Magazine | June 25, 2018, Issue

Meager Competence

Alden Ehrenreich and Joonas Suotamo in Solo: A Star Wars Story (LucasFilm Ltd.)

Sometimes you just have to stop watching. I figured that out after the first Hobbit movie. Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy was a peak moviegoing experience — a childhood classic brought to life more beautifully than anyone could reasonably expect. But after Part One it was clear that the Hobbit movies were going to be bloated and disastrous; why give them the power to retrospectively taint Jackson’s prior achievement? I didn’t; I just stopped watching, without a trace of regret.

But I haven’t ever managed that kind of self-discipline with Star Wars. The George Lucas prequels were terrible, a crime against the originals, but I still watched them all. Then came the Disney expansion, which promised to replace the ambitious dreadfulness of Lucas’s prequels with something slick and mediocre. And exactly that has come to pass: We’re four movies into the Disney era and they’ve given us one pretty good addition to the saga (Rogue One) and one interesting recurring character (Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren); the rest of the new material is either disposable or (in the case of last autumn’s The Last Jedi, especially) an active assault on the continuity and plausibility and mystery of the galaxy far, far away.

So to add up, that’s seven new Star Wars movies and counting since 1999, with only one that’s halfway worthy of the originals. Which suggests that maybe it’s time for fans to find some self-discipline and just stop showing up.

Apparently a lot of people have finally found that self-discipline with Solo, the latest stand-alone installment from the Disney team, which appears to be bombing at the box office in a way that no Star Wars installment has before. In a way it’s unfair for the Han Solo origin story to be the first to suffer this fate, since Solo is hardly aggressively offensive; indeed, it’s better than it should be, given a troubled production history in which the co-directors had to be replaced by Ron Howard midway through, and better in certain ways than the worst of the recent films.

It doesn’t tediously remake an original, the way The Force Awakens did, and neither does it render all the original trilogy’s drama moot, in the way of the idiotic political-military plotting in The Last Jedi. No Death Stars or Death Star knockoffs are blown up. The Force isn’t even mentioned. You can feel Disney and its screenwriters groping for some kind of originality, some pathway out into a wider universe than the predictable one they’ve so far put onscreen.

But the movie still can’t escape the sense of shrunkenness and repetition that now defines the Star Wars cosmos. We don’t know much about Han’s backstory in the original movies, but we hear enough to assume that it’s interesting — he did the Kessel Run (whatever that is) in a famous way, he won the Millennium Falcon from Lando Calrissian, he picked up a Wookie as his co-pilot somewhere, and he developed a hardened cynicism about galactic politics.

In the imagination those details can be fleshed out to fill a smuggler’s lifetime, but in Solo they’re all compressed into not only a single movie but a single heist-and-gangsters plot. In the space of what seems like a few weeks of galactic time, we watch the young Han (Alden Ehrenreich, not as bad as I feared) escape life as an imperial infantryman, meet Chewbacca, join a gang of smugglers (led by Woody Harrelson), meet Lando (an excellent Donald Glover), rob Kessel and escape, and win the Falcon. Each sequence is reasonably entertaining, but the effect is to make Han’s past seem like a box-checking exercise — and worse, one that doesn’t even produce the cynical character we know and love.

Instead, despite a lot of cynical bravado, this movie’s Han is just a good guy from start to finish — yet another up-from-nowhere hero, albeit from the alleys of a shipping hub this time instead of a desert planet, who’s constantly making idealistic decisions and taking big risks for causes he admires and people he loves (notably a fellow street rat turned gang moll played by Emilia Clarke, a.k.a. Daenerys Targaryen).

I guess we’re supposed to think that having some of those people and causes let him down will eventually turn him into the mercenary we meet in the Mos Eisley cantina; the movie does end with a standoff in which he plays to future-Han type and actually shoots first. But as John Podhoretz noted in his Weekly Standard review, “the Han we know and love from the original Star Wars movies is someone who sticks his neck out for the first time when he shows up in the last act to help blow up the Death Star and transforms his life as a result.” A movie that’s nothing but young Han stealing from bad people for a good cause does not set up that future transformation; it just weakens it, and for no good reason except that the people making these movies don’t know how to tell a story unless their hero is a rebellious outsider with a heart of gold.

The ultimate effect of this unoriginality (if I may unoriginally steal a point from the Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg) is to make one almost appreciate the bloated Lucas prequels, which at least had gonzo tragic ambition alongside their utter narrative incompetence. Solo, despite its pre-production troubles, is nothing but competence: The action sequences work, the actors’ dialogue is fine, the story moves along. But it has nothing new to offer, nothing to add to what we’ve seen before, and the fact that it’s trying to be a little different only makes the sameness that much worse.

So maybe it’s a natural place for audiences to finally jump ship, because in a way watching a flat-out failure isn’t as depressing as the realization that this level of mediocrity might be as good as Star Wars gets.

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