[This story contains spoilers for Solo: A Star Wars Story]
The following is a spoiler-intensive conversation between two Star Wars fans —Turkish film journalist Ali Arikan and The Hollywood Reporter contributor Simon Abrams — about Solo: A Star Wars Story, a prequel that follows the title character (Alden Ehrenreich) during his formative days as a roguish smuggler from Corellia. Abrams is a 30-year-old Millennial, and the other 38-year-old Gen X kind of a guy — both of whom whose perspectives on Star Wars was shaped by the era of films they grew up with.
In the latest film, Solo has his first encounters with Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), the Millennium Falcon, and Clint Howard, too (wooo, Clint Howard!). The film didn’t do as well as the box office as its producers had projected, so many are coming to the film’s defense. People also understandably find Ron Howard’s old-fashioned nice-guy presence on Twitter to be refreshing, though it’s not so clear what that has to do with the film’s quality either. Anyway, spoilers ahead for Solo, including its ending, Enfys Nest and a surprise cameo.
Simon Abrams, Mario Van Peebles Enthusiast: Hello, Newman. It’s time once again to butt heads about Star Wars. Today’s topic is Solo: A Star Wars Story, a prequel/sidequel that I know you enjoyed more than I did. I think Star Wars was a much bigger part of your nerdy upbringing/identity than it was for me. It was huge for me, of course, but even Star Trek: The Next Generation wasn’t as big for me as Star Wars was for you. Not a knock, I just think you have more invested in these characters than I do. Which is why I’d love to hear more about your fond-ness for this relatively low-stakes entry.
Weirdly enough, I think we both don’t think this movie was necessary. It’s a question that many of our peers are wondering given the film’s underwhelming box office returns. What’s the point? Why make a story about how Han Solo first met Chewbacca, ran the Kessel Run in under 12 parsecs, and won the Millennium Falcon from Lando Calrissian in a game of Sabacc? Who needs such a bloated, Tristram Shandy-sized trip down memory lane, peppered with pointless allusions to Holochess and Han’s future dealings with Jabba the Hutt? Why fill these particular gaps in our knowledge? They’re not lode-bearing gaps, as I joked with you earlier.
I think we can both agree that the film feels patched together. Director Ron Howard had the unenviable job of landing a strictly metaphorical plane that was already pretty banged up. But there were so many times in the first half or more where I wondered: “If these set pieces and relationships must be included in the film, why couldn’t they have been punched up with better choreography, funnier zingers, or just slower editing?” A lot of the film’s key relationships — especially anything vaguely romantic in nature — felt rushed and unconvincing. And most of the scenes before L3-37’s death got on my nerves because they hinted at events without ever spending enough time on said events to make me excited. Solo, for me, feels like a checklist biography for a character I never needed a detailed backstory to understand. Oh, that’s how he met Chewie! And he fought in a trench, ok! Whoa, he had a girlfriend? So that’s why he’s a loner, a rebel, etc.
Which brings me back to the main theme of my whining today: who cares? If you’re going to do this type of story, and you can’t devote the kind of patience and detail required to make me want to suspend my disbelief — why bother? (I know, because the filmmakers really need that Simon Abrams demographic.) Paul Bettany’s cellulite-like acne crater face is a perfect example: is that a scar? A tattoo? The marks on his neck suggest that it’s by design, so why not make it look bad-ass with some Hot Wheels-style red paint, or glow-in-the-dark black-light designs? Or make it like a mood tattoo: it glows in whatever colors denote anger, sadness, and jealousy in the fuuuutuuure. Or all those aliens! I generally prefer the creature designs in this film to the last three live-action Stars War films (oh, look, a gremlin with a monocle, so crazy). But come on, what was up with the floating head and his singing companion? That should have been awesome! Why was it just…fine enough? The joke’s not so good that I’ll laugh regardless of how it’s told. So why tell it if you can’t nail it?
I guess I don’t know why you need to give a pulpy, archetypal lone wolf antihero — whose personality is described in his own damn name — a film-length biography. This is, I think, why some people really hate Rob Zombie’s reverent, but unusual Halloween remakes or even J.J. Abrams’s Star Trek films: they tread over familiar territory, but pay special attention to the holes in pop culture memory that a lot of fans either don’t want or need to be filled. Who needs to see Dr. Loomis talk to a young Michael Myers, or a young James T. Kirk pass the Kobayashi Maru test? Why tell these stories? I think Abrams (no relation, mind) and Zombie gave interesting answers to those questions in their respective films, but they obviously had an unfair advantage over Howard and the gang because they had far more creative freedom.
So I’d love to hear why this one did it for you more than The Last Jedi. I suspect it’s because Solo celebrated the previous films’ events and had a breezier narrative as opposed to The Last Jedi, which–if I’m not misrepresenting your opinion from our last conversation — you felt was needlessly destructive while also being obnoxiously contrived. Is that fair?
Ali Arikan, Plastic Cup Collector: Yes, I’d say that’s fair – and add that The Last Jedi was also dull as dishwater. However, I’d be careful not to pitch The Last Jedi against Solo as if they represented two opposing philosophical perspectives. Yes, the former lays it on a bit thick and the latter is delightfully frivolous, but they are both, essentially, superfluous. Star Wars is the story of Luke and Anakin Skywalker. That’s pretty much it. One goes on a journey of fear, the other a journey of hope — their paths eventually converge, and the son redeems the father, and everyone lives happily ever after. In the words of one Robert Anthony Plant CBE, “Yes, there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run there’s still time to change the road you’re on,” and that’s really what Star Wars has been about all these years. A recent Return of the Jedi ewatch (which is the best of all Star Wars movies, by the way) reinforced my estimation that the celebration in Endor is when this story is supposed to end.
But this is the real world, and Disney wants to make as many of these movies as they possibly can for the rest of our lives. So once one accepts that pretty much every single Star Wars movie is going to be pointless fan-fiction from now on, one begins to judge these films on pure merit rather than as canonical testaments.
Essentially, I’ve made peace with the fact that Star Wars is no longer for me. Of course it was a huge part of my nerdy upbringing, as you say, but then this was the early eighties, and there just wasn’t as much dork-friendly high quality product coming from Hollywood. Essentially, who am I to argue with people twenty, thirty years younger than me who enjoy all the various ways by which the saga has been expanded? Yes, the new canonically expanded universe makes Star Wars much smaller rather than broaden its horizons. Yes, I think the Clone Wars and Rebels cartoons are rubbish. Yes, the sequel trilogy has so far been a complete disaster. But as someone who’s about to enter his fifth decade round the sun, I realise that this, erm, property is no longer for me.
Which is a long-winded way of saying I went into Solo with low expectations and was pleasantly surprised. If anything, the lack of stakes made the whole thing much more enjoyable for me. This is a very different Star Wars movie because nothing of galactic significance happens. No planets or Death Stars get blown up. These movies have always had a certain flow, but Solo does away with all that. This is the first formally different Star Wars movie since the first film. It’s just a little heist/adventure movie with slight nods to The Wild Bunch, Johnny Guitar, andTreasure Island. Sure, it hits certain beats that we expect it to (like the way Han wins the Falcon, or how he and Chewie first met), but all those moments had already become myths for us: whatever happened would never meet our expectations.
I think the film’s major achievement is the way it doesn’t merely go for a “The Story of the Scoundrel as A Young Man”-approach. You know, those awkward stories that tend to end with stuff like, “And that kid who failed his maths class grew up to be Albert Einstein.” I admit it is clunky the way it rams in as much of the Solo lore as possible (the Kessel Run, Wookiees ripping people’s armsout of their sockets, Han shooting first, etc.), but it also never goes for the Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade intro sequence where he adopted all his tics and fears and whatnot during one eventful afternoon. Instead, it shows Han, at his core, as a goofy good guy with the best intentions. The film proves that the Han at the end of Return of the Jedi, who volunteers for a suicide mission on Endor, has always been driven by a love for his friends — who really become his adopted family.
Is it perfect? No. It’s definitely a bit cumbersome at times, the Corellian sequences look like they were shot on an old Nokia phone, the muted environments and aliens are part and parcel of the “more realistic looking” Disney era. And once again, we are meant to care about Han’s dice (“Remember you could see them in certain shots in the Original Trilogy?” I’ll take your word for it, luvvie). But this was a nightmare production and it is nothing short of a miracle that it is so enjoyable.
There is one thing about the film I absolutely detest and that’s Darth Maul. It was fun seeing him again, sure, but the implication that the Star Wars saga is one cohesive canon now is terribly off-putting, however zen I try to feel about this whole thing. Did you know Maul has a brother called, and I shit you not, Savage Oppress? I guess he’s canon, too. In the words of the once and future chosen one, yippee!
Didn’t you like the lower stakes this film has to offer? You usually enjoy that sort of thing.
Abrams: I’m grateful that you asked if I liked the “lower stakes” instead of the “smaller scale,” because I think there’s a difference. I did enjoy Solo‘s lower stakes, but I disliked most of the film because the narrative’s scale was as massive as an over-stuffed burrito with too many free add-ons (yes, I have a story about this, why do you ask). I mean, you know I love our mutual Mediterranean confrere Bilge Ebiri, but I think he’s conflating “low stakes” with “small scale” in this very important tweet that I’m sure he’d want me to analyze like a pair of bloody gloves.
Anyway, the problem, as I see it, is that Solo‘s creators took an ostensibly character-driven heist caper and stretched its plot out to include 135 minutes of potentially thrilling scenes — including trench warfare, a campire confab, a train robbery, a droid slave rebellion, some card games, etc. — and it felt like the kind of thing that Walter Hill or another old(er) Hollywood type could have banged out and with much greater nuance and humor in about 100 minutes. Ron Howard, as much as I love (some of) his films, doesn’t seem to have had a firm enough grip to wrangle a project that grew exponentially larger in scale but never developed size-appropriate stakes. Like a circus tent that balloons in size to accommodate more rubes, but is still nailed down by flimsy rubber well you get the idea.
“Small stakes” is what I wanted from this film. Instead I got drawn-out and unmemorable check-list scenes that only served to establish Solo’s emotional growth by way of perfunctory personal losses. Oh no, he was separated from the girlfriend that we just met and that he doesn’t seem to have much chemistry with due to a lack of scenes where the two bond, crack jokes, kiss, or even look at each other! And ye gods, Val — Thandie Newton’s mistrustful, no-nonsense mercenary — blew herself up, how devastating, though hang on, she also didn’t get to do anything with Beckett — Woody Harrelson’s unsentimental antihero mentor — besides complain about how she doesn’t trust Solo at the above-mentioned fire-side confab.
But how about Lando and his fairweather droid lover/co-pilot L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), with their…no, wait, what about Dryden Vos (Bettany) and Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke)….no, no, Han and Chewie…you know what, none of these relationships mattered to me. I never felt that the peril that these characters face was especially absorbing — the Cthulhu monster in the Kessel Run is OK, and the train robbery has moments, but neither set piece completely drew me in–and the jokes that they crack are only so funny (Beckett’s mid-speech death did make me laugh though), and the actors just don’t seem to be in the same scene with each other.
And talk about plot contrivances! I remember when we talked about The Last Jedi that we both had minor issues with that film’s plot contrivances (especially the Laura Dern/Oscar Isaac sub-plot). But this movie? I wanted to throw something at the screen when Enfys Nest (Erin Kellyman), the Marauders’ leader, points out to Beckett that he should have known, by their second encounter, that she would be back. It seems like Beckett planned for everything but that eventuality! Even Dryden Vos puts too-fine a point on this: Beckett knows what the cost of failure is and he knows that the Marauder are going to scavenge the shit out of his haul — so why didn’t he factor the Marauders into his plans? At all? In any way? Just a bit?
It’s a synecdoche, I tells ya: if you’re going to commit to a plan, but aren’t willing to adapt that plan so that there’s room to improvise and improve the original idea — why do it?
In addition to hitting me upside the head with a rolled-up newspaper and asking me to get on your lawn (Hm hm, you cheeky old lech), can you give me some backstory about the production’s many difficulties? I feel like you know this stuff a lot better than I do, and I bet your eerie zen stance about the film hails from these so-called “lowered expectations” of which you spake.
Arikan: Well, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were hired to direct the film, and when their comedic, improv-heavy approach fell afoul of Lawrence and Jon Kasdan’s (the screenwriters) vision, and Lucasfilm fired the pair. This was last June, around five months into the shoot and eleven months before the film was scheduled to open. Ron Howard was quickly brought in as a replacement, and is said to have reshot most of the film. At least that’s the official story, but even then, the implication of major backstage problems is obvious. Lucasfilm has had a slew of such difficulties: Rogue One was “rescued” on the cutting room floor by Tony Gilroy (who also shot a bunch of scenes including the new ending). Josh Trank’s Boba Fett movie was jettisoned until very recently when it seems to have gone back on schedule with James Mangold in the director’s chair. Colin Trevorrow and his writing partner Derek Connolly left Episode IX and were replaced by J.J. Abrams, who apparently discarded their original draft and did a page one rewrite. It’s just been very chaotic behind the scenes. Funnily enough, Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi seems to be the only one of these new films that was relatively smooth sailing until release.
It seems like Star Wars is such a precious commodity that Disney and Lucasfilm are second guessing themselves at every turn — the prequels are regarded as disappointments in the pop culture zeitgeist (even though they made billions), and there is a sense of walking on eggshells when it comes to producing these movies. That’s why there is a constant sense of choosing the path of least resistance. Even The Last Jedi ends on a note that practically finds the Rebels at pretty much the same point as the first movie. Disney and Lucasfilm seem to be opting for comfortable, reassuring choices. And while that can be grating in the saga films, that approach works wonderfully in Solo because of the lower stakes. Yeah, we get a few Easter eggs here and there, but the story itself is completely different from ones we’ve seen before. In that respect, Solo is almost subversive: it feels like a fan-friendly, pandering cash-grab, and even though it is patently a Star Wars movie, underneath the Mandalorian armours and the Aurra Sing and Bossk reference. It’s also different sort of movie, but it’s definitely a Star Wars movie.
I guess the key point is that the Skywalker saga feels so intimately Lucas to me (even when others actually wrote the dialogue, directed, etc.), that it’s hard to accept any other hand at that. George Lucas’ own conflicts with his father, his outlook on life and filmmaking as it evolved through the years, his latter-day growth as a family man and the importance of his children, his identity as a captain of industry reconciling itself with his Marin County artist persona … All this stuff informs the Skywalker saga much more so than Joseph Campbell or Akira Kurosawa. But that’s just not the case with Han and Chewie. Sure, there are bits of Lucas in Han (the love of fast vehicles, his aspirational self-image as a cool kid, etc), but he seems to belong as much to Kasdan (and Leigh Brackett and Irvin Kershner and Richard Marquand) as he does to Lucas.
Perhaps that put some people off. I mean, the powers that be didn’t do themselves any favors by releasing a new Star Wars film five months after the last one and in the middle of a crowded frame. But perhaps large chunks of the Star Wars audience have been hardwired to expect mysticism, Jedi, Sith, ponderousness, etc., and maybe the masses just aren’t into a sprightly crime caper that doesn’t have (much) of that stuff? The kids who grew up with the prequels and the Clone Wars and Rebels have equated Star Wars with mystic shenanigans. And they are just not responding to this more secular tale. Might that be the case for you?
Abrams: That’s an interesting question (i.e.: I don’t have an answer prepared for it). I definitely agree that we are moving away from Lucas’s vision of Star Wars lately, but I also don’t think that’s why I disliked Solo. I didn’t really feel like Solo was a drastic departure from the previous Lucas movies. Its creators also successfully conveyed their love for by-now dated ’50s pop culture–westerns, horror comics, adventure serials–that I’ve also fallen in love with because Gen Xers loved it before me, and because I, a Millennial, am still rooting around in your vast pop cultural landfill.
Still, the idea of Solo as a relatively atheistic Star Wars story is interesting. I think Solo is more cynical than the other Star Wars films because it constantly sells a pessimistic outlook — don’t trust anybody, Han! — but then ultimately hops back on the post-Lucas Star Wars films’ secular translation of The Force: there is something out there that’s bigger than you, and if it can’t be God, then it must be progressive political ideals. That’s not an ignoble goal, particularly given our current administration’s supporters and poorly-disguised prejudices.
But if the politics of rebellion are the pill that Solo is smuggling amidst so much shitty peanut butter (Peter Pan, not Jif), then I’d much rather dry-mouth the damn thing. There’s a sentence that can’t be made awkward when read out of context. Or even within context.
Look, I think you get what I mean, but I’ll give you a stupid example anyway: I really hated the droid rebellion. Much like our discovery of the Marauders’ goody-goody political leanings, this pseudo-tragic slaughter felt rushed and inconsequential. I mean, there was something like three scenes with the Marauders…but poof, they’re significant at the end! Really? Same goes for L3-37’s political ravings about her fellow droids’ autonomy: this felt like a joke whose punchline is the character’s foregone murder (also, tangent: did she HAVE to be saved in the end? This ret-con is so dumb and useless.). It was also like the death of Rio Durant (Jon Favreau), a character whose death was presaged by the oldest cliche in the book: the guy says “Oh, wow, I know exactly what I’m gonna do when I retire,” then bites it minutes later. The Simpsons made fun of this very trope, and that show is pop culture’s gospel! But nooo, the Solo guys went ahead and killed four-armed, no-haired Rocket Raccoon Lite anyway. Same thing with L3’s death: she believes in something, so she must die to light a fire under our heroes’ collective asses.
This is annoying because they’re pretty up-front about how little L3-37’s politics mean to them: the premium she puts on inter-species equality would at least sound relatively noble if it was espoused by a human character. Instead, a robot is the most revolutionary character in the film because wacky schmacky doo, Solo is the film where allegiances are tested, and some self-interested antiheroes (ie: Lando) turn tail and flee while others (ie: Hans Orzo, my mother’s inimitable nickname for the character) stick their neck out for the right cause. Still, while one might argue that politics aren’t really the forte of a decades-old space opera franchise that began as a tribute to Buck Rogers and other crude sci-fi serials…that’s where we are. And if you’re going to go there, and feel compelled to smuggle politics into your space western using a sacrificial robo-lamb whose humanity is only found after her shrill sermonizing makes her a walking punchline — not to mention that Lando (apparently?) sexed L3-37 up, but doesn’t even seem to be embarrassed by his affection until her death — then I dunno, maybe don’t bother? I feel like Solo‘s creators tried to have it all ways: this film’s got small stakes (but with a big heart)! It’s a western (with comic relief)! It’s character-driven (but has an instantly forgettable supporting cast of dozens)! And it’s not about the end of the world/saving of the galaxy (until the very end, when it most definitely is about that)! Pick a lane, and drive in it!
OK, now that I’m off your Christmas card list: do you think Solo‘s by-now much-speculated-on box office, uh, failure will lead to any major changes for the coming Star Wars side-quels? Is that even a word? And did you like the cast’s performances? What do you want to talk about, you have the floor.
Arikan: I enjoyed the performances – everyone does a great job. I mean, these films aren’t known for scaling thespian heights so with that caveat, everyone does a good enough job. Despite what some people say, I found Donald Glover to be trying a bit too hard as Lando, going at times for mimicry. He’s good, but he doesn’t naturally envelope his character the way Alden Ehrenreich embraces Han Solo. It’s his movie.
Oh, and the fact that Han is a scoundrel with a heart of gold is consistent with his characterization in the original trilogy, boychik (if anything, it’s The Force Awakens that misreads him). He’s done horrible things to survive, but he is an antihero as much as these films can allow you to have one. In this movie, we see Han adopting a crew that’s at the end of their career. It’s not just Rio who speaks about it – both Val and Beckett mention that they’re going to do one last job and retire. Of course, that’s not gonna happen for two reasons: one, in these sort of films, that one last job is always going to be the death of the people who make pronouncements. And two, it works as a contrast to what Han, later in his life, demonstrates — when he becomes a selfless hero for a cause that’s much greater than him. He is surrounded in this film by selfish assholes — except for Chewie. And, you know what, Lando.
I get that you were pissed off by L3-37 and the way she was used in the film, but it’s clear from the get-go that she has a special bond with Lando. I think this film does a much better job in the Kessel rebellion scenes of alluding to colonialism, exploitation, and resource-politics than The Last Jedi and its confused intergalactic Monte Carlo sequence. Of course this is a Star Wars film and it’s silly to expect it to go full-on Battle of Algiers on us, but the droid and Wookiee rebellion work well within the confines of the film’s story.
I don’t quite agree that it’s just narrative shorthand to bring about some chaos to get the action rolling. Chewie goes back for the emaciated and enslaved Wookiees; Han can’t leave Chewie behind, and Lando refuses to let L3-37 die on the battlefied. And that’s all because L3-37 puts her money where her mouth should be, instigates a rebellion when given the chance, and is finally martyred for the cause. And even in death, she is useful as her databanks are transferred to the Falcon. The film doesn’t bludgeon you over the head with a couple of verses from The Internationale, and its politics are not refined or subtle, but that sequence is totally in service of the characters. Besides, droids as second (or third class) sentient beings is an interesting angle for the future.
But what will that future entail now that Solo is a box-office disappointment? The Solo ending sets up for a sequel or two, but it’s doubtful that Lucasfilm will be interested in telling that story. I have a feeling we won’t be seeing many stand-alone Star Wars stories again – except, perhaps, for an Obi-Wan movie set between the two trilogies. David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are working on a trilogy, and Rian Johnson will write and direct his own trio films set in the Star Wars universe. A new cartoon has been announced (barf) and Jon Favreau is going to oversee a live-action Star Wars TV show. All this, of course, will come after Abrams’ Episode IX, scheduled for Christmas 2019.
That’s a lot of, goshdarnit, content. And that seems to be the main problem with Star Wars. It just doesn’t feel special anymore. There used to be three years between the films, and there was a sixteen-year gap between the trilogies. Star Wars had become a legend. Until this weekend, it was running the risk of becoming just another blockbuster, and I am sorry to see that’s now a fact. I wish Disney would take a step back from the franchise after Episode IX. A few years of introspection might do this franchise a hell of a lot of good. And then maybe kick off the next phase with a new film, but an old name. Yes, bring back George Lucas to direct one of these films. I am certain that he has no such intentions, but crazier things have happened. After all, only a few years ago, we were all convinced we had seen the last ever Star Wars movie.