Solo: A Star Wars Story, or, Don’t Join

solo

You will believe a Star Wars marketing campaign can be heavily orange.

Even before its release last week it seemed pretty clear that for better or worse Solo: A Star War Story was poised to be something of an antidote to the divisive execution and reception of The Last Jedi. Where that film ran around the party pulling any rug it could get its hands on out from under whatever unsuspecting feet it could find, the marketing for Solo seemed to suggest a film  that intended to deliver on exactly the product it was selling – a swashbuckling, hot-rod adventure in space. And deliver it did.

Whatever my feelings on the film have evolved (or devolved) into now after a holiday worth of hot takes, when I left The Last Jedi I felt conflicted and disappointed. While Solo didn’t blow my mind with a reinvention of every facet of the Star Wars universe it could get its hands on, it in no way left me feeling conflicted. To describe Solo as a film that delivers on expectations rather than defying them might give the impression that it is a lesser Star Wars film, or at least a less inspired one. On the contrary, in my own personal Star Wars canon the film has already begun to solidify its place amongst the grand narrative painting that is the Star Wars universe.

As oppositional as The Last Jedi and Solo’s filmmaking sensibilities might be, Solo actually delivers an excellent continuation and elaboration on the themes presented in its five-months-older sibling. The Last Jedi is the first Star Wars films to really lean into the idea that the seemingly ceaseless, titular star war is utterly futile and that as exciting as watching heroes and villains duke it out in space is, a majority of us aren’t heroes or villains and given the choice, there are probably a lot of space people for whom the sight of a red lightsaber or finger-lightening simply isn’t enough justification to enter into a war.

Solo is the first Star Wars movie in which there really is no war. There are no grand causes or hallowed establishments. The heroes of this film are thinking of themselves and their individual everyday survival and, crucially, the film doesn’t condemn them for that. As a movie, Solo can be seen as an extension of DJ and Finn’s exchange in The Last Jedi – “don’t join.” Moreover it also offers a glimpse into some far more pragmatic, far less glorious motivations for joining: desperation, escape, poverty.

Just as Rogue One’s Saw Gerrera showed us that not every rebel is a moral paragon, Solo shows us that not every Imperial Stormtrooper is a patriot.

Solo is equally fascinating in comparison to what is now, at least for the time being, its immediate canonical predecessor, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. That film sees its protagonist, Anakin Skywalker, all-power war hero and force-wielding super-warrior, crushed into oblivion by the establishment, by the military-industrial complex, by the cause, by the man. Anakin, for all his power, joins. And he is utterly annihilated for drinking the Kool-Aid. Han Solo, on the other hand, has no such mystical power, he is not a war hero or Chosen One, he’s just a scrappy orphan boy armed with a modicum of cynicism. He’s not yet the sarcastic, callous smuggler we meet in the original Star Wars, but even as a youth, Alden Ehrenreich’s Han is wary of “delusions of grandeur.” Episode III gave us a protagonist doomed to fail, and in the aftermath of that sprawling failure, Solo gives us a new protagonist, the type of unaligned protagonist needed to succeed where the likes of the heralded Jedi order failed.

With that in mind, Solo serves as the most impressive fulcrum yet between not just the original trilogy and prequel trilogy, but also the two Star Wars animated series and the sequel trilogy. It is the most profound step yet towards an utterly unified, grand Star Wars canvas in which the sometimes-disjointed worlds of Kylo Ren, Jar Jar Binks, Darth Vader and Ahsoka Tano feel more unified than they ever have before.

Key to that is the believability of the likes of Ehrenreich’s Solo, Donald Glover’s Lando and Joonas Suotamo’s criminally under-recognized Chewbacca. Their performances are instantly believable in spite of the iconic shoes each is tasked with filling. This is Han Solo. This is Lando. This is Chewbacca. There is never any doubt and thus their placement and actions here reverberate into and connect with characters and events from across the Star Wars galaxy in ways that manage to feel unifying, rather than stifling, alive, rather than overly-coincidental.

Solo: A Star Wars Story isn’t going to force you to reexamine everything you’ve ever expected from a Star Wars movie. “This is going to go the way you think.” I’m not going to have to sling out hot take after hot take on this bad boy just so I can sleep at night. It didn’t leave me feeling conflicted and defensive. It left me feeling excited, it left me with story beats and background characters that still have my imagination flying like a kite (I think about Lady Proxima a lot…), and most importantly it left me wanting more.

Whatever skepticism I had going into Solo has been replaced with an impatient hope that we’ll get Solo II.

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Transcendence, or, Magic Mike XXL

During my first year of college I would stumble out of bed every morning and immediately slump down in from of my computer to watch the trailer for the Liam Neeson classic, Taken. Neeson’s now instantly-recognizable phone call with his daughter’s kidnapper was my morning cup of coffee. It got me so excited that going back to sleep seemed impossible. By the time the breathy human trafficker hung up on the other end of the phone I was pumped up, wide awake and ready for the day ahead.

Taken didn’t get an Academy Award nominations and it’s never going to be part of the Criterion Collection, but that phone call is a moment of transcendent filmmaking. It’s the kind of moment that transfixes an audience and captures our attention so completely that we can completely lose sight of the fact that all we’re really doing is sitting down and staring in a dark room full of strangers.

There are no words for what is about to transpire here...

There are no words for what is about to transpire here…

Magic Mike XXL is one such moment after another. At times the magic (not an on-the-nose pun so much as a factually accurate account of the film) of it all was so over-the-top that I completely lost sight of the fact that I maybe one of three men in an absolutely packed movie theater with women standing and screaming and applauding and wooing and nullifying the air conditioning with their sheer body heat.

The sequel to Steven Soderbergh’s Tatum opus, XXL thrusts the male gyration up a notch, then down a notch, then up a notch, then down a notch, then… this time putting the titular Mike and his pack of male strippers on a road trip with a pinch of “one last job” stakes for good measure.

Like Taken, Magic Mike XXL is never going to associate with Oscar or Criterion. It’s not gut-wrenching or intellectually stimulating and quite frankly every now and then I was a little bored, but when it’s at the height of its powers Magic Mike XXL is an undeniable triumph, an exciting, hilarious, exhilarating movie that is entertaining to the core.

Magic Mike XXL is without a doubt one of the greatest movie-going experiences I have ever had. That being said, if you go see it and the theater isn’t full of middle-aged women, buy another ticket and try again. It’ll be worth it.

Also, there’s no dongs.