seconds at the end. I’m surprised opening night wasn’t packed because Portland is the single most nostalgia-addicted culture I’ve ever seen anywhere in the United States. Then again, there are a billion theaters here, so perhaps the sample is just lousy. We’ll see how tomorrow and Sunday go, but I’d be surprised if any boxoffice records were broken.
In the past, when film enthusiasts andfans have described Han Solo as “the best character in Star Wars,” they’ve actually been praising his potential as a character, not his material itself, and Solo’s most effective function as a franchise film was to shut that praise down. Han was not at all denied his movie — this is his movie — and it provided him the screentime to show us who he truly is and why we really like him so much: he doesn’t fucking change. The secret to Han Solo’s moral and emotional resiliency is nothing more than halted development. The same old inner conflict between the tough, ruthlessly self-interested persona he does his best to project for everyone around him and the consistent reality of his soft insides was presented in his first scene way back in 1977, and we’re now sure that he was unable to make any progress toward its resolution despite openly and obviously brooding over it for an entire lifetime: from at least as early as his young adulthood in this film until his death at the hands of his little Sith son. There is 0 variation. He always comes back for the cause at the crucial moment after declaring himself through with it. Without fail, he’ll sacrifice the entirety of any self-making enterprise for just about any underdog with a problem who crosses his path. (Which probably explains his constantly-fleeting success as a smuggler well into gray hair and jowls.) Solo is abundantly clear about Han’s true nature and very willing to expose how uninteresting it is. When he first proclaims to Qi-ra that he’s become “an outlaw,” she shuts him down with the film’s ultimate quote, insisting that she “knows who [he] really is: the good guy.”
If the video game-despising fans will bear with me for a moment, it’s worth noting that Bioware’s Star Wars: The Old Republic MMORPG is the most interesting and extensive source of nuanced narrative in the IP (it holds the world record for the largest voiceover project ever produced,) and most of it can now be experienced without actually playing the game. Like Solo, it’s set pre-saga, but considerably before — a few centuries, if I remember correctly, which gave the writers a gigantic opportunity to both expand and predestine the universe. There are eight different class stories with around 50 cumulative hours of dialog, each. A few are relatively unimaginative, but the majority are complex, exciting, emotionally-involved tales that create very rich characters, and all of them can be streamed in their entirety on YouTube. If you are willing to see the potential of a Han Solo-like character fulfilled in a different medium, the Smuggler class story is a pretty damned engaging exploration of the kind outlaw with conflicted identity issues angle.
From my perspective, Solo’s frequent less-than-subtle maltreatment of some very brutal and sensitive power relationships makes it the most toxic of the Star Wars films yet, and I assume it ended up that way, unnecessarily because Ron Howard is an all-American son of a bitch. If these titles are going to continue to be passed around between bigwhig directors, future unpleasantries are inevitable. Notably, I’ve yet to see any mention of these disturbing themes from the respectable authorities of the film criticism establishment, who’ve been overwhelmingly charmed by Solo’s nostalgia. Take from that whatever you will.
If we continue to love the character Han Solo, it’ll be in the same way we love our earnest, foolish, emotionally-stunted manchild fathers who’s developmental inadequacies are often embarrassing, sometimes abusive, and thoroughly pitiful. Solo leaves no more room for an idealized, elegant perception of this character — he’s no more than a pretty good guy with a lifelong addiction to thrill-seeking and a shitload of luck.
To declare unequivocally whether or not Solo: A Star Wars Story is worth a trip the cinema with your date, your children, or just your own damned conscience would require me to disregard a whole host of complicating factors, but if you’ve stuck it this far with me, you’d have a lot to disregard yourself to jump in. I’d advise that parents watch it themselves before deciding whether or not it’s something worth adding to your child’s life. Of those of you like me who’ll tow the line despite what you know and watch a Star Wars film alone on opening night in delirium hoping for just a drop from the Fountain of Youth, I would ask: how long are we really going to keep kidding ourselves?