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

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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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Revenge of the Sith, or, Prequel Trilogy Stress Disorder

With Rogue One: A Star Wars Story heading into theaters this Thursday evening I may never have a better excuse to write about one the Star Wars prequel films. Not one to let such an enthralling opportunity pass me by, I’m going for it! I’m not a hater. I’m not an apologist. I’m just a chill AF bro chatting about some stuff I found interesting in Episodes I-III. Does that make me a hero? I’ll leave that to history to blog about.

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I dunno, look at how gross Palpatine is I guess? I got nothing.

The Star Wars prequel trilogy follows an interesting societal trajectory: economics, conspiracy and finally, war. Revenge of the Sith is an impactful war film, or more accurately anti-war film, in that it explores the effects of war both on a society and an individual while at the same time showcasing surprisingly little actual warfare.

Episode III finds the galaxy at a point in the Clone Wars in which the ideals that have spurned the Republic and the Separatists to blow each other up seem all but forgotten. If you watched Revenge of the Sith on its own the only clue you’d have as to why a war is happening is that one of the factions is called Separatists. All we get from the characters and dialogue is talk of “peace” and “for the Republic.”
We get an allusion to why the conflict began in the film’s opening salvo with a pair of Jedi boarding a hostile vessel. Anakin and Obi-Wan’s arrival on General Grevious’ dreadnaught full of battle droids mirrors Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon Jinn’s arrival on the Trade Federation vessel full of battle droids at the start of the Phantom Menace, but that subtle reminder of the events that set the Clone Wars into motion is also a grandiose statement of how far the state of the galaxy has fallen. Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan’s outing was one of negotiation and treachery. Obi-Wan and Anakin’s is a veritable space rave of lasers, explosions and death. Continuing to embody the decline of the stability of galactic civilization, the should-be spiritual space samurai who had already been made arbitrators, then cops, are now straight up soldiers.

Once again Padme Amidala proves to be a voice to reasonable to live when she encourages Anakin to lean on Chancellor Palpatine to resume negotiations with the Separatists. It’s an exchange that highlights both mindset of the Republic and of Anakin Skywalker as it would seem that for both whatever ideologies led them to war have now been lost in its wake. It isn’t why they’re fighting that’s important anymore, it’s that who they’re fighting is destroyed .

This war-mongering mentality has gripped Anakin and will not let him go. His life is war. He battles his way through the rescue mission in the film’s opening sequence with a sort of weary professionalism. He takes the problems he’s presented with in stride. Save contemplating whether or not to execute Count Dooku, Anakin seems more than comfortable staring death in the face as he flips and slashes his way through enemy after enemy.

Life at home is an entirely different prospect. When Anakin returns from rescuing the Chancellor in the beginning of the film he’s left grounded on Coruscant, giving us a peek at what a domestic Anakin Skywalker looks like. Watching Anakin in Padme’s apartment is like watching Jeremy Renner stare at groceries in The Hurt Locker. There’s a clear discomfort that rears its head in the form of recurring nightmares and lashing out at both Padme and his peers.

Hayden Christensen’s performance in Revenge of the Sith makes it clear that Anakin is not well. I’ve heard Anakin in Episode III described as “emo” which is telling, as it’s essentially the same dismissive reaction the world around him has to his inner turmoil. It begins to feel like Anakin Skywalker is suffering from something along the lines of PTSD. There’s a mania, a paranoia to him. Against the anti-war backdrop of the film he is the real, tangible life that’s been sacrificed on behalf of the nebulous institutions that engulf the galaxy. Anakin Skywalker is the after school special on what happens when political and economic superstructures that exist only because we’ve decided as a whole to agree they exist take precedent over living, breathing people. Similarly, there’s a whole other blog post to be written about Episodes II and III and the Clone Wars television show, and whether or not the Clones are straight up slaves.

In a sense, Anakin Skywalker was never really freed when he left Tatooine. Watto, his master, is simply replaced by the Jedi Order and the Republic, which are in turn replaced by the Emperor and the Empire. The tragedy of Anakin Skywalker is that his entire life is spent as a tool for one authority or another, save his final moments in Return of the Jedi (spoilers!). Perhaps it’s the thought of otherwise having to grappling with this existential crisis that leaves Anakin so ready to make an enemy of the Jedi Order, so ready to wage an endless war on whatever can be labeled an enemy next.

Verbose as it may be, the film’s climactic destruction of the government (throwing them chairs like nobodies business), the economy (utter destruction of the industrial cityscape on Mustafar) and the Jedi Order (“Master Skywalker… what are we gonna do?”) are at once tragic and darkly cathartic.

The days ahead for the galaxy are dark ones. The rise of the Empire is undeniably bad, but the literal collapse of the institutions that plague the prequel trilogy also feel deserved. They feel like vengeance for all the pain and suffering endless deliberation and economic ambition have caused throughout the galaxy, as personified by the mental, emotional and physical collapse of Anakin Skywalker.

For all the hundreds millions of dollars that went into producing the sleek, lavish Star Wars prequels, there’s a punk sensibility to their rabid anti-establishment sentiments. There is no such thing as a good establishment in the prequel films. They’re all rotten and they’re eventually consolidated and replaced by something at once more rotten and more efficient. Revenge of the Sith shows us the cost of that change. It shows us the proportionate relationship between the power instilled in our institutions and the cost in blood and agony required to take that power back, be it to give to the people or to a disfigured, creepy old weirdo.