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.

Oliver Stone skips the defining moments of George W. Bush’s life in W.

I had the same issues with Oliver Stone’s W. that I do with every biopic. As virtually every feature film biography attempts to do the job of a book, they inevitably fall into the same trap: they become highlights reels that merely illustrate key moments in a real-life figure’s life, spanning decades. With a few exceptions (American Splendor, Control), any narrative throughline is impossible; meaning, there is no story. Stone attempts to tie together his fragmented examination of the life of George W. Bush with the theme of his relationship with his father, George H.W. Bush. In this view, Junior both loved and hated his father, and both wanted to impress him and to prevail where he perceived that he failed (it’s clear now even to this staunch pacifist and Democrat that Bush the elder was wise to not extend the first Gulf War into a nationbuilding exercise in Iraq).

Oliver Stone's W.
Gentlemen! You can’t fight in here, this is the War Room!

Screenwriter Stanley Weiser chooses the conception of the phrase “Axis of Evil” as the starting point, and ends the film with the infamous press conference in which the arrogant Bush was unable to name any mistakes he may have made in office. Stone flashes back many times to Bush’s prior life as a trust fund wastrel, but skips almost everything that I would define as defining moments: becoming a born again Christian, deciding to run for president, announcing to his staff that they are going to war in Iraq (it’s a matter of record Bush said “Fuck Saddam. We’re taking him out.”) and of course, September 11 itself.

Oliver Stone's W.
I’m George W. Bush, bitches!

The most obvious failure of biopics is that they typically become opportunities for famous actors to do impressions of historical figures. In this case, the subjects are so fresh that many of them are still in office and on television every night now, so the danger is that W. could come too close to the easy satire of Saturday Night Live Weekend Update. That said, Josh Brolin is excellent as George W. Bush, in a performance that captures many of the man’s peculiar tics but doesn’t come across as a forced caricature. Similarly, Richard Dreyfus is remarkably restrained as Dick Cheney, a role that many other actors would have been tempted to use as an excuse to chew the Oval Office scenery. But unfortunately, Thandie Newton (as Condoleezza Rice) struck me as the only cast member doing a forced impression.