Film & TV

Han Solo: Rebel, Outlaw, American?

Han (Alden Ehrenreich) and Chewie (Joonas Suotamo) in Solo: A Star Wars Story (Jonathan Olley/Lucasfilm)
The latest in the Star Wars franchise virtue-signals on screen and in outer space.

Young Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) smirks when boasting “I’m an outlaw” in Solo: A Star Wars Story. But his ex-girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) corrects him: “No. You’re ‘the good guy.’” The movie really doesn’t deal with that distinction. Instead, the couple’s repartee is a kind of wink at the audience, setting forth simplistic, “just-kidding” terms that many filmgoers agree to without ever questioning.

It’s regrettable that this origin story about intergalactic smuggler Solo, who was first introduced as Luke Skywalker’s rakish role model in the 1977 Star Wars film (A New Hope), refrains from taking its title figure seriously. This episode’s embellishment (going back to show how Solo acquired the Millennium Falcon spaceship and his first encounter with the Rebel Alliance and the Galactic Empire) glosses over the characters’ individual psychological motivations — which only become more muddled and superficial as the franchise continues.

Here’s the series’ political and cultural failure: It began as George Lucas’s superficial post-Vietnam analog for the generation gap: youth against the “military industrial complex” and American expansion, historically speaking. Now that the Disney corporation insists on emphasizing Lucas’s blather about “rebellion,” the series’ oversimplified yet blurred distinctions between outlaw and hero contribute to our culture’s moral instability. This review isn’t for adolescents who just want to hang out at Lucas’s sci-fi cavalcade — the most unrewarding trap in the history of capitalist entertainment. Readers should be wary of Solo: A Star Wars Story for its trifling presentation of Solo’s personal principles — the non-content of his character.

Saying “I’m an outlaw” does not just assert Solo’s brashness; it defines his place in Star Wars’ version of the moral universe by which Hollywood infantilizes its audience. Solo is not just a rule-breaker (“I was kicked out of flight academy for having a mind of my own”) but someone whose masculine bravado we’re meant to admire — and trust — even though he admittedly goes against reliable social standards. His unconscious motivations reflect how we ignore the behavior of public figures who present themselves as social exemplars to children and to the child in us looking for guidance.

The makers of this product are unconcerned with the choices that form Solo’s character. He longs to be reunited with Qi’ra, homegirl from the planet Corellia, but is naïve about her becoming a concubine to the evil Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany). Solo’s bonding with the enslaved Wookiee, Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), and their involvement with veteran robber Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson assuming the scalawag roles Sam Shepherd left behind) and his paramour Val (Thandi Newton, wasted again) are no more than mindless escapades that Ron Howard directs perfunctorily. Solo’s imitation–John Williams music cues us to feel what Howard cannot rouse visually. Even a stunt sequence with a train marvelously zigzagging through snowy mountains is blandly executed. Its elaborate choreography should have made it a classic on par with the opening sequence of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, where Spielberg foreshortened his hero’s backstory into a concise, self-reflexive episode that satirized the derring-do of old-fashioned serials and, simultaneously, Buster Keaton’s The General.

Spielberg rooted Indy in the mythic simplicity of silent slapstick; Howard has never equaled Spielberg’s kinetic genius or sense of humor, which means he fits right in with how the Star Wars franchise reprocesses too much of the same banal stuff. (That’s the Disney credo.) Star Wars fans seem unconcerned with art visually or even what it might possibly say about human nature, so they settle for routine action-adventure rather than meaning. As the franchise is conceived, the suggestion of Qi’ra’s rape and extortion violates the childish tone (unlike Luc Besson’s casually erotic Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets) — and, besides, boyish Solo isn’t prepared to deal with it. Ehrenreich’s anonymous male-ingénu casting doesn’t help. He’s not Harrison Ford, not Warren Beatty, not Jack Nicholson; his broad-faced grin evokes all of them, therefore nothing. The center of Solo is incognito.

During the trademark opening epilogue, Solo is introduced: “On these mean streets, a young man must go . . . ” This is from Raymond Chandler’s famous definition of the modern loner hero:

Down these mean streets, a young man must go, a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor — by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.

The Disney corporation is responsible for how its notion of rebellion (reducing life’s adventure to fighting and revenge) affects the culture.

This is, of course, sentimental, sophomoric nonsense, suitable only for fiction, not the real world — and too many disingenuous movies have used Chandler’s theory as motivation, including several by Solo’s co-screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan. In fact, this notion is left over from Kasdan’s Indiana Jones script, which updated the cool, hip idea that “action is character,” but it no longer applies to the world in which Solo is being sold as a harmless blockbuster.

The Disney corporation is responsible for how its notion of rebellion (reducing life’s adventure to fighting and revenge) affects the culture. Although Solo calls himself an “outlaw,” the movie doesn’t really deal with outlawry, yet its concept sucks up to Antifa. It flatters Millennial audiences, who are largely unschooled in the literary-cinematic history of chivalry, to romanticize their own self-gratifying assumption of virtue-signaling.

Every successive Star Wars movie perpetuates this facetious pact, which takes the fun out of the franchise, keeping it juvenile and deceitful. What good is an outlaw hero in an era that mistakes action (protest and resistance) with ethics? Since 2008, we’ve seen the political promise of “transparency” result in an illusory façade. That’s what “heroism” has become: a pretense.

All the talk of “rebellion” in the Star Wars series means nothing in an age when journalists and public officials hide behind “resistance” to cover up their own betrayal of principles of fairness. In Solo, the hero’s lack of character and his unidentifiable principles now inflame the 21st century.

***

Elle Fanning and Alex Sharp in How to Talk to Girls at Parties (A24 Films)

Two art forms collide in How to Talk to Girls at Parties: punk rock and comic books. But director John Cameron Mitchell fuses them with his own interest in subversive, erotic impulses. The ordinary story of British kid Enn (Alex Sharp), falling in love with alien Zan (Elle Fanning), opens up raucous, exhilarating reflections on youth.

Mitchell’s artistry progresses from the outré exhibitionism of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the audacious Short Bus, and the somber Rabbit Hole to this film’s rough visual poetry. He pays Derek Jarman–worthy tribute to the creative inspiration of Queen Elizabeth’s 1977 Jubilee, shaming the unoriginal conformity of today’s Prince Harry–and–Meghan culture through that unpredictable moment when punk and art clashed. “Rimbaud was a symbolist!” Enn’s best friend declares — a likeably naïve discovery.

Forgotten truths about sexual biology, teenage instinct, self-deception, and social ambition are revitalized in performance-art-style set pieces that often veer into pure cinema. (A chase scene down the wooden staircase of a manor house achieves the dizziness of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.)

Throughout, Zan keeps asking, “What is punk?” She inquires into the nature of being an oddity, of individuality, and of belonging — the essence of romantic love. When Enn idealizes his estranged father as “someone who would never settle for anything,” Zan queries, “Is that why he left you?” Their mutual neediness ignites during a stage improvisation that’s both showbizzy and confessional. Neurasthenic Fanning was never better.

Each character is on the same romantic search: those in the color-coded alien colony, Enn’s mother (Joanna Scanlan), and even punk impresario Boadicea (Nicole Kidman), who struggles with her own estrangement: “I’ve had twelve abortions and nothing to show for it!” she proclaims — believably cynical and regretful. Here’s punk’s danger and risk — minus the fake nostalgia of Todd Haynes’s Velvet Goldmine but with innocence (“I want to kiss you forever but you make me feel shy,” Enn tells Zan) and honesty about its post-Bowie scariness. These kids face up to their own anarchy — a quality missing from today’s exploitive teen flicks. There’s no way a film like this (sometimes as brilliantly weird as Jared Hess’s Gentlemen Bronchos) can ever be popular, but it will be remembered. Its title hits on the essential need that Marvel-comics movies avoid.

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