Once upon a time (in this galaxy, right here), a man you might know named George Lucas once sought to figure out just how much of a live-action shot’s background he could reasonably replace with computer generated imagery…and tell the early-life story of his most famous, non-Star Wars character: Dr. Henry Jones Jr. …“Indiana” to his friends. The result was The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles and (like any series unjustly canceled before its time and continued on with three made-for-TV movies) it was…let’s be nice and say “a mixed bag.”
For reasons that should be pretty obvious , the adventures of Extremely Young Indy – set from 1908 to 1910 – were a lot less memorable than the adventures of Adolescent Indy, set from 1916 to ’20-ish. But even they have their issues. And I’d still argue for the existence of this series in general, because it does answer a dramatic question posed by the previous piece of Indiana Jones media (in release order) Last Crusade. Just how did the son of Henry Jones Sr. turn into the gunfighting, swashbuckling, Nazi-punching, treasure-hunting, orphan-saving, international man of mystery we meet in these films? “Well,” says the series, “at age sixteen, he ran away from home to ride with Pancho Villa, and then survived World War I.” And you know what? That’s a pretty good answer. I’ll take that.
Plus the series taught everyone at ILM some valuable lessons about CGI. That knowledge would go on to inform…the Star Wars Special Editions…and, eventually, the prequels. Nowadays, almost every big budget movie uses some kind of technique that was pioneered by the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. Not that they didn’t make things easy on themself. Looking back on it now, I can see just how much of it was confined to a soundstage. Nonetheless, just like every Star Wars film that would follow after them, they did still occasionally take the time and money to go out into the real world, parts of which can easily pass for the past. Just as they can pass for the most alien of planets. To this day, the stuff they film out there almost always looks better than the stuff they film on sets.
Of course, the whole reason George leaned on the blue- or green-screen set in his later films is because filming outside’s an expensive pain in the ass. Especially when have to make the same movie twice, with two separate directors. For totally avoidable reasons. Which brings us to Solo: A Star Wars Story.
For those who aren’t mired in Star Wars discourse, here’s the cliff notes: George Lucas was apparently working on Yet Another Goddamn Prequel when he sold out in 2012. It was going to be called Outlaws, and it would’ve kicked itself off with what can only be described as The Young Han Solo Chronicles. It would’ve depicted Young Han’s first meeting with Chewbacca. And his legendary, Falcon-winning card game against Lando Calrissian. And because it was written by Officially Good Star Wars Screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan (the writer of Empire), Disney pointedly did not toss that script in the trash when they bought the rest of Star Wars.
Kasdan still had to re-pitch to Disney CEO Bob Iger, but after that perfunctory nod from the Big Boss, all the lights turned green. It seemed the perfect fit for Disney’s Star Wars release strategy: a new, numbered film every second December, with a stand alone “Story” to tide people over in-between, mining what old Obi-Wan called “the Dark Times” for that sweet, sweet nostalgia money.
The hired Gareth Edwards to direct the first Dark Times Story, and while I have my issues with him, at least his moody, faux-docudrama style somewhat fit the subject matter. Assuming, of course, any of the Rogue One that I saw is actually his…and, honestly, I’ve heard some conflicting reports about that. As long as your butt is in the chair for 90% of “principle” photography, they have to put your name on the film. But as we’ve seen over and over again by now (if we’re paying attention) a lot of things can happen between the end of “principle” photography and the release of a “finished” product.
In this case, Disney hired Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the directors of…The Lego Movie. From Lord and Miller’s perspective, I totally get it. The WB likes to talk a good game about how much it loves its “visionary” directors, but to those of us on the outside, it’s clear the thing they really love is throwing “visionary” directors under the nearest bus the moment a test screening goes south. Why not jump ship for the chance to do a Star Wars?
Well, one reason might be that Disney offers no illusions about their relationship with their directors. And they’ve clearly demonstrated in the past that they will fire you the moment you step out of line. And “stepping out of line” can mean anything from “not deleting your old tweets” to “being mad that not everyone liked your shitty Jurassic Park stealth-remake” to “letting your actors ad-lib instead of shooting extra angles to help the editors spice up the action scenes later on,” as was apparently the case here. At one point, Woody Harrelson’s character, Tobias Becket, will tell the Young Han Solo, “Assume everyone will betray you and you will never be disappointed.” Words to live by, in Hollywood and a galaxy far, far away. “Everybody betray me! I fed up with this world!”
Allegedly, (and you should just mentally add “allegedly” to all the statements I’m about to make here, since I’ve heard way too many stories to tell you the truth I won’t be able to go to LA and confirm anything until, like, a thousand more people donate to the Patreon) Laurence Kasdan and his co-writer/son, Jonathan, didn’t cotton to these fun young people messing with their precious words. So they took their complaints up the chain of command and Disney brought the hammer down, replacing Lord & Miller with…Ron Howard. And what can you say, but “okay”? Anything to break the Oscar Curse, right, Ron? Or I guess it’s the Dan Brown Curse, now. Except, really, it’s the curse of monopoly capitalism. If Spielberg says he can’t get any money for anything that’s not a Hasboro toy tie-in, imagine how unkind the last decade’s been to Opie. There will be no more Willowsor Apollo 13s. Probably no more In the Heart of the Seas, either. I mean, a movie based on a book that’s just one, stand-along book? Madness.
Howard (again, allegedly) inherited six weeks of footage and managed to take four more months before wrapping everything up. This led to Solo: A Star Wars Story being one of the most expensive films ever made…and the first true box office “disappointment” of the Star Wars franchise. Here’s a sentence from the Hollywood Reporter story about Lord and Miller’s firing (https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/heat-vision/star-wars-why-han-solo-movie-directors-were-fired-1015474 ) that has not aged well at all: “The studio now is more than willing to flex its muscle, and spend chunks of money, to protect the Star Wars brand and to ensure that it is not tarnished by a movie that doesn’t deliver what fans want.” Oops.
It’s the kayfabe I can’t stand anymore. Miss me with that “what fans want” shit. The “real” fans want something we spent twenty years taking for granted and the reactionary shithead anti-fans just want everyone else to be as miserable as they are, all the time. But not even the hardest of hardcore Harrison Ford fans (a.k.a., my mom) wanted an origin story for Han Solo. At one point, Han will introduce himself as “Han,” and Tobias Beckett will, correctly, respond, “Nobody cares.”
Those of us who were really jonesing for the Young Han Solo Chronicles have had two trilogies of novels to chew on for at least twenty years – Brian Daley’s, from 1979-80, and A.C. Crispen’s from 1997-98 (the last years of a Pre-prequel Age). But, as Crispen told TheForceDotNet after her first book dropped, “Per Lucasfilm’s request, I did not cover Han’s time in the Imperial Academy, or his first meeting with Chewbacca.” More’s the pity.
As with both the Indiana Jones and Star Wars prequels, there could’ve been a story here. And it’s the story of a young petty thief from the galaxy’s deindustrialized heartland escaping his hard-knock life for a better one, among the stars, as a swashbuckling rogue. Everybody loves swashbuckling rogues, right? Whether we want to be them or fuck them, they are near-universal crowd pleasers. But, much like the story of the archeologist’s son who goes to war, or the story of Evil Space Jesus, our story here is hobbled right out of the gate by its own, foregone conclusion.
Oddly enough, it actually has the opposite problem The Phantom Menace had. Back then, George started that story about seven years too early, fearful he didn’t have enough to fill out three movies. And he was kinda right. This thing seems so afraid the audience will look at their phones that they crammed at least three movies into this one. The more I think about it, the more the structure of this movie resembles those old anime VHS tapes we used to have, where three episodes had obviously been choppedd together and packaged as a film. Or old movie serials, which used to be released exactly the same way. And that could’ve even worked, if they were doing literally anything else but telling the Young Han Solo Chronicles.
Because it seems that, no matter what universe he calls home, or what his childhood girlfriend’s name might be, Han Solo will always begin his story as a Dickensian urchin on the hardcore streets of Corellia for some low-level boss or another. Here, the girlfriend’s name is Qi’ra with a “Q” (so we know there’s no relation to the first officer of Deep Space Nine) and the thug’s name is Lady Proxima (no relation to the lady named Proxima who worked for Thanos). The rest is depressingly familiar, whether you’ve read the above-mentioned books, or seen more than two other movies.
There was a time when I longed to see Corellia on screen, but that was long ago, and the world’s move on. So the surplus Blade Runner sets we get here are…fine. Serviceable. I’d say that about our Young Han as well. I mean, he’s…fine…ya know? Adequate without standing out in any way, shape or form. Not that we stay on-world very long. Han has to escape so the plot can start…and we need to see another car chase in a Star Wars film. Apparently. Space Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, at least the last Star Wars car chase left the ground.
We also, apparently, needed an explanation for why Han Solo’s name is a real-life, Earth-English synonym for “alone.” He gets it from an Imperial recruiter he runs to in order to avoid the stormtrooper traffic cops, the Evil Galactic Empire’s equivalent of those desk jockeys in every American strip mall, waiting to entrap impressionable teenagers. Say what you want about George Lucas (and some have said far too much) but even in the depths of his prequels, he never felt the need to explain why his favorite family’s called “Skywalker.” Nor does this film feel the need to explain why Tobias Beckett’s named “Tobias Beckett,” the most Earth-English name I’ve ever heard in the Star Wars galaxy. Sounds like a character from an old Western serial…which is entirely appropriate.
I’m just saying, we’re in a galaxy far, far away. Even the humans – or the human-looking people – are supposed to be weird space aliens with weird space alien names. Like “Han Solo.” You’d think all of this would be obvious. And yet, this scene with the recruiter is what apparently sold Bob Iger on this project. Let that be another lesson, kids: rich people, in this or any other galaxy, have no fucking taste.
I wouldn’t even mind the bit with Han’s name…except, later on, when Han gets to the Falcon, he’s going to remark about his father, who built ships like the Falcon back on Corellia. So which is it, movie? Either Han “has no people,” as he says to the recruiter, or he had people, shit happened to them, and he wound up a street urchin who now has to join the army to get off-world. Between the Clone Wars and the rising Empire’s love of swinging its dick around the galaxy, no end of shit could’ve befallen the Solo family. I ask you: which is the more interesting story?
I mean, what? Do poor motherfuckers just not get family names on Corellia? Do you have to be born into the landed gentry in order to get a last name? Is it, like, some feudal Japan shit? And if so, can you buy a last name later, with enough money? Or get gifted one, if you do enough favors for the aristocrats? Does Corellia have a Toyotomi Hideyoshi? Is what I’m really asking…and, crap, now I want to see that movie.
But do you see what I mean? We have a fifteen minute chunk here that are the Extremely Young Han Solo Chronicles…but then, we flash forward…or go to the next episode, to keep with the metaphor. Skipping over Han’s time in the Imperial Academy (which, again, is fine). But in Episode Two of the Young Han Solo Chronicles, we find Han on the front lines of what no one calls “an Imperial police action,” but they totally should. There, he meets Chewie, and their first meeting is…actually alright. How Han speaks Wookie I do not know, but that doesn’t really matter. What matters is, the two are thrown into a pit together, and manage to escape through a mutual understanding of their shared plight and shared oppression under the Empire.
Together, they hook up with Tobias Beckett’s crew of good, ol’ fashioned, working-class criminals, struggling to survive in a fascist universe that’s already been through one war and is gearing up for another one, whether it knows it or not. Episode Three of Solo: A Star Wars Story covers Han’s time with Beckett’s crew…just don’t get too attached to them. His tenure with them spans exactly one job that immediately goes south, forcing the survivors to explain themselves to the local crime lord, Voss – a mid-level mook in the Crimson Dawn Syndicate.
The primary thing separating this Han from the one we met in A New Hope is, this Han is still young enough and naive enough to have dreams, so this movie has to be about crushing them. Since this is an American motion picture, he dreams of the girl he left behind, and the life they can never have together. “Tell us about the girl, Han!” one of his new friends says. “Is she nice? Does she have sharp teeth?” Oh, brother, you don’t even know – she used to Sarah Connor and a goddamn dragon. Maybe she still is…it’s heavily implied…if not actually shown.
In Episode Four of Solo: A Star Wars Story, we find that Qi’ra’s already escaped Corellia all on her own…and clawed her way up the Crimson Dawn crime syndicate to become Boss Voss’ Gal Friday. And I can’t help but wonder, Where’s that fucking movie? It sounds infinitely more interesting than this one.
Voss insists that Qi’ra accompany Han, Chewie and Beckett on their attempt to make up for the job that just went south. So, in Episode Five of Solo: A Star Wars Story, she introduces them to Lando, and Lando introduces everyone to the Millennium Falcon. Episodes Six, Seven and Eight see everyone make the famous Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs, curse each other’s sudden but inevitable betrayals, and then Bob’s your uncle, movie’s over. See you in the next film, when…oh, wait…actually, probably not.
There might not even be a next film, since this one was so expensive. And for entirely stupid reasons – like Voss. Apparently, he was supposed to be a lizard/cat monster of some kind of lizard/cat monster, played by someone other than Paul Bettany. But once Lord & Miller got their pink slips, Voss’ original actor jumped ship to go get a new job, and couldn’t come back to do reshoots without screwing said new job over. So Howard or someone looked around at the available actors in Disney’s stable of actors and went, “Hey, Vision, get your ass in here! You’re dead in the Marvel universe anyway” and had to re-film all of the villain’s scenes. So if you caught yourself wondering why Bettany’s the only one in these scenes having any fun at all, wonder no more.
To hell with it. Voss is boring anyway, and I’m not sad he dies at the end. As an obvious parallel to the man Han Solo will eventually become, Tobias Beckett is, potentially, the most interesting character in the film. The potential’s never realized, but it’s there. And not just because it’s always nice to see Woody Harrelson act circles around a pack of younglings. Here we have a guy who obviously grew up during the Old Republic’s waning days. His world-weary (galaxy-weary?) cynicism is well-earned. While he’s managed to survive both the Clone Wars and the Dark Times, he hasn’t done anything close to prospering. At best, all he’s managed to do is hang on to a perilous life, punctuated by his friends and colleagues either betraying him, dying, or both – as we see happen to his own wife, here.
Oh, and, according to Young Lando Calrissian, he managed to kill Aurra Sing. Yes, the one we see for two seconds in Phantom Menace,and saw quite a bit more of in the Clone Wars TV series. How Young Boba Fett (Adolescent Boba Fett, by this point) didn’t kill Tobais right back, I’ll probably never know. But once again, I have to wonder, Where’s that fucking movie? Because, once again, it sounds way more interesting than this one.
But if we’re running a New Character Olympics, then I have to give the gold to Lando’s droid friend (and apparently unrequited love) L3-37. Yes, her name’s “leet” and yes, that’s cringe as hell, but she’s still my new favorite character on account of the fact she inspires a droid slave revolt on the planet Kessel. It took twelve movies and two TV shows, but at long last someone is finally addressing the fact the entire Star Wars galaxy is (and always has been, as far as anyone can tell) a slave society. Yes, they’re robot slaves – so what? Did you miss the whole point of Blade Runner?Or that one Star Trek episode where they have a whole trial to determine Data’s civil rights? It’s called The Measure of a Man, and you should check it out if you haven’t – it’s pretty awesome. Then go watch The Matrix again, to see what happens when you build a robot slave society and then fail to reckon with the consequences until it’s way too late.
But to focus on that for anything more than fifteen minutes would be, again, to make a much more interesting movie than this one. So of course L3 has to die. And get put into the Falcon‘s navigational computer. Meaning she’s been secretly present in every Star Wars film up to this point. This is the clearest example of retroactive continuity I’ve seen in a mainstream motion picture since Bucky Barnes killed Tony Stark’s parents. And just like back there, it does not count here. It never counts – retroactive continuity is always an attempt by new authors to piss all over the last one’s work. It’s supposed to be a bit of audience flattery – a fun little easter egg I can recognize later, like those stupid fucking dice. “Oh, so that’s why the Falcon‘s computer has always been so onery.” That a movie this Frankenstein-ed together would try to flatter me is…just weird. I mean, I don’t deserve it. All I did was pay to see this sucker, and I’ve regretted the decision ever since.
But speaking of flattery: I could really do without every other character in this movie’s habit of giving New, Young Han props. “Good goin’, Han!” they say. “I like this guy!” they say. “You’re the good guy!” they say. It’s like Han’s the protagonist of a Call of Duty game…or one of its rip-offs. As it stands, he – and the film he’s in – are almost as forgettable, and no eleventh hour intimations that he might’ve inspired the Rebellion against the Empire are going to fix that. If anything, they’ll just make it worse. He’s now the third or fourth character I’ve seen stealthily inspire the Rebellion in the last twenty years…not counting the entire crew of Rogue One, RIP.
And just before Han and Chewie heading off to Hutt space for Season Two of Solo: A Star Wars Story, we find out that Qi’ra bound for the planet Dathomer, to meet the true head of Crimson Dawn…Oh, hi, Maul. Wish I could say it was good to see you. That’s even Sam Witwer’s voice and Ray Park’s body, meaning this Maul is the best of All Possible Mauls. A Maul for All Seasons. A humanoid piece of fan service.
Now, I don’t want to be too cynical…but I can’t help but wonder if his inclusion is an attempt to recapture all the good will Rogue One bought for itself by having Darth Vader cut through a whole hallway of dudes without even really trying. If so, I gotta say – big miss, you guys. Rogue One bought that good will because seeing Vader kick the asses of people he hilariously outclassed “redeemed” him in the eyes of solipsistic nerd critics who still have trouble reconciling the whiny twenty-something we saw in the prequels with the Paragon of Cinematic Villainy we see in A New Hope.
Maul-on-film (at least in his one previous appearance) was not much more than a cool look and demanding physical performance, backed by a John Williams banger. If I haven’t watched Clone Wars, his appearance here is supposed to bring up a bunch of questions that series already answering. And as someone who watched Clone Wars, I’m supposed to wonder how Maul went from ruling the planet Mandalore (no, really) to running a third-rate mob. At the end of his climactic lightsaber fight with Palpatine, Palpatine goes, “I have other uses for you,” and I can assume running the galactic underground would be kind of essential to the maintenance of an Evil Galactic Empire. But as someone who gone on to watch the TV series Rebels, I know that Maul is not long for the position, and I don’t care overmuch about how he lost it. Rebels also wrapped up Maul’s story in a more satisfying way than anything these movies could ever do, so what’s the point of his inclusion? Other than fan service?
Well, maybe the point should be: you shouldn’t try to make a movie out of one character’s incidental lines of dialog. We didn’t need to know what it means to “make the Kessel run in less than twelve parsecs.” We don’t need to know that it’s supposed to take longer because, if you stray from the safe path, you’ll either run into the black hole, the Cthulhu, or both. We just need to know that Han considers this impressive, while Luke and Obi-Wan clearly do not. We don’t need to see Han grow up in the criminal underbelly of the Empire to understand that his devil-may-care, swashbuckling rogue persona is a hollow sham – a suit of armor he puts on for his own emotional protection. The real point is no one needed a Han Solo origin story because we already had a perfectly fine one, called Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope.
At least Young Indiana Jones had a bit more to him. What strikes me about now is how many historical characters he managed to bump into over the course of his Chronicles. No surprise that was part of the show’s original pitch, or that it led to some of the most memorable episodes. I even thought of them that way in my head, until I discovered their actual names. Oh, that’s “The Charles de Gaul Episode.” That’s “The Mata Hari Episode.” Oh, that’s “The Treaty of Versailles Episode, guest starring Lawrence of Arabia and Young Ho Chi Mihn (no, really).” Young Indy was a window into the first half of the twentieth century, conjured up by people who’d grown up in the second and spent their entire lives dealing with the first’s unresolved issue. Young Han (never “Solo”…I mean, don’t tell Bob Iger, but the name’s supposed to be ironic) is…a redundancy. Especially in a universe like Star Wars. A universe that loves nothing so much as forgetting its own history, and thus dooming itself to repeat shit over and over…and over.
Though, immediately prior to the release of Solo: A Star Wars Story Season One…and probably Only, there was a Star Wars film that at least tried to grapple with Star Wars History. We’ll discuss it next time, end this trilogy of reviews on a high note, and hopefully never speak of Star Wars again…until the next time.