Tuesday, June 05, 2018

I am sure all this is fascinating, but what did you think of Solo?

"From the moment I picked your book up, to the moment I put it down, I couldn't stop laughing. Someday I intend to read it." 
Groucho Marx, attrib.

"Warren J. B" wrote the following about my review of Solo: 

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.

I take this to be a criticism of the style rather than the content of my piece. Warren is one of the very good people who financially supports me via Patreon, so I think we can safely assume that he is familiar with my normal idiom. I think that he is making the point that I am a better literary critic than I am a journalist -- which is why I have recently, semi-seriously adopted "exegete" as a job description. The Solo review represented my first reaction to the movie: it was written more or less immediately I left the cinema. I think it is probably true that I don't do this kind of thing particularly well. Most of my exegesis is the result of a fairly long period of thinking and over-thinking -- six months in the case The Last Jedi; thirty-five years in the case of Spider-Man. Warren is perhaps correct to think that short, off-the-cuff reviews are a mistake. 

Warren is also, I think, correctly pointing out that my verbal fireworks can shade into flippancy and obscure the points which I am trying to make. I think that he thinks that, in the case of Solo at least, I should have written a more journalistic, academic piece. 

It is certainly true that I use tags and code works and assume that my readers will know what I am talking about. For example, I say "You can type this shit, George, but you can't..." when clarity would require me to say "Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Alec Guinness are known to have been openly critical of George Lucas's dialogue." 

Warren directly responds to some of my flourishes; so where I typed "it was ridiculous for anyone but Sean Connery to play James Bond until it wasn't", he types "Sean Connery wasn't Bond for forty years". I could of course riposte in kind: "No; but Connery was the central characters in six movies, where Ford was a secondary character in four; and indeed "How many actors have played the role of Indiana Jones?" But this would not, in fact be relevant: the correct response to Warren is "But I was not talking about Bond: the remark was a colourful way of saying 'It is sometimes possible to successfully recast a popular character, even when they seem to be indelibly associated with one actor.' " To which Warren might very well respond "In which case, why didn't you say that?" The substantive point about Solo is not "Can Han Solo, in principal, be played by someone other than Harrison Ford?" but "How successful, in fact, is Aiden Ehrenreich at playing the young Han Solo?" -- to which my answer, given in the original essay but possibly obscured by the one-liners is "only partially." 

The article contains one major flaw which Warren does not specifically highlight: namely, I ought not to make remarks about mental health for the sake of stylistic effect. I regret remarking that people who objected to the movie on ideological grounds "should seek professional help." (I don't regret making fun of them, but I shouldn't have made fun of them in those terms.)

So: as a public service and a penance — and actually as quite an interesting exercise — I am re-presenting my essay, this time translated into English. 

People writing comments beginning "I haven't seen the film, but..." are referred to the reply given by Private Eye magazine in the case of Arkell vs Pressdram. 

Solo: A Review 

by Andrew Rilstone

Solo is a highly successful adventure story, told with the trappings and hardware of science fiction. As such it is in the tradition of Doc Smith, Flash Gordon and the older Star Wars films. It contains a number of audacious and exciting action sequences; the one in which a group of heroes have to evade enemy space ships in an area of space which contains a gravity well and a giant alien is particularly memorable. People who enjoy those kinds of stories — which are often dubbed "space opera" — are likely to enjoy Solo. People who who do not enjoy "space opera" in general are not likely to find much to enjoy in this example of the form.

The present writer, who grew up reading this material, is still surprised that films of this kind have become so mainstream. He is also, incidentally, surprised that technology which once only existed in such films is now common place. He enjoyed himself very much indeed. 

The film is quite faithful to the visual style of the original Star Wars trilogy. Many of the scenes are based quite closely on scenes from those three films. For example, there is a desert planet that is quite similar to Luke Skywalker's home world in A New Hope; several bars and saloons which are reminiscent of the bar which Ben Kenobi and Luke visit in the same movie; and a villainous gangster who is a little like Jabba the Hutt, the evil slug in Return of the Jedi. However, in the opinion of the present writer, there was also enough variation that the film never felt derivative or like a pastiche. 

It could perhaps been argued that a wider variety of settings could be introduced into the Star Wars series, and indeed, that there could be a greater variation in the way alien life-forms are portrayed. However, in the opinion of the present writer, the film does well to stick to a generic look and feel which as been established in nine previous movies. 

It is by no means impossible to successfully recast a popular character, even when they seem to be indelibly associated with one actor. But there are specific problems with recasting Han Solo, who has (with the single exception of a radio series) only ever been played by Harrison Ford. Ford brought a very specific charm to the character which wasn't necessarily present in the original scripts. (Ford, like Alec Guinness and Carey Fisher, was openly critical of the quality of Lucas's dialogue.) On the other hand, the Han Solo character has been successfully portrayed in comic books and novels with no input from Harrison Ford. In the opinion of the present writer Aiden Ehrenreich is an engaging protagonist, and creates a character who is stylistically very similar to the one in Star Wars and its sequels. But he is never completely convincing in the impossible task of being a younger Harrison Ford. 

Han Solo is sometimes erroneously described as a mercenary. In fact, in the original films, he is seeking a financial reward for rescuing the Princess only because he needs to pay off a debt to a gangster. The new film is quite consistent with this idea: circumstances force Solo to become involved criminal activity but it is made clear that under a different set of circumstances he might have chosen a different path. 

The present writer particularly enjoyed the sequence in which Han Solo first meets his future partner, Chewbacca. 

The Han Solo who appears in the first Star Wars film is presumably in his thirties, where Luke Skywalker is a teenager. He often alludes to previous adventures, while Luke has, up to this point, led an uninteresting life. In this respect he is like Ben Kenobi, who is also a veteran with a mysterious history. It could very well be argued that any attempt to actually show those histories on screen tends to diminish those characters. However, this is an argument against the whole project of creating stories which are placed chronologically before the first movie. Granted the existence of these "prequels", the present writer found Solo a good deal more convincing than, for example, The Phantom Menace. He found it relatively easy to believe that the event shown in this film — dramatic robberies, meetings and betrayals, desert gunfights and assignations in taverns and bars — were the kinds of things that might have happened to a younger Han Solo. He found it harder to connect the politics of tax disputes and the investigation of illicit clone facilities with a younger Ben Kenobi. 

At several points during the story, Solo is shown playing a poker-type card game called "sabaac". Interestingly, although this games has been alluded to in several role-playing games and novels, it has never before been represented in a movie. 

The present writer felt that the casino sequence in the Last Jedi, and the scenes involving public transportation in Attack of the Clones (to name only two examples) clashed with the look and feel of the original trilogy. Solo, on the other hand, remained very consistent with that imagery. 

The Star Wars movies consist of diverse elements including war stories, Arthurian mythology and the Wild West. The “Arthurian” element — that is to say the story of the Jedi Knights — has become increasingly central to recent movies; although the other stand alone film, Rogue One was primarily about warfare and espionage. Solo, on the other hand, relies extensively on Western imagery. There are no battles, and with the exception of one very brief scene, no Jedi Knights. In the opinion of the present writer, this meant that Solo evoked the "look and feel" of the original trilogy much more authentically than Attack of the Clones on one hand and The Last Jedi on the other. This may suggest that Star Wars ought to be re-conceptualized as a "space western" (as opposed to "space fantasy" or even "science fiction"). 

However, this "consistency" and "authenticity" is achieved by taking a conservative, even a derivative, approach to the material. A substantial core of the film involves a group of mismatched individuals struggling to work together on an unfamiliar spacecraft, which rather resembles the cartoon series Star Wars: Rebels (for the first series, at least) and could even have been a scenario for the Star Wars role-playing game. Although the individual plot twists are quite surprising, the over all shape of the movie is quite predictable. Part of the plot is left unresolved at the end, reinforcing the sense that we are watching the first episode of a TV show. 

This is an unresolvable and unsolvable dilemma for any film maker working with the Star Wars franchise. A film like Solo which sticks closely to established imagery and conventions may be accused of being unimaginative; but an experimental film like The Last Jedi which attempts to say something new about the saga may with equal validity be accused of not fitting into the saga. 

Finally: a few commentators have complained about the robot L337, who believes that droids should be free and have equal rights with humans. The same writers have also had a problem with a subplot about Han’s companion Chewbacca wanting to free his own people from slavery. They felt that this subplot politicizes the movie unnecessarily. 

While it is true that Star Wars deals with a simplistic and heroic conflict of Good versus Evil, it is also true that good and evil are represented primarily in political terms. If it can be taken for granted that freedom-fighters, rebels and revolutionaries are "good" and empires, imperialism, and military rule are "evil", then it is surely no great jump to say that "slavery" is evil and "equal rights" are good? In the opinion of the present writer, at any rate, the complaint that L337 uniquely politicize Star Wars cannot be taken remotely seriously. 

Corey Carrier
Sean Patrick Flannery
River Phoenix
Harrison Ford
George Hall


JWH said...


Both are great pieces - many thanks.

A few pleas for your wisdom:

1 - Did you think that the droid worked as part of the movie? I felt that it was a disaster of worse than Jar Jar Binksian, indeed almost Gimli-esque proportions. It was so poor that it I couldn't decide if it was poking sarcastic fun at the whole idea - laughing at her as robot SJW - or if it was just plain poor.

2 - If the premise is taken seriously, doesn't that effectively make every other character in every other movie complicit in appalling levels of atrocity? What are we to make of Luke using restraining bolts in Star Wars? Up until this point I thought we were dealing with advanced versions of MS Alexa, not Johnny 5. Which is it? This felt like a failure to spot the consequences of directorial innovations of Jackson-esque levels.

3 - One of the strong points of the original Star Wars was the use of costume and music as a way of omitting lots of complicated back story; in Solo (IIRC for the first time in the series) one of the twists involves specific misdirection here. Was this a good convention to break in this way? I thought it worked in the context of the film, but wonder if it will forever lose the clarity the series had.

Anyway, please keep up the superlative writing.

All the best

sananab said...

I enjoyed the parts of Solo which told a story and which weren't references to other Star Wars films and let me tell you: it was a very exciting twenty minutes.