Sunday, June 10, 2018

Who is Han Solo?

One of the best moments in the history of the Star Wars franchise comes at the end of what they now call Episode Eye Vee: A New Hope. Luke Skywalker, letting go of his dependence on technology and trusting the force to guide him in firing his proton torpedoes, come under the guns of Darth Vader’s tricked out TIE fighter, a moment that threatens to end both Luke and the rebellion forever. Just as Vader lines up his shot, a burst of weapons fire falls from above, destroying the escort fighters and knocking Vader’s ship against the trench wall, sending it careening out into space. The Millennium Falcon comes screaming out of the sunlight, Han Solo quipping “Your all clear kid, now let’s blow this thing and go home.” Luke fires his torpedoes and the Death Star explodes. Happy Ending.

Han Solo, pirate, smuggler, mercenary, having been paid off for his earlier efforts on behalf of the Rebel Alliance, had come back at the last minute to save the day. I never saw it coming. Of course, I was a kid. Maybe to someone with a more sophisticated sense of story and character it would have seemed obvious, but to me, at the time, it was just a great twist. Not an M. Night Shamalama Dingdong plot twist, but just a great twist on the evolution of a character that I thought I understood. Because Han Solo always was and always will be the coolest character in Star Wars. Han shot first. He smiled at the thought of overcharging some crazy old man and some naïve farm boy for passage to Alderaan. Han was the guy who shot up the console when his conversation on the detention level went south. He exchanged the wittiest banter with the feisty princess (who gave as good as she got), and teased Luke about the possibility of “a princess and a guy like me.” Han made it clear that he was in it for the money. Then he left. And I had no reason to expect that he was ever going to come back. 

We always knew that Luke was going to be a dedicated warrior for the rebellion, that guided by Obi Wan and inspired by Leia he would fight against the evil of the Empire no matter what the cost. We always knew that Leia would continue to resist oppression, that she would defy tall men in grey uniforms for as long as she had a voice. We knew that Obi-wan would guide Luke on his journey, even after death. We knew Chewbacca would be forever loyal to Han. And we knew that Darth Vader would enforce the will of the Empire by any means necessary. But what exactly did we know about Han Solo? That he was for hire if the price was right, and that he was not interested in a hopeless rebellion that was likely to get him killed. He had the loot he needed to pay off Jabba and had gotten away scot-free. So why, exactly, did he come back?

Clearly Han had gotten closer to his new rebel friends than he was willing to admit. He had even offered Luke the opportunity to join his crew before he left. And no doubt Chewie had an opinion about abandoning the rebels that ran counter to Han’s first impulse, but it is unlikely that the Wookie would have been able to convince him to go back and help if Han hadn’t truly wanted to. And what did he say after knocking Vader out of the way, “let’s blow this thing and go home.” Han Solo was going home. And he stayed there. He never bothered to take the payment he had received for rescuing Leia to pay off his debt to Jabba. He helped the Rebels evade the Empire and establish a new base. He risked his life a second time for Luke when he went searching for him in the frozen wastes of Hoth. He made sure Leia escaped the Empire. He volunteered to lead a strike team down to the forest moon of Endor, a critical component of the Rebellion’s plan to destroy the second Death Star. Han Solo, a man literally named for his isolation and disconnectedness, was suddenly all in.

The swashbuckling space adventure had little time for character development. It was, for the most part, about moving from one moment of jeopardy to the next. So, we never got any deep insights about what drove these characters. The thing that made Solo more interesting than the others was that we didn’t completely understand his motivations. Was it true love for the feisty princess? A sudden increased antagonism for an Empire that harassed his smuggling operation? A genuine sense of investment in the Alliance’s plan to end oppression and restore the Republic? These movies didn’t have the time to answer such questions. Which was maybe for the best. The prequel films offered little in the way of deep insight when focusing on the emotional foundation of Anakin Skywalker’s transformation into Darth Vader. Sure, we got some superficial “reasons” to explain his descent into the Dark Side (his life as a slave, his mother’s death, his fear over losing Padme, and his sense of entitlement vis-à-vis the Jedi), but there was never any deep exploration of his character or motivations. And maybe Star Wars is incapable of doing such things.

Which brings us to Solo: A Star Wars Story, an opportunity to flesh out the character of Han Solo and give us some insight into his motivations. Just kidding. Star Wars still doesn’t do that. No, Solo doesn’t really explain anything about who Han Solo is. It mostly just shows us events from his past, events that he handles in a manner similar to his later self. We see him collect familiar items (his name, his blaster, his ship) and meet familiar people (Chewbacca, Lando, his ship), but it all seems like so much box checking wrapped up in a couple of dull heist sequences. The chemistry between Alden Ehrenreich and Emilia Clarke is 'meh' at best, so while we get the impression that all of the stuff they go through is important, they never make us feel anything about it. The performances are solid. The set pieces look good. If they weren’t so interminably long they might have even been entertaining. But at the end of the day we really didn’t learn anything new about Han Solo, making me wonder what the point of the film was in the first place.

Oh yeah. It was money. They did it to make money. It didn’t make enough, so they probably won’t do it again.

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