Saturday, June 02, 2018

The Empire Strikes Meh - Disney's Overzealous Mining of Star Wars for Gold Comes up with Lead in Solo

Some may find what I'm about to say shocking and disturbing given that I'm a life-long Star Wars fan. But, as much as I hate to say it, Solo: A Star Wars Story was lame.

Not terrible. I'm not saying this instalment was The Star Wars Holiday Special bad. But, like the Millennium Falcon's hyperdrive grinding to a halt outside the asteroid field when Han, Leia and the gang were trying to escape from Hoth in Episode V, 'Solo certainly failed to live up to its potential.

Admittedly, I wasn't that psyched about the film to begin with. I didn't pay much attention to the hype in the months leading up to its release, was indifferent to the teasers and trailers, and didn't put it at the top of my must-watch-for-the-summer-popcorn-movie-season list. In fact, I went to it on opening night more because I knew the little mom-and-pop theatre down the road wouldn't be crowded than out of service to a lifetime of devotion to the saga. That's because (and again, there may be some members of the fan police out there that might want to tear up my nerd community membership) I think I've hit Star Wars overload. Yes, insert gasp of horror.

Remember when the release of a new Star Wars movie was an event? Remember standing for an hour or more in a line that stretched around the block — even when it wasn't opening night? Remember how Star Wars movies used to only come around every couple of years? Sure, in the late 70s and early 80s, the franchise saturated pop culture with a toy line so extensive that the action figures alone outnumbered the stars in the sky. And yeah, there was the aforementioned 70s variety show-style nightmare of the 'Holiday Special, and the sickeningly cute The Ewoks: Caravan of Courage and The Ewoks: The Battle for Endor, and The Ewoks and Droids Saturday morning cartoons (though Droids had some good moments). Not to mention Marvel's Star Wars comic series, and a handful of media tie-in novels (including Splinter in the Mind's Eye and the Lando Calrissian books). But the movies themselves somehow stood apart. Despite their faults, they were special, and everyone seemed to know it, and they were something to look forward to. They had the feel of being hand-crafted — that there was care that went into the making of them.

That feeling even managed to persist in the late 90s when the original trilogy was rereleased, accompanied by a rapidly growing and increasingly complex Expanded Universe of tie-in novels and (courtesy of Dark Horse Comics) comic series (all of which were promptly rebranded as the "Legends" and erased from the series timeline and relevance when Disney took over), video games and toys. Even the much-debated (and by some — not me — reviled) prequel trilogy instalments were events that were anticipated and had the feeling that genuine care was put into their creation.

But not anymore. Now, Disney — in its quest to cash-in on the franchise as much and as often as possible — is cranking Star Wars movies out so frequently, and with an increasing lack of care for quality, that they feel like they've been churned-out by a fully automated factory. Never mind the current lines of toys and comics (some of which, like Marvel's Darth Vader series, are exceptionally good) and video games, there's the Clone Wars animated TV series that's been running for a decade, and the new raft of movies that have been stampeding into theatres with mechanical regularity for the past few years. The Force Awakens was followed a year later by Rogue One, with The Last Jedi a year after that, and, now, 'Solo less than six months later! And, aside from Episode IX, there are other expanded universe movies in development. Whether you're a dedicated speculative fiction fan or just a normal consumer of pop culture, you can't turn around without stumbling over yet another Disney attempt to separate you from your money under the banner of Star Wars (or its other cash cow, the Marvel movie franchise). Didn't like the last one? Don't worry! They'll serve up another instalment with a different flavour in six months to a year. Loved it? Great! They'll have your next fix ready to mainline in a flash! You can't even catch your breath these days for all the Star Wars coming at you — if not actual movies in the theatres, then TV series or a non-stop barrage of teasers and hype on the 'net. The old cliche is that familiarity breeds contempt. I wouldn't go quite that far with the venerable space saga, but in this case, I think it means that Disney has oversaturated us with Star Wars to the point where the inevitable loss of quality can lead to burnout and indifference.

As for the specifics of Solo: A Star Wars Story falling flat, well, as usual:

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD.

Overall, Solo: A Star Wars Story is choppy and predictable.

Just as bad, it suffers from a lead actor who neither physically resembles Harrison Ford, nor is able to adequately portray the personality of Han. Instead, Alden Ehrenreich looks more like Stephen Billington playing the prince's friend/lover/advisor Phillip in Braveheart (I kept waiting for Patrick McGoohan to appear and chuck him out a window), and comes off as vaguely like a young Christian Slater — if Slater was overly self-aware and trying too hard to play the Solo part as cute rather than his usual edgy delivery or as the worldly, cynical, sarcastic smuggler that we know from the rest of the series. And yes, I know, this is supposed to be a young Han Solo, but given the character's life experiences to date, I'd expect to see more of the Solo we know from the other movies in this performance, rather than what Ehrenreich and director Ron Howard and the Kasdans offer us, which is a personality who feels like he's been lifted from a teen-oriented vampire drama — a weakly-delivered wannabe who the audience just can't take seriously.

And really, if it's more Han Solo that we, as fans, want, then there's no need for this movie at all: we've already been given Malcolm Reynolds in the 2002 TV series Firefly and its cinematic sequel, Serenity. Between Joss Whedon's writing and Nathan Fillion's performance, the portrayal of Mal was close enough to Han (if not exactly the same) to create the same presence and do the job for this type of story damn near perfectly. Even Firefly's train robbery episode was better than 'Solo.

The film also falls all over itself trying to reference as much as possible of the titular character's canon-referenced backstory, like winning the 'Falcon from Lando in a Sabaac game, or making the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs, or freeing Chewie from slavery. It also jams in allusions to all other corners of both the active franchise and its old, cast-off properties, from the name of the swamp planet (which came from Splinter in the Mind's Eye), to Darth Maul being alive and well — if prosthetically enhanced (a resurrection courtesy of The Clone Wars TV series), to the roster of galactic ne'er-do-well names casually mentioned (which, and correct me if I'm wrong, I'm pretty sure included the Tonnika sisters from the cantina in A New Hope). The fan servicing was so over the top that if felt like hand-waving on the part of the director and writers to distract the audience from the shortcomings of the story.

On the positive side, the visuals are stunning (which we'd expect from a Star Wars film), and most of the secondary characters and their actors' performances are pretty interesting (with the exclusion of Rio Durant — John Favreau does a capable job with the four-armed, hairless chimp, but ultimately this character's just a slightly less acidic version of Rocket Raccoon). In fact, I think the film could have been a lot better if more screen time had been devoted to further developing the stories of Chewie, Lando, L3-37, or the others. Donald Glover especially is to be commended for doing a wonderful job of stepping into the role of Lando Calrissian. That said, at times he pushes the character hard against the border of campiness — something that isn't helped by the closet scene aboard the 'Falcon, which makes him come off less like Billy Dee Williams' Lando, and more like Cat from Red Dwarf (seriously, watch that scene again and try not to think of Glover in canine fang caps singing "I'm gonna get you, little fishy!"). Val and Beckett were also great characters — I could have watched a whole movie about them, rather than what was created for Solo.

I just wish that instead of the constant avalanche of Star Wars and Marvel movies, Disney would use its considerable money and talent to offer us a little more variety in its live-action fare. I'd love if The Mouse could give us the third part in the Tron series, or the reboot of The Black Hole (both of which were planned but then shelved when Marvel and Star Wars were acquired), or another John Carter flick, or something totally new. Right now, Disney's going for the safe bet of its biggest properties, and maybe because they're trying to generate so much so quickly, they've finally started to spiral into the singularity of mediocrity. It all smacks of Yogurt's line in Spaceballs: "God willing, we'll all meet again in Spaceballs 2: The Search for More Money".

May the Schwartz be with you.

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