Some Modest Blows Against the Empire: Gary Westfahl Reviews Solo: A Star Wars Story

Despite all the negative publicity surrounding the film, I think I actually enjoyed Solo: A Star Wars Story more than Disney’s other recent additions to this venerable franchise. For one thing, in contrast to other Star Wars films, the fate of the entire universe does not hinge upon whether this film’s heroes escape from their latest predicament, so there are no portentous auras to dampen the film’s sense of humor; true, intimations of the emerging conflict between the evil Empire and the Rebellion eventually emerge, but the focus is mainly upon several scoundrels’ conflicts with the authorities and with each other. This also means that there is some genuine suspense regarding which villains will ultimately demonstrate admirable qualities and which villains will remain despicable, and engaging new characters are introduced to accompany the three returning veterans, Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich), Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), and Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover). Finally, the film admirably does not display the naked desire to promote marketable merchandise that marred its immediate precursor, Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017 – review here). And who can dislike a film that concludes by offering a big thanks to the “Patient and Generous Families of the Cast and Crew”?

Still, this is also a strangely conflicted film, striving to please two disparate audiences in ways that might ultimately disappoint both of its projected groups of viewers. On one hand, since creators needed to meet the expectations of long-time fans, it is a film imprisoned by the history of its franchise, obliged to include certain elements and forced to carefully arrange its events to accord with all of the previous films. Yet it’s also clear that director Ron Howard and screenwriters Jonathan Kasdan and Lawrence Kasdan wanted this to be a different sort of film that could be appreciated on its own terms, entertaining even to viewers who have never seen a Star Wars film. (And yes, such people exist – I’m married to one of them.) But it’s hard to be a servant of two masters, as the film is constantly switching from Something Old to Something New.

In contemplating the ways that this film is predictable, I am reminded that when the Los Angeles Times’s Kenneth Turan reviewed the James Bond film GoldenEye (1995), he commented that the filmmakers obviously felt compelled to take their spy to all of the franchise’s Stations of the Cross, and that now seems to be the case with the Star Wars films. Even before a new film begins, one already knows that it will have a scene at a seedy bar with outré entertainers; one of the villains will be a loathsome monster; there will be a thrilling chase scene in which a spaceship turns sidewise to get through an impossibly narrow corridor; there will be a trusted comrade who, at a key moment, is apparently revealed to be a traitor; there will be a robot that provides comic relief; and there will be a final heroic mission that somehow succeeds despite impossible odds. The opportunities for novelty in all of this are minimal; here, the entertainer is a humanoid singer accompanied by an amphibian in a jar; the monstrous villain looks like an enormous caterpillar; in one case, the spaceship doesn’t quite make it all the way through the corridor; the funny robot is gendered as female; there are actually several scenes in which trusted comrades seemingly turn on their friends; and the final mission is a complete failure – until (surprise!) it transpires that it actually succeeded. (The only suspense involves which other characters from the Star Wars universe will make cameo appearances, so revealing their names would represent the only possible “spoilers” for reviewers to reveal.) Probably imagining that it was the wildest and craziest thing they could possibly do within this confining framework, Howard and the Kasdans have Han Solo remark, “I have a good feeling about this.”

Like Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016 – review here), this film is also a prequel to the original 1977 classic, mandating some specific inevitabilities. We know from the start that Han Solo must come across the Millennium Falcon, and that he and Chewbacca must eventually become its pilots; and, at the key moments when the starship is first observed, and Solo and Chewbacca first take the controls together, John Powell’s score incorporates a bit of John Williams’s iconic Star Wars theme to strengthen the presumed emotional impact these scenes will have for dedicated fans. We also know that all of the characters that join Solo on various missions – his former girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), thieves Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and Val (Thandie Newton), diminutive pilot Rio Durant (voice of Jon Favreau), and robot L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) – must at some point be written out of the story in some fashion so the film can conclude with Solo and Chewbacca as a two-person team. And this is one of the problematic aspects of the film; for unlike the uniformly forgettable new characters introduced in Rogue One, and thankfully excised from the franchise at its conclusion, these characters are strong and likable, and one hates to grow fond of them knowing that at some point they all must be killed or permanently exiled so that the film can be artfully grafted onto the 1977 film.

Another source of tension is the film’s three protagonists. Chewbacca, buried under layers of fur and limited to guttural growls that others must interpret, always seems to be about the same, However, Ehrenreich doesn’t really look like Harrison Ford, and Glover doesn’t really look like Billy Dee Williams, and a decision was made at some point that they shouldn’t be required to act like them either. As a result, people who are familiar with the original trilogy will feel like they are watching different characters who could never mature to become their established namesakes. Ford’s Solo, while not lacking an altruistic streak, was always focused on his own self-interest, and he approached all hazards cautiously. Eidenreich’s Solo, despite a few lines of cynical dialogue, is all too obviously, as Qi’ra observes, a “good guy” through and through, and he seems addicted to taking crazy risks. And while Glover’s Calrissian is genuinely charming, unlike Williams’s Calrissian, he also seems to lack the capacity for heroism that his predecessor would ultimately display in the original trilogy’s third film – indeed, he contributes virtually nothing to Solo’s endeavors. Recalling the recent Star Trek films, it almost seems like this film is taking place in an alternate Star Wars universe, in another galaxy even farther away, with different versions of Solo and Calrissian who nonetheless are ultimately destined to face the same fates as their counterparts.

While it took some courage to veer away from the personalities of the characters they inherited, Howard and the Kasdans could not fundamentally change the parameters of the franchise’s back story, though they endeavor to do so in modest ways. There is a brief encounter with “vacuum-breathing life forms,” and as the objects of value coveted by both heroes and villains, the film introduces the magical substance “coaxium,” which generates enormous energy and explains for the first time what fuels the engines that enable starships to travel faster than light. One might compliment the filmmakers for reflecting contemporary concerns by focusing on the monetary value of an energy source instead of the drugs, weapons, and rare animals Solo had elsewhere been observed smuggling. Yet this “coaxium” is more than vaguely reminiscent of the “dilithium crystals” required by the Enterprise’s “warp drive” which became a recurring McGuffin in the original Star Trek series.

More significantly, it will be recalled that Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015 – review here) began by introducing the heretical idea that Imperial Stormtroopers were actually victims to be pitied, not villains to be automatically opposed, but soon abandoned any concerns about their well-being and went back to gleefully slaughtering them at every opportunity. This film begins by challenging another of the franchise’s longstanding assumptions: that all robots are happy to be servants to humans. Instead, L3-37 vigorously seeks to liberate robots from their human oppressors. Observing two robots battling for the entertainment of observers, L3-37 urges one robot to escape from this humiliating bondage and seek fulfillment on its own. When Calrissian asks her, “Need anything?,” she snaps back, “Equal rights!” And just as Chewbacca interrupts a daring raid on the mining planet Kessel to liberate some enslaved Wookies, L3-37 simultaneously seeks to lead a revolt of their robotic workers, announcing that she has “found her true purpose.” Yet robots in the Star Wars universe must obey human orders; C-3PO can’t tell Princess Leia to go get stuffed while he wanders off to do something he wants to do. Hence, it is not surprising that L3-37 becomes one of the first new characters to be eliminated, and the film proceeds without another mention of the lamentable servitude of robots.

There is another basic, perhaps even crippling, limitation inherent in George Lucas’s franchise that first came to mind due to a trivial observation. Usually, while watching the endless credits at the end of a science fiction film, I wait for the moment when I can jot down the titles of all the old songs that were added to the soundtrack to underline plot points or enhance a scene’s mood; in this case, I realized that I wouldn’t have to, because this film didn’t incorporate any familiar songs. It couldn’t – because Star Wars films don’t take place in our own future; rather, everything happened “A long time ago, in a galaxy far away.” In response, one might say: so what? Does it really matter that Howard, unlike other directors, didn’t have the option of playing the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” (1977) while his heroes were striving to evade some lethal menace? But I believe that this is symptomatic of a larger weakness in the franchise.

For stories can become stronger and more resonant if they draw upon a broader cultural context. As is so often the case, an illuminating contrast to Star Wars is provided by Star Trek. From the start, Gene Roddenberry conceived of the Star Trek universe as the fitting culmination of human history, as its unified Earth and democratic Federation of Planets, filled with technological marvels that improved everyday life, represented the anticipated end result of our long struggle to achieve social and scientific progress. Some of the ways that Roddenberry connected his saga to American history were laughably crude, like having Captain Kirk read the U.S. Constitution to warring aliens or recruit Abraham Lincoln to demonstrate the difference between good and evil, but other writers employed historical figures like Leonardo da Vinci and Amelia Earhart, and references to writers like William Shakespeare and Herman Melville, to more thoughtfully relate Star Trek to humanity’s heritage, and characters regularly employed time travel to visit Earth’s past and learn more about the people and events that helped to shape their own world. One should also note that there are two published books entitled Star Trek and History (1999, 2013), and in an essay recently republished in my co-edited anthology Bridges to Science Fiction and Fantasy, scholar Patrick Parrinder persuasively argues that many of the genre’s greatest works share important qualities with ancient epics that were also closely tied to the history and values of the cultures that produced them.

In the Star Wars universe, it is true, one can observe thinly disguised reenactments of once-commonplace activities on Earth – like the original film’s scenes of World War I aerial combat, or this film’s version of an old western train robbery – but its stories cannot exploit or even mention any specific aspects of human history or culture; the only context it has is itself. This explains why installments of the franchise are becoming increasingly self-referential: what else can its stories refer to? Star Wars films and television series can only remind audiences of previous Star Wars films and television series; so, in an effort to add depth to certain sequences, filmmakers might, say, display the first film’s holographic chess game one more time or bring back a character that no one would expect to see in a given situation. (They also can, and undoubtedly do, include references to the broader Star Wars universe – the television series, the novels, and so on – that I am unable to notice.) The films can also introduce some new things that are consistent with, and similar to, the old things, if they wish to avoid precisely repeating themselves, but these ultimately add little of value to otherwise well-worn tropes.

I have found a different route to a familiar observation – that the Star Wars films are necessarily becoming repetitive – but I have also observed that, just as regular visitors to Disneyland keep going on the same beloved rides again and again, filmgoers may continue to appreciate Star Wars films even as they seem increasingly similar. But this film suggests that there might be one recurring problem: no matter what producers prefer, talented directors will always want to do more than merely repeat what other directors have done. Yet if they start to stray too far from the time-honored traditions, the directors are likely to be fired, like this film’s original directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller. So, perhaps the best that filmmakers can do in this position, as Howard and the Kasdans have done, is to subtly bring in some new elements while making sure that they are strictly temporary, so that the monotonous status quo is restored at the end; but there will always be the temptation to stretch the boundaries a bit more than before. In analyzing future Star Wars films, then, reviewers may find that this ongoing struggle between a rigid franchise and creative filmmakers is far more interesting than the unending battle between the Empire and the Rebellion.

Directed by Ron Howard

Written by Jonathan Kasdan and Lawrence Kasdan, based on characters created by George Lucas

Starring Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson, Joonas Suotamo, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Paul Bettany, Thandie Newton, Erin Kellyman, Ian Kenny, John Tui, Warwick Davis, and the voices of Jon Favreau and Linda Hunt

Gary Westfahl has published 26 books about science fiction and fantasy, including Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits (2005), The Spacesuit Film: A History, 1918-1969 (2012), and A Sense-of-Wonderful Century: Explorations of Science Fiction and Fantasy Films (2012); excerpts from these and his other books are available at his World of Westfahl website (here). He has also published hundreds of articles, reviews, and contributions to reference books. His most recent books are the three-volume A Day in a Working Life: 300 Trades and Professions through History (2015), An Alien Abroad: Science Fiction Columns from Interzone (2016), and the co-edited Bridges to Science Fiction and Fantasy: Outstanding Essays from the J. Lloyd Eaton Conferences (2018). His forthcoming books include Arthur C. Clarke, part of the University of Illinois Press’s Modern Masters of Science Fiction series.

©Locus Magazine. Copyrighted material may not be republished without permission of LSFF.

2 thoughts on “Some Modest Blows Against the Empire: Gary Westfahl Reviews Solo: A Star Wars Story

  • May 29, 2018 at 5:17 pm

    I would agree that STAR TREK has a richer cultural background to draw from and can a wider range of stories. I would only make the point that, to me, the TREK movies suffer from repeating many of the same action-adventure tropes that SW does. On TV, though, with lower budgets and less expectation of visual spectacle, TREK really shines, being able to do everything from social satire to comedies to character studies.

  • June 4, 2018 at 6:29 pm

    You know Avengers: Infinity War recycles Marvel lore and has done well at the box office. Apparently recycling Star Wars lore does not work, kind of passes beyond my understanding. It’s an odd thing now, the biggest dog leg from SW is Rouge 1 and that looks better and better.
    You know all these comic book movies and comic book like movies have exceeded my fun fatigue threshold for arrested adolescence. Alas! We get a good science fiction film for adults, Blade Runner 2049, and it does not break 300 million , sigh.


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