Wednesday, May 30, 2018

If you don't tell me what you thought about Solo in a minute, I'm going to get very, very cross.


Solo is a very good sci-fi skiffy fantasy wild west space opera movie.

No-one who grew up playing with toy space ships can fail to enjoy the big middle section in which a space ship bounces around a gravity well while almost being eaten by a giant space octopus while trying to rewire the dead robot's brain into the computer while trying to feed Plot Devisium into the Warp Drive while being chased by TIE fighters and Star Destroyers.

My mind is still slightly blown by the fact that I have lived to see this sort of old school Lensemen pulpery projected onto big huge screens in shopping centres and other people apart from me evidently want to watch it. (Outside the cinema in Bristol there is a giant video screen advertising a movie about a dog show and lady's shaving razors like in Blade Runner. I could have ordered noodles if I'd wanted to. Just saying.)

Solo gets the visuals and tone and texture of Star Wars exactly right. It does this by a process of themes-and-variations: Han starts out working for a gangster who is quite obviously Jabba the Hutt without actually being Jabba the Hutt; and ends up on a desert planet full of picture postcard views that look almost exactly like Tatooine without actually being Tatooine. And there are three separate photocopies of The Cantina. I think maybe "sleazy Mexican bar full of aliens" is simply a Space Opera Trope of which the The Cantina is merely a particularly memorable example.

It's a big universe and probably there should be planets that look like Milton Keynes on a wet Friday afternoon and planets populated by sentient rocks and super-intelligent shades of the colour blue. But there is a kind of consensus about what Star Wars should look like and Solo looked like that. 

Of course it is ridiculous for anyone other than Harrison Ford to be Han Solo. It was ridiculous for anyone other than Sean Connery to be James Bond, until it wasn't; and ridiculous for anyone other than William Hartnell to be Doctor Who, until it wasn't. I don't know if I quite believed that the young lad who knocks about the universe getting in and out of scrapes is the same person as veteran smuggler who Luke bumps into in the second act of A New Hope. But he was an enraging enough hero for this kind of space opera. There is no doubt that much of Han Solo's charm came from Harrison Ford, not from the script. ("You can type this shit, George...") Perry King speaks many of the same lines in the Radio adaptation, and he comes across as a rather more mono-dimensional unsympathetic mercenary. But Han Solo isn't reducible to Ford. For every minute of screen time, there are ummpety-ump pages of printed text and umpety-ump comic book panels, all telling the Further Adventures of a figure who is identifiably Han Solo, none of which have any input from Harrison Ford.

It is Leia who called Han a mercenary and she wasn't being quite fair. Han wanted the reward money to pay off Jabba the Hutt, because if he doesn't, Jabba the Hutt will murder him. We never see any sign of him enjoying the trappings of wealth or wanting an indulgent life-style. That's followed through mostly in Solo. Han keeps having to do heists because he owes money to various galactic undesirables, but this isn't quite the life he would have chosen.

The "how Han first met Chewie" seen is funny, clever and retrospectively a bit obvious.

The Han Solo who we meet on Tatooine is older than Luke, a veteran, maybe 35 to Luke's 19 if we go by actor's ages. He obviously has a history, and the kinds of stuff he does in Solo is definitely the kind of stuff we would have imagined him doing. He gets involved in impossible heists, strikes arrogant poses in seedy space bars, falls out with nasty gangsters, is betrayed and counter-betrayed multiple times but usually turns out to have been one step ahead of them. I didn't believe in the Prequels because I didn't believe that the kind of adventures Ewan McGregor was having were the kinds of adventures that Alec Guinness would have had when he was young. Alden Ehrenreich has exactly the kinds of adventures that a young Harrison Ford ought to have had.

One of the cool things about a charming, veteran space pirate is that there is a history and a back story which he knows and you don't; and one of the specifically cool things about Han is that he keeps giving us tantalizing glimpses of his past. Arguably, we don't want to see Han playing cards with Lando, any more than we want to see Ben Kenobi and Luke's Mysterious Father fighting in the Clone Wars. But that is an argument against prequels in general, not a criticism of this film in particular.

It is interesting, is it not, how things that we all assumed were canon but have never actually been mentioned before slide into these movies and no-one bats an eyelid. I absolutely knew that the game on which Lando wagered the Millennium Falcon was called "sabac" but I am pretty sure I learned that from the RPG, not any movie.

Star Wars is a collision between three things. Star Wars is actually a collision between a lot more than three things, but three will do. It's first and foremost great big clashes of dreadnoughts and doughty little dog-fighters; a space ships and aliens space opera yarn. Star, in a very real sense, wars. But in the middle of the big star war there's a King Arthur fairy tale about the last quest of a magic Knight with a glowy sword. And somehow about two thirds of it takes place in a world of frontier towns, cactuses, and dodgy bars; space pirates and space gangsters. Space opera plus space fantasy plus space cowboys.

The main movies have increasingly focussed on the Jedi Knights to the exclusion of everything else; Rogue One was basically the Space Wars bit with everything else taken out. Solo is a space cowboy story with no Jedi at all. (Spoiler alert: Well, hardly any.) And what it proves is that the cowboys in space element was always what Star Wars was mostly about: if you had to define the saga in two words, "Space Western" does the job much better than "Science Fantasy." There are no casinos, coffee lounges, libraries, or idyllic romantic interludes in Solo: no moment at which I thought "I am sorry, but this is just not Star Wars."

But neither is there anything surprising or imaginative in the movie. There are good plot twists, but they are the kinds of good plot twists that you would expect in a movie of this kind; the kind of plot twists that anyone who had seen Empire Strikes Back would see coming at a distance of less than twelve parsecs. This is the kind of Han Solo movie you would have made if you had been asked to make a Han Solo movie. This is the kind of Star Wars adventure you would have made up when you were running the Star Wars RPG, and indeed did. Two thirds of the movie consists of a motley crew of mismatched individuals who get on okay, but quarrel a bit, in a spaceship that they kind of call home; which makes it feel not entirely unlike an episode of Star Wars: Rebels. Indeed, the ending, not quite a cliff hanger but with distinct loose ends left untied, felt very like the end of a TV pilot episode. I suppose that since everyone decided in advance that the film was not a success, we won't now get to see the follow up.

To an extent, any Star Wars film maker is damned if he does and damned if he doesn't. Do something experimental and different, use a Star Wars episode to say something about the Star Wars mythos, give us surprising takes on much-loved characters and fans (not all fans) will accuse you of violating the Sacred Saga. Fly close to the genre; do the kinds of things we expected and hoped you would do; show us the stuff we always wanted to see and fans (not all fans) will accuse you of making a redundant film that no-one asked for.

There is a very minor sub-plot about a robot. Some people have seen ten Star Wars movies and two TV shows but are still surprised that Star Wars movies often involve cute comic relief. The robot thinks of itself as female, and is very cross that robots are being used as slave labour on that planet that C3PO is concerned about being sent to the spice mines of. (Chewbacca is not wild about what they are doing to the wookies there, either.)

Some people think that this is an unwarranted intrusion of politics into what is basically just a series of adventure movies about plucky revolutionaries overthrowing a fascist regime. If you are one of these people, you need to seek professional help immediately.









23 comments:

Mike Taylor said...

"I don't know if I quite believed that the young lad who knocks about the universe getting in and out of scrapes is the same person as veteran smuggler who Luke bumps into in the second act of A New Hope."

To my surprise, I very quickly did believe that. It was a big part of what made me enjoy the film so much.

Gavin Burrows said...

"Some people think that this is an unwarranted intrusion of politics into what is basically just a series of adventure movies about plucky revolutionaries overthrowing a fascist regime. If you are one of these people, you need to seek professional help immediately."

On the other hand, maybe that was peak Rilstone.

Mike Taylor said...

That was the representative section that I selected to tweet: https://twitter.com/MikeTaylor/status/1001860664644767745

Warren JB said...

And the blogs, op-eds and so forth, that think the intrusion of current political themes into Star Wars is the best thing since sliced bread? What do they need? What about reviewers with no particular opinion on the matter, who think that specific inclusion is so ridiculous that they wonder it might actually be a parody? What about the creators and participants in the films who go on record not only to confirm these inserted themes, but to highlight them as reasons to see the film?

I could enjoy your rebuttals, Andrew, if there was much to them besides the reduction to ad hominem and dismissive refusal to unpack, just a little. (For another example: Sean Connery wasn't Bond for forty years. All those books and comics weren't written and drawn with Alden Erenreich in their mind's eye.) I could read about you picking apart the topic of 'leet' with points on why it's silly to worry about. But "seek help hurr" is a fourteen-year-old's comeback. It's sweeping the thing under the rug. It would be mere trolling if it was directed outside this blog. It's a childish kneejerk reaction - an "I'm right so there" - on a level with the people you're attempting to ridicule.

(I can't decide if tweeting it is much better or worse. Oh Mike. Mike Mike Mike...)

I've seen those complaints about L337. (among other things) I see what point they're trying to make, partly because they go into actual detail; but I can't go with them because they're too obstinate and obtuse. Imagine the frustration when 'the other side' - ostensibly the rational side - turns out to be practically the same.

Mike Taylor said...

"Dismissive refusal to unpack". Yes. That's it. That is what characterises Andrew's writing.

I'm amazed I never realised this before.

Gavin Burrows said...

"What about reviewers with no particular opinion on the matter, who think that specific inclusion is so ridiculous that they wonder it might actually be a parody?'

Reviewers with no particular opinion on the matter, apart from the strongly held opinions they hold on the matter?

Er.....

Nick Mazonowicz said...

I’d take this more seriously if I thought this was an issue actually worth taking sides over

SK said...

I haven't seen the film; but one of the things I dislike about current Doctor Who is the way that so much of it seems designed to be made into screen-captures and put on the tumblenumpty.

It means that these bits don't feel like coherent parts of the work; they feel contrived, inserted.

Yes, of course all art is supposed to say something. But the whole trick is to make that saying-something integrate smoothly into the diegesis. If it seems instead to be clumsily inserted from outside in order to make a good out-of-context screen-capture then it has failed: not because of what it's saying, not because it's saying something, but because it's not saying it well.

Perhaps that is what people are complaining about with the robot? As I wrote, I haven't seen this film (I dare say it will turn up on TV one of these Christmases, which is the only correct way to watch a Star Wars film). But it does sound like the same problem Doctor Who has these days, that I would have described as 'turning into its own fan fiction', ie, becoming so much a commentary upon itself that it no longer works as an integrated, coherent piece of art rather than as an ephemeral cultural artefact designed to be pulled apart and made into memes.

NickS said...

"I didn't believe that the kind of adventures Ewan McGregor was having were the kinds of adventures that Alec Guinness would have had when he was young."

I've been trying to figure out, since I read that, what adventures the young Alec Guinness would have had. I'm curious what you imagine

Perhaps I'm too influenced by being introduced to him on Tatooine, but I find myself picturing him as Lawrence of Arabia -- leading a band of irregulars in a messy and bloody part of a messy and bloody war. But I don't think that would make a good Star Wars movie. . . .

Gaius said...

Some people think that this is an unwarranted intrusion of politics into what is basically just a series of adventure movies about plucky revolutionaries overthrowing a fascist regime.

I also haven't seen the film yet, but I don't think this is a fair comparison. "Fascism is bad" is pretty much universally agreed-upon in the West (yes, I know there are some neo-Nazis out there, but they're a tiny minority whom all of mainstream society basically hates), whereas the sort of woke-ness which, I gather, L3-37 advocates is pretty controversial. So I don't really think it surprising that people get annoyed by a preachy woke droid and not by watching the overthrow of fascism.

Gavin Burrows said...

I haven't seen this film either and... well, in my case, it means I don't know what happens in it. Very impressed with these commentators who can tell exactly what's wrong with it without the rigmarole of seeing it first.

Mike Taylor said...

"I also haven't seen the film yet, but [...] the sort of woke-ness which, I gather, L3-37 advocates is pretty controversial."

Yes, yes it is.

If you're living in the state of Kentucky in the 1950s.

Otherwise, not so much.

See the film. You'll enjoy it and you'll be able to comment intelligently on it.

Gaius said...

Yes, yes it is.

If you're living in the state of Kentucky in the 1950s.

Otherwise, not so much.


The fact that people are complaining about it would indicate that it is, in fact, controversial now. Indeed, that's sort of the definition of "controversial".

Nick Mazonowicz said...

L3-37 advocates treating droids as equals. In-universe this is a perfectly defensible position. Outside the Star Wars universe droids don’t exist. I can’t see why it would be in any way controversial therefore

Mike Taylor said...

"The fact that people are complaining about it would indicate that it is, in fact, controversial now. Indeed, that's sort of the definition of "controversial"."

Yes. But the only people complaining about it seem to be the one who haven't seen it.

Gaius said...

L3-37 advocates treating droids as equals. In-universe this is a perfectly defensible position. Outside the Star Wars universe droids don’t exist. I can’t see why it would be in any way controversial therefore.

"Jonathan Swift writes about tiny little people called Lilliputians. In-universe, his observations about their society are perfectly apt. Outside the Gulliver's Travels universe Lilliputians don't exist. I can't see why the book would be in any way controversial therefore."

Yes. But the only people complaining about it seem to be the one who haven't seen it.

I haven't really got that impression, so I guess we'll have to agree to differ on that point. Though given that there are also articles praising the droid's political message ("the first woke bot of Star Wars", as the Atlantic calls it), I still don't think that the analogy with the original trilogy is apt. Nobody bothers to praise movies for pushing uncontroversial bromides like "fascist dictatorships are bad".

Andrew Rilstone said...

My comments are in a separate post. Thanks for feedback.

Nick Mazonowicz said...

Gaius - So in your opinion which real life sentient group of people do droids represent? And why would ‘enslaving this group of people be bad’ be a potentially problematic statement that we need to unpick?

Gaius said...

Gaius - So in your opinion which real life sentient group of people do droids represent?

Like I said, I haven't seen the film, so I don't want to comment in too much detail.

And why would ‘enslaving this group of people be bad’ be a potentially problematic statement that we need to unpick?

I think most of the people complaining about the film aren't doing so because it's against slavery, but because they think that it's suggesting that there are groups of people in the modern west whose situation could reasonably be compared to slavery.

Andrew Rilstone said...

“"Am asked what I think of Harriet Hume but am unable to say, as I have not read it. Have a depressed feeling that this is going to be another case of Orlando about which was perfectly able to talk most intelligently until I read it, and found myself unfortunately unable to understand any of it.”
Diary of a Provincial Lady

Nick Mazonowicz said...

So there are people who see a film in which a character representative of a group of sentient beings who in-universe are quite definitely being enslaved and see this as representive in someway of a section of society in real life who aren’t being enslaved?
Is there any reason why we should really take this point of view seriously???

Ryan Frost said...

Well I HAVE seen the film, and for the life of me I still can’t decide whether the robot character was a genuine attempt by the film-makers to highlight feminist issues (if so, yay!), or whether it was a parody of a feminist. After all, she was a bit of a comedy character, and everyone else just reacted to her schtick by rolling their eyes at her.

So yeah, there was certainly a lot of ambiguity there as to which side the film was coming down on. Personally, I think the best female character in the movie was (spoiler alert) the rebel gangster kid. Strong-willed, resourceful, a great leader etc. etc. I think she was a far more ‘woke’ creation than the comedy robot, but it’s the robot that people are upset about?

Gavin Burrows said...

Ryan Frost, honestly! What do you think you're doing commenting on a film which you've seen? Do you not understand how this sort of thing is supposed to work?