Aug 20, 2020
Solo was good; here's how it could've been great
Solo: A Star Wars Story was good.
It was really good, you guys. You should see it if you haven’t yet. I’d imagine a fair bit of you haven’t, given that Solo was the second lowest-grossing Star Wars movie to hit theaters (the ultimate honor there goes to Clone Wars, which I still have never seen). Why did this happen? The movie is well-acted, well-directed, well-paced, has appealing characters, great action scenes, and feels exactly like a Star Wars movie should. There were flaws, yes, but pound-for-pound, it’s comfortably better than any of the prequels. Why did it bomb so hard?
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I’m going to have to put the blame on The Last Jedi. And yes, it does feel weird to posit that a movie that made 1.3 billion dollars and got 91% on Rotten Tomatoes should hurt the performance of the next in the series, but no other explanation really makes much sense. The Last Jedi was, for all its critical and commercial success, undeniably divisive among fans. As much as the hate for Last Jedi is associated with alt-right chuds mad that there were too many women and brown folks (and yes, those folks are quiiite vocal, and really need to GTFO of my YouTube recommendations), I think that segment is relatively small in proportion to those who were just turned off by the movie, but picked up the anti-Jedite banner because every fucking thing is a culture war these days. It feels like an outrageous, dismissive, and unfair claim to make that everybody who hated Last Jedi was so butthurt about it that they made themselves hate Solo, but again, no other explanation really makes sense.
I don’t want to get into a whole sidetrack about Last Jedi. Suffice it to say, I had mixed feelings about The Last Jedi, but I ultimately concluded that it was a “great” Star Wars movie, if not always particularly “good”.
Well, shit, I said “suffice it to say”, but that won’t really suffice, will it? I didn’t hate it like I hated The Force Awakens, but I definitely thought it had some problems. After nearly a year, and more reflection than I ever thought a Star Wars movie would demand, I’m forced to admit that the worst things about Last Jedi were mostly the things it had the least control over. For example, Rey, Poe, and Finn are terrible characters. Rey is dull, Poe is a twat, and Finn is a sucky gormless cowardly loser who sucks. But that’s on Force Awakens, as is the crapulent nostalgia and the hokey kid-friendly “you gotta hope!” schmaltz that reared their ugly heads throughout Last Jedi and hamstrung it into not fully developing some of its more interesting themes. (The final shot of the dumb little boy wistfully wielding his broom to the stars made me audibly retch.)
The parts of The Last Jedi that were good were all its own. No Star Wars movie since The Empire Strikes Back took such huge leaps in what a Star Wars movie could be. I really, really enjoyed the new visual language director Rian Johnson and his cinematographer Steve Yedlin developed, I adored the moral ambiguity it brought to the characters of Kylo Ren and Luke Skywalker, and I heartily appreciated the strikingly mature and radical themes and messages it had to offer. But what I appreciated most about Last Jedi is the ultimate source of its divisiveness: namely, that it didn’t try to give me, as a fan, everything I wanted. It could have gone in a slavish retread direction, like Force Awakens did, but it didn’t. It departed from convention. It took risks. It respected my judgment as a thoughtful movie consumer. For somebody suffused in modern mainstream nerdery, not being pandered to is a really weird feeling, and a lot of Star Wars fans just plain didn’t like it.
Which is why it’s so weird that Star Wars fans didn’t take to Solo. Solo is all pandering—extremely skillful pandering, but pandering nonetheless. It’s got appealing characters with Old Hollywood charm moving through a fast-paced pulpy heist story set in the dirty used-future of the original Star Wars trilogy, sprinkled with breathless battle sequences and judiciously exercised callbacks. It knows exactly what you want to see Han Solo do and it lines up the pins in the right order and knocks them all down with zest and panache. It’s everything the anti-Jedites claimed they wanted Last Jedi to be, and it wasn’t enough to attract them.
Solo was originally supposed to be directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller. Those are two dudes who have made a career out of being extremely wacky, extremely meta, and having a firm grasp on the vernacular of Hollywood stories. Ever since they debuted their fractured take on the high-school docudrama with Clone High (whose theme song I’m humming under my breath as I type this), Lord and Miller have together shown a singular knack at turning film character archetypes inside out. They’re the ones who transformed a ridiculously premised but otherwise straightforward cop procedural series into a high-flying, deliriously funny send-up of ‘80s movie and TV clichés. They’re the ones who transformed the LEGO Movie series from an optioned cash-grab into some of the funniest and most subversive kids’ movies around (accidentally making the millennium’s best Batman movie in the process). I was really excited when I heard they’d been attached to direct Solo, and it ginned up my enthusiasm for a movie I didn’t think much of at first.
But alas, Lord and Miller were ultimately fired from the movie, albeit after already having filmed a lot of it. Screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan (a Star Wars veteran who co-wrote Episodes 5, 6, and 7) was unhappy with Lord and Miller’s improvisational style, which he said was causing the narrative to drift “off course” and turn the movie into a comedy when they were only hired to provide a comedic touch. Kasdan and his co-writer/son Jonathan Kasdan took to showing up on-set to supervise Lord and Miller, which they didn’t care for at all. Reading between the lines, it’s pretty clear what happened: the legacy talent took unkindly to the young upstarts not treating his work with the proper amount of seriousness, and enlisted the help of bottom-line-conscious studio execs to nose them out.
As a result, Lord and Miller went uncredited on the movie, and replacement Ron Howard was the only one who received any directing credit. But it’s known that some of the footage that Lord and Miller shot ended up getting used. I watched Solo attentively, and think I succeeded in finding some scenes that pretty much have to be theirs.
Keeping in mind their trademark acerbic humor, there are two scenes in particular where I detected some characteristically Lord and Miller-style jokes. In the opening scene, Han (Alden Ehrenreich) has a standoff with worm/whale/albino/crime boss Lady Proxima (Linda Hunt) in which he pulls out his backup plan:
Han: This is a thermal detonator, [click] and I just armed it.
Lady Proxima: That’s a rock!
Han: No, it isn’t.
Lady Proxima: It is! And you just made a clicking sound with your mouth!
I don’t care what you say, that’s good shit. I lol’d in the theater over that. This kind of sassy, improv-y absurdity abounds later on during the Kessel Run scene, which is just packed with jokes, many of which depend on the viewer’s understanding of the Star Wars idiom. Han, in the pilot’s seat, asks Beckett (Woody Harrelson) if there are still TIE fighters on their tail. “Like rashnold on a kylak,” he replies. A baffled Han waits a beat before admitting, “I don’t know what that means.” A minute or two and seven or eight jokes later, Han bookends the scene with a maneuver he learned from his old pal Needles, “the best street racer in all Corellia… till he crashed… and died… doing this.”
The other scenes that reminded me of Lord and Miller are less on the “funny” side than on the “meta” side, “meta” being the other thing they’re known for. Throughout the movie, there’s a germ of a theme that keeps wanting to poke its little theme-y head out of the ground and bloom as a beautiful theme plant, but it never quite gets there. That theme is Han’s characterization. The LEGO Batman Movie brought a level of critical evaluation and self-awareness to Batman’s character that it really, really, really needed. The following scene from Solo, between Han and his ex-lover Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) put me in mind of that, and the specific language used here makes me think that some similar meta-commentary was intended.
Han: You know, I’m not the kid you knew on Corellia anymore.
Qi’ra: No? Then what are you?
Han: I’m an outlaw.
Qi’ra: Okay, outlaw, you can tell yourself that. But I might be the only one in the galaxy who knows what you really are.
Han: Yeah? What’s that?
Qi’ra: You’re the good guy.
Han: [chuckles] I am not a good guy. I am definitely not a good guy. I’m a terrible person.
This is far from the first time Star Wars has included self-referential material, but until now, these elements were mainly limited to individual lines and other callback-type stuff like that. This is different. This is actually taking a metatextual look at Han Solo’s character, both individually and as an incarnation of the anti-hero gunslinger archetype. It’s meta as fuck. Or at least, it was going to be, if Lord and Miller would have had their full say.
This impression is only strengthened by the climactic showdown between Han and Beckett at the end of the movie, in which [SPOILER] Han cuts short the double-crosser’s grandiose pre-battle speech by very pointedly—you guessed it—shooting first. This both effectively subverts a widely used Hollywood trope and earns an extra level of meaning based on what we know of Han specifically. It could have been really cool. But instead of letting that moment fall as it may, the next shot shifts in tone dramatically, as a visibly emotional Han rushes to cradle the man he just shot in his arms and commiserate a bit before he dies. That part of the scene felt tacked on, and I think I know who filmed it.
Little else in the movie reinforces this effort, and in my opinion the movie suffers for it. It’s this that keeps Solo from being a truly “great” entry in the Star Wars canon. I’ve read up on negative opinions of Solo, from professional critics as well as disgruntled Amazon reviewers (I consider myself somewhere in the middle). I’ve read complaints that Alden Ehrenreich was miscast as Han Solo (up for debate), that the acting was bad (hard disagree), there was too much explanation of stuff that didn’t need explained (grudgingly granted, although I didn’t really notice a lot of this until IMDb pointed them out), and that the plot details were ludicrous (so… it’s a Star Wars movie, then?). There was a lot of talk about how a Han Solo origin story was “unnecessary”, which seems to me a very weird argument to make. No movie is “necessary”, in the sense that we’ll die if we don’t have them; we make them because they’re awesome. And if a violent, action-packed, high-spirited adventure featuring the original Star Wars trilogy’s most interesting character doesn’t sound awesome to you, then I guess we’re just very different people.
But the one consistent criticism of Solo that I would 100% endorse is that it played too safe. It didn’t take any risks and it didn’t do anything to distinguish itself from the other Star Wars movies. I knew this was going to be an issue once Ron Howard was attached as director in Lord and Miller’s absence. He’s known for being a tiresomely competent director of unremarkable movies. After a four-decade career, he doesn’t really have a singular style of his own. He’s the guy to go to when you want to make a movie that everyone will enjoy well enough. Kathleen Kennedy and the Disney-Lucasfilm complex picked him specifically because they knew he could deliver the sort of on-brand product that Lord and Miller were absolutely not interested in making.
This was a loss, not only for Solo, but for the whole Star Wars series. What is the fucking point in making so many of these movies if they’re all going to be the same movie? Star Wars isn’t a franchise anymore—it’s more like a sprawling Marvel-style movie universe. And look what Marvel does with the playroom they’ve cleared out for themselves: They’ve dabbled in spy thrillers, heist flicks, sci-fi, fantasy, teen drama, Afrofuturism; all sorts of tones from tragic to comedic, sober to campy, one-dimensional to meta as fuck. They don’t tie themselves down to one thing. Neither should Star Wars.
There’s room for all sorts of stuff in this galaxy far, far away. The unique filmmaking gifts of Phil Lord and Chris Miller could have re-energized the series and pushed it into genuinely new directions, in the same way The Last Jedi did, and instead they got kicked to the curb in favor of more of the same.