Gorging on Nostalgia: Solo: A Star Wars Story

Like a big bowl of candy, Solo: A Star Wars Story certainly went down easy. But also like a big bowl of candy, generations raised on too much Star Wars are going to gorge themselves sick on nostalgia. Who filled that bowl, and why? When Disney acquired the Star Wars rights, and promised a new movie every year, I don’t think I was alone in imagining there would be more than enough room for original stories. But so far Disney has spent more time facing backwards than forwards.

To recap: The Force Awakens was in many ways a phantom remake of the original Star Wars, rationalized as rebooting the franchise with a new foundation for future stories. Rogue One and Solo are essentially neu-prequels, plastering in the gaps deliberately left in the original foundation. Solo is especially focussed on continuity and nostalgic callbacks, and teasing future nostalgic callbacks yet to come. It isn’t about anything other than itself. Four films in, The Last Jedi stands alone in striking out for new territory. It’s the first to really surprise.

Maybe I’m being overly cynical, but what is the point of the neu-prequels, if not mere fan service? Aren’t the missions to steal the Death Star plans and the Kessel Run better left to the imagination? Did anyone really wonder how Chewbacca came by his diminutive nickname? Do we feel we understand Han more now that we know where he got his surname? The one major new detail we learn about him — that he is an Empire deserter — loses its impact when even this idea is recycled: q.v. Finn in the mothership films.

The most egregious fan service in the film is of course the confounding cameo by Darth Maul — confounding, that is, only for those evidently undedicated Star Wars fans like myself that haven’t seen the spinoff animated series. My reaction was not “wow, Darth Maul survived being sliced in half!”, but rather “All this took place before The Phantom Menace? How old is Han Solo? Does Darth Maul always fire up his lightsaber before hanging up the phone?”

Alden Ehrenreich has caught some flak for his performance here, but he was given an impossible job: impersonate Harrison Ford and get criticized, or don’t impersonate Harrison Ford and get criticized. He either chose the latter or was not able to pull off the former. Whichever explanation, he looks bad opposite Donald Glover, who successfully channelled Billy Dee Williams while still doing his own thing.

By the standard set by the original trilogy and prequels, Solo’s three prominent female characters should count as progress. Or, it would have, had the film not quickly killed two of them off. The original Star Wars infamously included only one woman among its cast, but Carrie Fisher’s force of personality made her instantly iconic, and that’s lacking here.

Also, Paul Bettany was fine but Michael K. Williams got robbed.

The Apollo astronauts strut the right stuff in Ron Howard’s In the Shadow of the Moon

In the Shadow of the Moon may not be the most radical or revelatory documentary ever made, but if the point was to get out of the way of some true American badasses and let them tell their story, then it should be counted as a success.

The DVD edition is introduced by co-producer Ron Howard, whom, along with Tom Hanks, is an avowed space-nut and maker of the great Hollywood retelling of the Apollo 13 mission. He doesn’t address the big question: why a big theatrical documentary on NASA’s Apollo Program, now? Is it simply that the aforementioned true American badasses are frankly getting on a bit, and that this is one last chance for them to strut their Right Stuff?

In the Shadow of the Moon
I can see your house from here

The biggest clue is that the film takes pains to place the missions in a historical and political context of the Cold War, civil rights, the Viet Nam War, and the spate of assassinations the country suffered in the late sixties. When Kennedy called in 1961 for NASA to land a man on the moon within the decade, it was a truly audacious and inspiring moment. As astronaut Gene Cernan put it, “science fiction.” The almost incalculable amounts of money and impetuous were there, surviving even the assassination of the man that inspired the astonishing endeavor.

Time passes. Walls fall, the White House falls afoul of diminishing returns. Subtract the Cold War space race with the Soviet Union, and NASA reduces its ambition to decades of launching spy & corporate satellites and performing zero-g experiments in the Space Shuttle (although I must say detecting anti-matter sounds pretty cool), losing the Apollo 11 tapes, and apparently too busy with constant maintenance on the International Space Station to do anything else.

In 2004, Bush makes a fool out of himself by calling for NASA to land American boots on Mars by 2020. This time an entire nation rolls its eyes and knows it’s a flimsy, sparkly distraction from the many disasters of his term of office (and this, before Katrina). Maybe I’m stretching things to fine a political critique in the timing of this film, but that’s my theory. It’s a kick in the pants – in a time of crew cuts, tail fins, and assassinations, the United States landed on the freaking moon nine freaking times.

In the Shadow of the Moon
I want my MTV

As a nobody web designer, I don’t mean to diminish the work of post-Apollo rocket scientists and brave astronauts; only that the momentum kick-started by Kennedy has sputtered out by almost any measure. After all, what has NASA done lately that one might call, bug-eyed, “science fiction”? I do love the Mars explorer robots Pathfinder, Spirit, and Opportunity, though! I love robots on Mars. Robots on Mars are neat-o, man. Hi, robots on Mars!

One gripe: In the Shadow of the Moon has a cheesy score, especially disappointing in light of Brian Eno & Daniel Lanois’ gorgeous music for For All Mankind, a documentary film of lunar footage from the Apollo missions.