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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In Line for Last Jedi, or, The Force Awakens Revisited

Forgive any formatting sins. I’m uploading from my phone in the theater.

Two years after its release, as its successor The Last Jedi prepares to debut, Star Wars: The Force Awakens has had enough time to begin the transition from the pop culture phenomenon of 2015, to, ya know, just another chapter in the ongoing Star Wars saga. It’s had time to cool off from its meteoric arrival and settle into its place as an entry in the decades old film series, slowly melding into the whole.

But at two years old, where does it fit in amongst its numerous siblings?

If you were to stitch Return of the Jedi to The Force Awakens and make one 5 hour mega film, the pivot point would be a freeze frame at the very end of Jedi, followed by a ripping record scratch. While the events of VII don’t upend 100% of what the Rebellion achieves in the original trilogy, it does appear to even the playing field between good and bad in the galaxy, in spite of the desolation of evil Return of the Jedi had presumably depicted.

In the context of the larger Star Wars narrative, the function of VII becomes twofold: to reveal how truly daunting a prospect the goals of the rebellion actually are, and to insist that those goals are still achievable.

The Force Awakens gives us a far more complicated, arguably indiscernible status quo for the galaxy that the original Star Wars. We know who the good guys and bad guys are, but wherein Star Wars it was pretty clear the bad guys were in charge, the exact dynamics of the sequel-era galaxy are a little murkier. While we don’t get an abundance of information as to how the good, bad and indifferent relate to each other, we do get a pretty simple new way to tell them apart.

The good guys are nice to each other. The bad guys? Not so much.

The world would be a better place if there were a lengthy and readily available compilation of John Boyega reuniting with people. Finn, Rey and Poe treat one another with a relentless kindness, free of cynicism or sarcasm. These near strangers exhibit care for one another that still brings a smile to my face, a dozen plus viewings later, the sort of unshackled, earnest concern and empathy that even the likes of Han, Luke and Leia never exactly overflowed with.

If The Force Awakens is the film that signals just how difficult ending conflict and instilling peace in a franchise called Star Wars actually is, then it is also a chapter that reiterates no matter where the seemingly ceaseless swinging of the pendulum is between good and bad, subjugation and freedom, CGI and matte paintings, there will always be a well of everyday bravery and small kindnesses to draw from.

Until The Last Jedi retcons everything. I’ll let you know in two and a half hours.