Tuesday, July 10, 2018

"Solo" Redeems the Disney Wars – An Unexpected Appreciation

A radically traditional neo-noir cartoon romp, Solo: A Star Wars Story is simply the best film to bear the series’ name since Revenge of the Sith.

Even as an apathetic spectator of pop-culture, I regret that Solo: A Star Wars Story has incurred the most jaded reception in the series’ history. Internet geekdom long treated the very concept of a Han Solo standalone with derision, so after The Last Jedi literally and metaphorically killed the main story’s darlings, any attempt to resuscitate the franchise was bound to be met with hostility. Firing the original directors 80% of the way through shooting (an increasingly common business strategy for Disney) did nothing to abate the internet’s gravest fear—that Star Wars had finally gone to the graveyard of creativity, sent there by people who didn’t understand its appeal. Consequently, Solo became a bona-fide box office bomb, which is a darn shame, because Howard & Lord & Miller have created hands down the most spirited, unapologetic, and commendable Star Wars outing since Revenge of the Sith.

Before diving into the virtues of the newest film, a brief review of Star Wars would seem in order, since I have only weighed in on one installment. The credo of the Disney Wars films is well established by this point, as decreed by the dashing and unpredictable Kylo Ren. “Let the past die,” says the Millennial free agent to Rey in the most pivotal scene of The Last Jedi. “Kill it if you have to.” In other words, out with the Force Olds, in with the #ForceNews.

When The Force Awakens came out, fanboys celebrated (and later denounced) the conservatism of every creative choice and plot beat. J.J. Abrams had settled for rebooting the ’77 Star Wars with updated computer graphics, but he also had enough business sense to fortify his film with Marvel-esque banter and bland tokenism, accordingly ensuring good ratings from critics. In technique, pacing, worldbuilding, and characterizations, The Force Awakens couldn’t be further removed from George Lucas’ widely-loathed prequels, and disciples of the Mr. Plinkett reviews could have a field day checking off all the artistic caveats Abrams clearly borrowed from YouTube. Nonetheless, one could still make out the skeleton of vintage Star Wars; the influence of George Lucas may have been excised, the prequels effectively eradicated, but the soul of the original trilogy remained intact.

Disney would not commence systematically dismantling the classics until Rogue One, which felt like a joyless act of sabotage, trying to don the habit of a war film for grown-ups and looking like an expensive fan project in the process. The Last Jedi steered Star Wars in an even more revolutionary direction, from its demonization of a beloved, pre-established hero to its already dated political sloganeering. Ridicule me all you want, but right and left should be able to acknowledge the revisionist, leftist politics of the Disney Wars films. Oliver Jones of the Observer snarkily commented, “[The Last Jedi] pushed the corporatized franchise in surprising new directions and reexamined flyboy machismo central to the Lucas mythos… Plus it had the added bonus of ruining several people’s childhoods.” I won’t even graze the numerous, mostly well-substantiated blog posts analyzing The Last Jedi as a repudiation of White Supremacy and The Patriarchy.

Solo enters the overcrowded summer landscape at a time when Star Wars movies have been retreating ever further from their roots, boldly chasing the status quo with aspirations of socio-political currency. By comparison, this spin-off feels both traditional and ironically radical, a compelling argument for a return to a purer, more imaginative brand of cinema. For the first time in three years (and probably for a while afterwards), we have a Star Wars film that genuinely emanates pride in being a Star Wars film, that embraces the series with all its blemishes, and that doesn’t arrogantly aim to erase the prequels from history. Last Jedi apologists or general skeptics may write this movie off as “unnecessary” or “shameless fan service”, both of which may be accurate descriptors, but assuming that cinema has declined into reactionary fan service, at least Solo serves from a place of love instead of from corporate apathy.

If George Lucas brought anything to the table that Solo lacks, it would be pathos. Irrespective of Episode 3’s animated clone troopers, dated anti-Bush commentary, and intermittent slapstick shenanigans, nothing in Star Wars history has begotten so many man-tears as Obi-Wan, when he famously stood over his bisected padawan and cried out in anguish, “You were my brother, Anakin! I loved you!” The closest that the prequels come to high cinema may be a wordless scene in which Anakin and Padme stare forlornly across the Coruscant skyline at sundown, isolated in their respective frames yet joined by a premonition of the unspeakable evil that is about to consume him.

Solo seems to pay homage to these images in its penultimate scene, but with a romance hastily concocted over an action-packed two hours, it simply can’t drudge up the same tragedy as Sith, which had an entire racing sports film and romantic comedy building up to it. In fact, Ron Howard’s film has nothing approaching emotional vulnerability at all, and that should not be mistaken for a fault. The cold and stoic exterior goes hand in hand with the theme of the film, which many people may deny on impulse but which readily presents itself to anyone who’s paying attention. Unlike the increasingly absurd episodes, which glorify outnumbered heroes who triumph by courage, sheer determination, and unearned brawn, Solo magnifies the less attractive underbelly of the Star Wars universe—the street urchins, the convicts, and the dispossessed outcasts, who have to rely on their wits to get ahead in an unforgiving world.

Some people have deplored the lack of a central character arc, but screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan shrewdly forgoes the origin story formula that has reached a point of pablum. This is not a film about Han blossoming from a selfish thief into a dutiful servant of justice and democracy. On the contrary, it’s a film about a world-wise Han preemptively cheating the scoundrels who would try to cheat him first, about a man who lives according to Locke’s state of nature and can’t afford to give strangers the benefit of the doubt. Han’s decisive act of shooting first doesn’t necessarily surprise, though it does seem a little edgy and counter-cultural for a Disney consumed with propagating niceness and tolerance. How this series went from a mantra of “Love Trumps Hate” to “Don’t Trust Anybody” in the span of one movie eludes my understanding, but Solo solidifies itself as the most non-Disney movie released in years.

Armond White has noted that the opening text of Solo references a Raymond Chandler essay on the prototypical hero of detective fiction. Coming from the writer-director of the acclaimed neo-noir Body Heat, this allusion can hardly be taken lightly. I’ve seen people try to make sense of Solo as a “space western” or “heist film”, and while it certainly has components of those genres, Kasdan’s work is best interpreted as a neo-noir, live-action cartoon, perhaps the very first of its kind. Even Emilia Clarke has said, with some scorn, that Lord & Miller had such a vision in mind. Critical consensus seems to hold that Bradford Young’s cinematography herein is really bad, because there aren’t a lot of light sources, people’s faces are obscured in shadow, and the environments look murky and ugly. I can sympathize with that notion, particularly in scenes of the bad guy’s unostentatious lounge, though I demur that the dimness is a deliberate and motivated choice. Just look at some of the screenshots below and tell me I’m stretching to find justification for my arbitrary genre of choice.

The noir embellishments of Solo extend beyond the visuals to the story itself, and especially to love interest Q’ira, who represents one of the most positive backslides for Disney as a whole. It’s been well documented by this point that the state of women in Disney’s Star Wars leaves much to be desired. Even with the prolific and successful Kathleen Kennedy in the producer’s chair, these films had long struggled to introduce a single interesting or grounded female character, being more focused on upending gender norms and providing “strong”, “independent” “role models” for the most lucrative demographic of Star Wars fans: teenage and pre-teenage girls. The Last Jedi took this transparent agenda to a distracting extreme, but not in a satirical or jesting way. Much like David Lynch, Rian Johnson stuck me with more questions than answers, questions like “Why are 80% of the Resistance fighters women?” or “Why are all of the men in Star Wars now impotent, effete, or impetuous, while all of the women are icons of perfection?” If this series is based a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, let alone one ravaged by war, then why was it starting to veer so closely to a 3rd-wave Feminist utopia?

When film students of the future are writing “research papers” on the Disney Wars that they hastily plagiarized from popular YouTube video-essayists, one attribute they’ll focus on is the near-total eradication of gender distinctions from the universe. Thereupon do I base my case that Solo is the most realistic and human Star Wars film since George Lucas lost creative control. Granted, Q’ira can’t remotely hold her own against the beguiling dames portrayed by Bacall or Stanwyck (or even against late-century femme fatales, e.g. Sean Young in Blade Runner), but her presence in the wayward Star Wars breaks new ground simply because Kasdan allows her to be human: morally dubious, manipulative, sultry, and sexual.

This being a modern action movie, the directors can’t resist the impulse to have her beat up several opponents with kung fu, but at least Solo offers some sort of explanation for her fighting prowess, unlike the episodic films, wherein Rey and Jyn Erso are naturally gifted at quelling trained and heavily-armed soldiers. Daisy Ridley responded to critiques of her indefatigable, flawless character by playing the Sex Card and insisting, “I don’t really believe in weaknesses in people.” Solo responded to such criticisms by creating an intriguing, original character who could conceivably shoulder a movie by herself. One can argue that Q’ira is underdeveloped due to the story’s limited point-of-view, but her greatest asset critically lies not so much in physical power as in her propensity to leverage charm and deceit to get ahead.

I contend that many of the Disney Wars’ problems can be credited to the nebulous existence of sexuality, which diminishes their urgency and palpability. Consider that The Force Awakens and Rogue One feature nearly identical scenes of a male sidekick trying to save a female protagonist who promptly proves his help unnecessary. Consider also that all the young stars are trapped in strictly platonic, grade-school friendships, and whenever they manage to exhibit more humanity than machines (I refer to the shirtless Kylo Ren meme and the stolen kiss in The Last Jedi), it feels awkward and discontinuous with the sexless void that is the Disney Cinematic Universe. Solo marks the first time in 9 hours of live-action Star Wars material that gender and reproductive activity evidently exist. The film not only acknowledges and plays upon the sex appeal of Clarke, Donald Glover, and Alden Ehrenrich, but also introduces the concept of nontraditional relationships in a comedic and risqué way that I was not at all expecting from Disney. A supporting character establishes that robot sex is very much a lifestyle choice in Star Wars, bringing the world closer to 21st century society than any episode since the prequels, which dealt extensively with slavery, terrorism, and republican government.

While Solo is demonstrably more grounded than its predecessors, showing among other things that Star Wars has its own breed of social-justice warriors rallying around “droid rights”, it also revels in the weirdness and extravagance that space-fantasy makes possible—hence my cartoon label. I briefly thought that The Last Jedi had the right idea when Luke Skywalker was extracting green milk from the teat of a bloated alien mammal, but most of that movie took place on a spaceship, and it ultimately retreated into familiar settings. Team Lord-Miller-Howard, however, consistently surprise with unorthodox art direction and dialogue, harking back to the ramshackle indie vibe of the original Star Wars. Take Han’s criminal overseer Lady Proxima, a grotesque ten-foot centipede who burns when exposed to sunlight, or any of the gamblers in the scene below. Indeed, this rendition of Star Wars has more in common with Douglas Adams or Valerian than with the stale and well-worn fan service that Disney repeatedly commissions.
© 2018 - Lucasfilm Ltd.

This is not to suggest that Solo is free of fan service. I reiterate that this is the most referential and self-enamored Star Wars film in years, to an extent that will either irritate or enthrall. The film doggedly strives to demystify almost every element of Han’s backstory, from how he got his surname to why he has a pair of dice hanging over the Falcon’s dashboard. The explanations it proffers are almost uniformly lame, some of them begging the question of whether the directors or the Kasdans were wryly belittling the very concept of corporate-mandated prequels. Considering Lord & Miller’s hyper-reflexive, satirical resume (including The Lego Movie and 22 Jump Street), it makes sense that a spirit of good-natured trolling should infuse Solo: A Star Wars Story, for which it is all the better.

Nonetheless, it lacks the anarchistic fervor of The Last Jedi, referencing other Star Wars films with too much enthusiasm. There are, of course, many obligatory callbacks to the original trilogy, both spoken and visual; I particularly like the way they paid homage to the kiss between Han and Leia. What I appreciated even more were the multiple shameless references to the prequels, which less convicted directors have tried to sweep under the rug, fearing their unpopularity. More so than Rian Johnson, the creators here seemed to grasp the importance of judicial precedent in storytelling, which is why lines like, “Well negotiated!” or, “I’m gonna be the best pilot in the galaxy,” routinely rear their heads in this film. The cameo towards the ending may evince scoffs and derision, though it arguably marks the biggest leap for Star Wars going forward, raising the possibility of cinematic entries that aren’t anchored to the Empire-Rebellion conflict.

In fact, Solo feels more connected to entertainment history as a whole than most blockbusters in recent memory. Many of these parallels could be coincidental, but I caught myself flashing back to Starship Troopers, Paths of Glory, Spongebob Squarepants, Barry Lyndon, Mad Max: Fury Road, Uncharted 2, A.I., Forrest Gump, and Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, roughly in that order. The presence of such allusions doesn’t inherently seal the movie as fantastic, but they do comprise a nice reward for those who’ve been closely following genre films over the years. Both in its broader associations and in its sheer density of Star Wars references, Solo is firmly addressed to long-time followers, more than to “the new generation of Star Wars fans” or to opportunistic Salon bloggers who obsessively scrutinize race or gender in casting.

While being a noble, old-fashioned effort for a post-Lucas Star Wars adventure, Solo struggles to attain greatness, mainly on account of its divided personality. A few years ago, Lord & Miller were two of Tinseltown’s most commercially viable directors, practically a god-send for Star Wars or any franchise. It’s unfortunate that their fast-paced, humorous interpretation had to be diluted with the relative blandness of Oscar-winner Ron Howard, who still manages to deliver some exhilarating action. The film was obviously rushed into theaters over a very short timeline, as the macro-editing isn’t even finished. “Smile is the word,” says Q’ira to Han before their paths diverge forever. “I smile whenever I’m on an adventure with you.” This confession is clearly meant to serve as a dramatic pay-off, a la, “My name is Max,” but the conversation setting up the unspoken word didn’t even make the final cut. Oops.

The film also feels pressured to shoehorn in a “voiceless” child soldiers subplot, which feels abundantly redundant after the last three Disney Wars. So superfluous are the Rebels in Solo that they could be substituted for stormtroopers in a single scene and then removed without impacting the plot, but that would require Kennedy to frame these stories on some other pedestal besides eternal political #Resistance.

Perhaps that’s asking too much innovation from the current Disney regime, but I myself will celebrate Solo’s persistence, in spite of the innumerable odds.

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