Seemingly Unnecessary Prequels
Sequels are so 20th century; in the 21st, we supposedly want origin stories. Starting with the relative disappointment that is Disney’s new “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” Chance and Noah look at other more or less successful prequels: “Red Dragon” (prequel to “Silence of the Lambs”) and “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” (prequel to the Harry Potter films). The guys pick apart what makes these films nominally successful or totally grating: How many links does one need to the films that came before? How much world-building must occur to have these films stand alone? And is it possible to make a prequel that isn’t a shameless money grab?
To help answer those questions where Star Wars is concerned, Film School Rejects’ John DiLillo joins Chance in a conversation about “Solo” and all the meaning wrapped up in its big cameo. Read John’s terrific piece on the Star Wars universe shrinking here.
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During a month when Marvel frosted yet another layer of its ever-growing intellectual property cake, Star Wars finds itself in a comparatively more interesting place, at least for now. With December’s The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson suggested new ways forward — ”let the past die; kill it if you have to” — to the delight of many critics and to the chagrin of many turbo-fans who seem to believe the making of new Star Wars movies should be a match game with the stories and rules already in their minds. (If you remember our Last Jedi review, you know where we fall on this issue.)
But just because Kylo Ren spoke it doesn’t make it company policy. Solo is Disney’s most blatant attempt to look backward, not forward and to capitalize on nostalgia since, uh, remaking all its animated classics as uncanny faux-live action from now until the earth goes dark.
If you think about it, Solo is basically trying to recapture the shruggy, masculine appeal of one man’s acting from 40 years ago. Sounds fun in a hopeless kinda way, no? The creeping doubt that Hail Caesar! standout Alden Ehrenreich might not have the swagger of 1977 Harrison Ford permeated the film’s marketing campaign. Ehrenreich barely spoke in the trailers, perhaps the most malignant symptom of a well-publicized production battle that saw Lego Movie and 21 Jump Street creators Lord & Miller removed from their directing chairs and the preeminently above-average Ron Howard installed.
Well, the nerves about whether this Solo has the goods stretch past the trailers and into the film’s first act. Howard opens in a bizarrely murky visual of Han’s home planet as well as in a subsequent battle scene, like the movie is deliberately stalling to stop us from getting a clear look at the smuggler-to-be.
Surrounded by smaug and darkness, Solo and his teenage flame Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) might as well have stepped out of a Springsteen ballad. They just want to get out of New Jersey and away from the old man, though in this case, New Jersey is Corellia and the old man is an amphibian gangster called Lady Proxima holding Han and Qi’ra in a life of indentured street crime. Anyway, the movie opens with a pretty loud, just adequately directed speeder chase that lets you know Han already has some piloting chops and that this plan of theirs is probably not going to work out as they’d hoped. Through the opening, Han is more sentimental than winning. Really, he’s more Luke than Han. We gotta hit the space highway, baby. What’s that, baby? We’re doomed to be separated? No, baby!
The plot going forward is at once pretty unimportant to me but very important to the movie, so I’ll keep it vague. Han falls in with some space tuffs. His wisecracking becomes more of a consistent personality trait. His hair looks terrific the whole time. He meets Chewbacca and Lando. You spend a lot of time wondering when the movie will finally lay down its sabbac hand to reveal either an Indiana Jones flush or a Young Indiana Jones bust.
Ultimately, Ehrenreich is just fine when the script is on his side. When the 28-year-old actor can play up Han’s growing nonchalance with death, he feels about like the guy who ran down that Death Star hallway after the platoon of Stormtroopers only to hightail is back the same way he came. But when the camera pulls in tight on his face, tees up a quip, and he has to spout off something like, “Yeah, that’s it, baby!” you understand why the movie hedged its bets by advertising an ensemble and really playing up Donald Glover’s Lando. You can pitch anthology stories until the banthas come home, but you can’t bottle and sell charisma.
As for how this movie fits into the increasingly nebulous idea that is the ol’ War in the Stars, it’s a mixed bag on that front too. Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan’s script makes a few observations about Han that feel surprisingly well studied, namely that the people close to him always know him better than he knows himself. He is, after all, the guy who’s always packing up to save his skin but ends up helping the cause. What’s more, a couple of the additions to the Solo mythology, like an unexpected explanation of why the Millenium Falcon is such a damn good ship, are so thoughtful and well-integrated as to actually be touching to a Star Wars nut.
But then, there’s the universe building, which is actually more like universe linking. And it’s beyond distracting. There’s just so little objective reason to draw out connective tissue between this standalone folktale and the canon. It’s fussy and extraneous, yet doesn’t believe itself to be extraneous, and to extend the Springsteen metaphor, it’s like someone called in Brian Eno to produce Born To Run. When the movie starts trying to establish Solo’s connection to the birth of the Rebellion, it’s like they’re shoving their Star Wars bona fides in your face when you were just trying to watch a movie.
Broadly, moments like these are just fan service, but they feel more motivated by a sense of fear, fear that people won’t want to watch movies anymore if they don’t explicitly relate to something they already like. So while a heavy-handed reference to Jabba the Hutt may seem harmless enough, bringing it up twice lands as the most anxious of box-ticks.
Honestly, where’s the fun in telling this story if you can’t have the confidence that most moviegoers will already be on your side? This is a bumpy leap to hyperspace and a bad-good to be sure. The relationships are compelling enough. It’s intermittently quite fun. But isn’t what’s so appealing about Harrison Ford’s Solo that he came along for the ride while ostensibly not caring all that much? A Han Solo movie oughta have a little more Han Solo in its attitude. Instead, this movie feels like it was made by a team of C3POs, fluent in six million Star Wars references, fundamentally worried about the odds.
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Be Reel is a movie reviewing & reappraising podcast hosted by Chance Solem-Pfeifer and Noah Ballard.
Each time out, we select three movies based around a genre and call up guests ranging from submarine captains to Oscar winners. Then, we rate the movies, weighing both technical quality and entertainment.
Noah and Chance are old friends who mostly respect each other’s opinions. Even though Chance is a fool and a traitor. Find their show presented at ThePlaylist.Net and follow them on Twitter for the latest on Noah’s literary agenting and Chance’s work in the Portland arts scene.