The Fault In Our Star Wars
Beware spoilers for Solo: A Star Wars Story
Solo: A Star Wars Story looks to be the first ever Star Wars film to bomb. This is hardly surprising, the film is awful. It isn’t as heinously bad as The Last Jedi - nothing will ever come close to that - it’s just that Solo is…boring. Tedious. For something that is supposed to be entertaining it is anything but. Watching it is a chore. For almost the entire duration of the film I found myself wishing that it would end. It is the opposite of entertainment.
The problem is that ever since Disney acquired the license to Star Wars this seems to be par for the course. One can now confidently walk into a Star Wars film with the expectation that it will be bad. Not flawed or lacking or flat but objectively bad. As in it’s abundantly clear that the people making them have no idea how to write a script, or perhaps that the Disney branding juggernaut bowdlerised said script into a soulless husk.
The new Star Wars films are fundamentally lacking in the basics of storytelling.
Whilst writing as a craft is a creative endeavour, and enjoyment is an inherently subjective experience, there are certain rules which must be followed for a story to work. George Lucas, for all his faults, understood this when he rebranded the monomyth and built an empire. The new quote unquote “writers” of these films do not.
The Force Awakens was a mess. Stuck in a limbo between striking out on its own and bridging the gap between the old fans and the new, it’s a film which attempts to appease everyone and ends up pleasing no one. It’s big and it’s flashy, with a lot of sound and fury but ultimately signifies nothing. It’s a patchwork of cool individual scenes cobbled together into the barest semblance of narrative. But that’s what we knew we were getting when JJ Abrams signed on to create it - he has a track record of creating cool concepts and developing mystery only to forget about them when the plot becomes too complicated (did the numbers in Lost ever turn out to mean anything?).
Perhaps I’m being too harsh on TFA, after all it’s not JJ’s fault that Rian Johnson burnt it to the ground, pissed on the ashes and then threw them to the wind.
Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi is objectively the worst film ever made. I’ve been over this before and covered it at length and everyone is sick of me harping on about it, so I’ll be brief here. The Last Jedi is, without a shadow of a doubt, the worst film ever made. Worse than Gigli. Worse than Alien Opponent. Worse than anything. In fact it is so bad, it gets everything so wrong, that if I were to teach a course on film writing it is the only material I’d need. If you want to make a good film then think “what would Rian Johnson do?”, do the exact opposite and you’ll have a decent product. There are so many plot holes that the script looks like a colander. The entire narrative depends on every character making the worst possible decision at the worst possible time. The most proactive character was prevented from doing anything. Finn’s character arc was identical to the previous film. Canto Bight happened. The hyperspace thing happened. Snoke happened - a plot point that could only possibly have occurred if Rian Johnson was deliberately telling fans to go fuck themselves. It is the worst movie ever made.
(I’ll pause here for a note on critiquing the new Star Wars films. Much has been said of the backlash against The Last Jedi and the fandom’s rejection of it. A sizeable portion of Star Wars fans, their venn diagram overlapping with Incels and Red Pills, has taken to social media to express their outrage at the female presence in the films, so much so that those stars have withdrawn from social media. This is vile and disgusting, to be sure, and I can’t really add anything to the debate at this point, but I’ll mention that their behaviour makes it harder to express a negative opinion regarding the films without being tarred with the same brush.
For instance Rey is a terrible character. One of the worst written characters I’ve ever encountered in film. I express this opinion with no malice towards Daisy Ridley. I like Daisy Ridley. I think she’s extraordinarily talented as an actor and that she does an amazing job rising above the material that she’s given. But it is hard to critique the character that she plays without being accused of attacking the actor. Rey is everything a writer is told not to do with a character. She never struggles. She never falls. She never doubts or has reason to doubt. The only time we ever see her in a moment of weakness is when she’s sad and lonely in her AT-AT hut. From then on she goes full Mary-Sue.
She’s a competent and accomplished scavenger. This is reasonable, it’s her job. We see on Jakku that she’s a fearsome fighter, able to hold her own against multiple opponents. Fair enough, we can accept that, it’s a rough neighbourhood. She’s also a brilliant pilot, even though we aren’t told how she acquired those skills. This is getting harder to believe. Then we learn that she’s incredibly powerful in the Force. Well, I guess that’s how the Force works. Then she learns how to use the Force without tutelage at an incredible and exponential rate, so much so that she accomplishes feats that we’ve previously only seen Jedi Masters perform in her second day as a Jedi. She bests Kylo Ren, one of the most powerful Force users in history, in a mind duel without any apparent effort. She breaks free of her incarceration without any effort at all. She beats Kylo Ren in a duel. She beats Luke Skywalker in a duel. She beats Snoke’s guards without much effort, and absolutely no training. She effortlessly levitates a quarry worth of rocks a week after finding out she’s Force sensitive, when Luke could barely summon his lightsaber in the Wampa cave at the same level of training. Rey never, ever fails and never, ever earns her victories. When Luke ran off from his training it costs him his hand and his best friend, when Rey ran off and confronted Snoke/Ren she won without breaking a sweat then swooped down in the Falcon to save the day. She is a truly awful character - and that has nothing to do with the actor portraying her.)
Even Rogue One, a film I personally adore and enjoy immensely, is not without its problems. I love almost everything about it but Jyn Erso is a passive protagonist. The first half of the film lacks punch. The whole thing snowballs once it hits the threshold, and it’s awesome, but it takes a bit to get cooking.
Rogue One is also somewhat tainted by the other films. I came out of Rogue One with hope for the franchise. Here, finally, was the Star Wars movie that I’d been waiting for since I was a kid. Here, finally, a film delivered what the prequels had promised. The future was bright. Then along came The Last Jedi and shat on everyone’s dreams.
Which brings us to Solo. Solo is poorly written (which is surprising given the pedigree of the writers) and it suffers from it.
The problem with Solo is change. Drama is built on two things: conflict and change. While Solo has conflict (if I’m being generous), what it doesn’t have is change. It is missing one of the most fundamental elements of storytelling.
Writers are taught that there are two kinds of change - the Everyman and the Superman. The everyman is someone like Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. He is the embodiment of personal change. At the start of the tale he’s a grumpy old man with no love in his heart but over the course of the story, through personal trials and revelations, he becomes a better person. He hasn’t changed the world but he has changed himself.
The other end of the spectrum is the Superman, best embodied by, well, Superman. Superman is always Superman. He doesn’t change. He’s the paragon of truth, justice and, depending on the time period, the American Way. He’s the same character at the start of the story that he is at the end. Maybe we reveal more about that character, or why he is that character, but he is always that character. The important thing though is that while Superman doesn’t change, he changes the world. Things are different for everyone at the end of the story. Superman defeats Zod. He saves the world. People know about aliens from Krypton etc. Nothing is the same - the universe at the end of the film is different to the one at the beginning and things can never be the same again.
And therein lies the problem with Solo. It has neither of these elements.
We already know Han Solo. We met him in 1977 in a Mos Eisley cantina. When we meet him he’s a jerk. He’s a smart arse jerk, perhaps even a charming jerk, but he’s a jerk. He’s cynical and jaded and interested only in his own self interest. Over the course of the film, and more so during the events of Empire and Jedi, we learn that Han is actually a decent person. He’s a loveable rogue with a heart of gold who overcomes his selfish cynicism to become a freedom fighter and hero of the rebellion. It’s a good character arc, we like watching Han change. We like watching him grow. It’s a large part of why the original trilogy was so compelling.
Contrast that with Solo.
At the beginning of Solo, Han is a loveable rogue with a heart of gold, who risks his life to save his girlfriend. At the end of the first act he’s a loveable rogue with a heart of gold who risks his life to save Chewbacca. During the second act he’s a loveable rogue with a heart of gold who risks his life to save his crew. At the climax of the film he’s a loveable rogue who risks his life for everyone and gives up a fortune to help the rebellion because…reasons.
He does not change at all. Not a bit. He is exactly the same character that he was at the start. Of course somewhere between the end of Solo and the start of A New Hope, Han has a complete about face and turns into the roguish dick that we’re familiar with, but we don’t get to see it. We don’t know what drove him to that point. The problem with Solo is that through the entire film he’s the character that we know from the end of Return of the Jedi. In comedy parlance it’s a callback to a joke that hasn’t been told before.
This could be forgivable if Han had actually done something through the course of the story. If he’d taken the Superman path, but he doesn’t change anything there either. At the start of the story the Empire and the cartels rule the galaxy, good people are forced to do bad things and his lady love is snatched away from him. At the end of Solo the Empire and the cartels rule the galaxy, good people are forced to do bad things and his lady love is snatched away from him, though this time for a less believable reason. Nothing has changed.
All of this is bad storytelling. By ignoring the basic fundamentals of writing a story we end up with the dross that is the new Star Wars franchise. Solo was bad. The Last Jedi was bad. In all likelihood the next episode will be bad. Because Lucasfilm, and by extension Disney, doesn’t care about storytelling. They don’t give a rats about weaving a narrative, all they want is an opportunity to push merch.
Which is a shame because Solo offered such an amazing opportunity. It could have been a rich and fulfilling tale about the genesis of one of the most iconic characters in cinema history. It could have been amazing. But it wasn’t.
Show me how Han became the man he is in A New Hope. Show me why he’s cynical and jaded. Show me what happened to him to turn him into the man who walks away from the rebellion with his cash reward and why it means something that he comes back.
Show me Han as a street rat forced to join the Empire to escape life in the slums, just like Solo. But then show him in the Empire. Make him believe in the Empire. Instead of an offhanded reference to him being demoted for insubordination have him be a model officer. The ideal Imperial. Show him as a xenophobe who truly believes that aliens like wookiees are inferior to humans. Show me that he thinks that it’s right that they’re enslaved, that in his mind they’re no better than beasts. Then show him getting to know the wookies. By being forced to interact with them his worldview is challenged and ultimately shattered. He changes. He realises that the Empire is evil. He knows that he has to get out. He rescues some wookies, though he can’t save everyone. He becomes an outlaw. He has nowhere else to turn so he uses his skills as a pilot and an officer to become a pirate, a smuggler. A damn good one. Maybe he finds others like him, idealists who wish to fight the Empire. He joins them for a time but they’re defeated. Or they betray him. Regardless the result is that he realises that fighting for a cause is futile, that the only way to make in this galaxy is to look out for yourself and make the best with the hand that you’re dealt. Belief is just a fast track to pain.
That sets him up to become the character we meet in A New Hope. That shows change and growth and development. It’s a character arc. It’s drama. It is interesting, which is something the Solo: A Star Wars Story was not.
The new Star Wars films are terrible. Not because they’re too different from the films we grew up with, not because they’re too similar to the films we grew up with or any of the other reasons that the apologists concoct - they are terrible because they are poorly written and poorly made. That much is fact. You are free to enjoy them, of course, enjoyment is a deeply personal thing, but that doesn’t mean they were well crafted.