Solo shows us the Dark Side to a Star Wars cinematic universe

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A long time ago… but not so long ago, I was born. It was a time of awkward transition between the Original Trilogy, which I was too young to experience in theaters, and the Prequels, which released only after the formative years of my childhood had all passed by. For myself and many in the same generation, the side stories told of in the Expanded Universe were every bit as much Star Wars as the old movies our parents and older siblings had introduced us to. They were the only new tales being told in a universe which we loved but never imagined we’d see gracing the silver screen. For most it was Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy, the X-Wing and TIE-Fighter games, or the Shadows of the Empire multimedia experience. For myself, it was all about the Tales of the Jedi comics and the Jedi Knight computer games, both of which still hold a place in my heart above many of the films proper.

Yet as fond as we may be for those ancillary tales, most of us – if we had to be objective – would admit that there was a reason they were relegated to being mere supplemental material and not made into movies themselves. There is an evident and enduring quality to the original films that all but the absolute best of the Expanded Universe stories come nowhere close to. I appreciate the attempt made by Dark Forces and The Force Unleashed to pull back the veil on the heist of the Death Star plans, but no amount of nostalgia can blind me to the obvious superiority of Rogue One in fleshing out the same story.

It is with the success of Rogue One – Disney’s first attempt to to replicate with Star Wars their previous success with Marvel in making an entire cinematic universe – that the failings of Solo contrast so sharply.  

An entry in a cinematic universe is, at its essence, serialized story-telling. Like an episode of television, it must stand on its own as well as function as part of a seasonal or series long arc. The Marvel movies are formulaic, but because that formula has been refined to tell satisfying stories, they feel sufficiently self-contained to fulfill the first requirement. And because most are released in more or less chronological order and made with Feige’s template from future installments already planned out, they are able to fulfill that later as well.

Rogue One succeeded for similar reasons. It tells self-contained heist story while at the same time feeling very much felt like a missing Episode 3.9. This is in no small part because it adds an extremely clever new wrinkle to a story fans thought they were familiar with: the notion that the flaw in the Death Star’s design was deliberate sabotage. This imparted the film with the sense that its story was essential to a full understanding of the saga as a whole.

Solo fails in all of these respects. There is no moment of revelation that adds any new wrinkles to the pre-existing story. All of it’s main plot point could already be surmised from information offered in the earlier films. Indeed, that’s all it is: a patchwork of pre-existing backstory stitched together to form a bare-thread plot devoid of humor, heart, or thrills. Nor does it even advance the plot of the Star Wars saga as a whole. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a filler episode of a television show with no relevance to the overarching plot that’s set during a previous season. It’s utterly inessential.

Or perhaps a better comparison would be with the expanded universe material now relegated to the Legends banner. Often little more than authorized fan-fiction, they were more concerned with referencing the pre-existing movies than telling stories which would be worthy of standing alongside them.

Solo is similarly lousy with references in the absence of any and all originality. A fleeting few of these are genuinely clever. Tobias Beckett has in his possession a Crystal Skull, which, had the movie been better, would have proved an excellent dig at the last failed attempt to revive an iconic role played by Harrison Ford. In the same set piece are Mandalorian armor and a Sith holocron. Throughout the film numerous name drops to locales familiar to fans, such as Scarrif and Felucia, though these work more to make the Galaxy far, Far Away seem small than anything else. The Nerfs (sans their herder) on Vandor are both suitable and subtle, while the mention of Teras Kasi makes canon exactly the sort of extraneous elements Disney was right to excise in the first place.

Having not seen any of the trailers or even the poster, I was surprised to see Alden Ehrenreich playing the part of Han. I’d previously only been familiar with him from the phenomenal Cohen Brothers film Hail, Caesar!, where he plays the part of an actor who can’t act. I’d previously assumed that performance was itself an act, but no, he was absolutely being cast to type, as his utter failure to evoke any similarity to Harrison Ford makes painfully clear.  

I was equally surprised to see Daenerys Stormborn, the Unburnt, Queen of the Angels and the First Men, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Breaker of Chains, and Mother of Dragons, also in the film. And Vision from the Avengers. And Woody Harrelson, playing himself. All of the faces are far too famous and familiar, and were the actors and actresses behind those memorable mugs not so skilled, it’d be to the film’s further detriments. Particularly praiseworthy is Troy Barnes as Lando Calrissian, perfectly channeling the spokesman of Colt 45 himself, Billy Dee Williams, almost to the point that I’d consider forgiving him for sailing away from Greendale Community College on the Childish Tycoon with LeVar Burton as his first mate. Almost. Not Quite.

*  *  *

Perhaps the utter dominance of franchise films like Avengers: Infinity War is evidence of the death of cinema, or at the very least the decline of the sort of cinema I personally tend to prefer: smart, original, and made specifically to be viewed in theaters, precisely because it merits one’s undivided attention: films like Pulp Fiction, La La Land, and Baby Driver (seriously, Disney should have bought that script and just changed the character’s name from Baby to Han – would’ve made a way better Solo movie). But films like Rogue One offer counter evidence that it is indeed possible to thread the needle and make films that are cinematic universe entries and true cinema. So far, Disney’s Star Wars anthologies have exemplified both the Light Side and the Dark Side of serialized movie making. Only time and further films will tell which way the balance will ultimately tip in favor of.

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