Monday 4 June 2018

On Solo, Rogue One and The Last Jedi

Monday, June 04, 2018

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On the 23rd I went to see Solo: A Star Wars Story, and I think it's the most enjoyable since the original trilogy! Unfortunately it was only me and five other people on the nine o'clock at premiere day. Hopefully this will change.

But let's go back for a bit. Let's talk about what's happened since The Force Awakens - a movie I quite liked. First there was Rogue One and this one I was looking forward to more than TFA, as the first stand alone film promising very little in the ways of light sabers but a lot in terms of gritty Star Wars reality. It delivered on both of these (with a small exception at the end) and it seems many people love the movie for that reason alone. I really liked it after the first (and second) viewings in the theater, but now that it's out on Netflix I feel it's a bit of a slog. It looks great, and it's well acted but the story isn't quite there. The visuals and world building are excellent and for the most part I like the plot. But the story feels flat and there's practically no character development among the ensemble cast. Even Jyn Erso herself, who I from the previews thought would be very much of the rebellious anti-hero in the vein of ANH Han Solo, turns out to be an all around good person from the start, and there's nary any growth to her character.

However, what Rogue One did well was immerse us in the sights and sounds of the Star Wars galaxy. Everything looked the part and generally the references were where they should be and not overdone. The film got away with the slightly lacklustre story thanks to its great immersive qualities - it was easy to suspend your disbelief because everything just felt right! That feeling of being a part of the world unfolding on screen, or at least wanting to be a part of it was very strong.

Then we had The Last Jedi which to me felt like a negative copy of Rogue One. Instead of having lacklustre story with great plot we got a fantastic story with an at times silly plot. And just to define terms: simply speaking, the story is what happens in the movie (The Resistance is chased by the First Order, Rey talks to Luke about the force) while plot is how it happens (the chase is a slow mosey through space, Luke is grumpy and milks sea... creatures). I really do think the story is spectacular in TLJ - the way the tables keeps getting turned, while still following a strict internal logic, the way it has this laser sharp focus on failure and the way it tells us that being the dashing hero who's always charging into danger isn't the actual way forward. I loved all the WTF moments and revelled in how it deconstructs Star Wars.
What did leave me a bit cold though, was the more abstract and impressionistic approach to the setting of Star Wars and the visuals in general. As I mentioned above all Star Wars films so far has gone out of their way to try and portray a "realistic" or, perhaps more correctly, logically consistent universe. It's been made to feel like a real place where people live on their lives and while fantastical things happen all the time it has this grungy sense of place and heft to it.

Rian Johnson, as he's decided to do with most of the Star Wars tropes, decided to go in a different direction. The grunge is still there as a facade, but the rule of cool or perhaps rule of what's visually striking is king in TLJ and makes short work of petty things like percieved "realism" or internal consistency. I have no problem at all with this in film making in general - examples of movies where this is used to great effect are Zhang Yimou's Hero or The House of Flying Daggers, or almost any other wuxia film for that matter. When the martial artists there dance on water, or the Imperial Army fires enough arrows to completely blanket a wall, we see it as beautiful artistic expressions, not necessarily an actual portrayal of reality.

As it happens I came across this article talking about cinematic influcences on TLJ, and it mentions how Rian Johnson was inspired by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
And yet, with all its hokum force mumbo-jumbo, Star Wars has rarely gone down that road. The closest probably being the cave on Dagobah. In TLJ we have another cave and it's muuuuch trippier! Which I loved by the way. For me the core problem (if that's what it is) with TLJ comes from these expectations of having a real feeling plot, not one that is visually beautiful but not really sensible. Had Rian done this for one of the stand alone movies I would simply have cheered as I do love how he breaks with so many conventions. However, doing it as part of a trilogy, this trilogy, makes it feel slightly weird. A bit like how Alien: Ressurrection felt so out of place with the first three movies because Jeunet simply did his own impressionistic thing, when the earlier movies had already set up our expectations for the setting in general.

Now, I still really like TLJ, but the artistic choices, in the context of the larger trilogy, did bother me. Perhaps exasperated by having a roleplayers mindset and looking at movies like rpg settings. In the end it's far from ruining my enjoyment of the story, and enjoy it I did, but it makes the movie stand out as slightly odd. It really made me look forward to Rian's own trilogy though - as I think this kind of thing would could be awesome when we're all onboard from the start. Imagine a Star Wars wuxia!

Ok, on to Solo! With all that's happened during production it was easy to imagine that it would be a trainwreck. Perhaps it's simply Ron Howards great skill of navigating the maelstrom of a chaotic production with a steady hand, or perhaps the movie actually did improve through the iterations of hands that moulded it. It doesn't really matter because what came out the other end is pure Star Wars! Like the coaxium of the movie the Star Wars feeling has been refined to its essence and liberally sprinkled over the entire movie, with some extra dashes whenever Lando is around.

We have the lived in universe we've always loved, being what it is, but also adding to it. At times substantially! There are many references to more or less well known Star Wars lore but it's done well and the connections feel genuine. The visual design is absolutely spot on and I think it captures the lawless heist+noir feel very well. The story is generally familiar for those of us with knowledge of the EU, but there are many changes and mostly for the good. The characters are all fleshed out with their own motivations and drives. There's real character development and everyone acts according to their own internal logic. Even

Alden Ehrenreich is good throughout and even manages a few uncannily Ford-like deliveries here and there. Emilia Clarke, who I haven't been very impressed by earlier, makes a great Qi'ra who is very much her own character. Woody Harrelson is excellent as Becket, but we pretty much knew that, it's the kind of character that's made for him! I was of course most excited to see Donald Glover as Lando. It seemed like an inspired casting choice when I first heard about it, and he certainly steals every scene he's in. I just kept thinking that we need Lando: A Star Wars Story like, now!

Enfys Nest quickly climbed the ladde to become one of my favourite new SW characters. 
I also want to mention the visual design as it's phenomenal throughout! I immediately went out and ordered a copy of Art of Solo since I enjoyed both the character and setting designs of the movie so much. Again it finds a nice balance between the almost too drab and gritty rebels fighting on Scarif and the über stylized Praetorian Guards.

Solo manages to combine the world building of Rogue One with the storytelling of The Last Jedi. Together with good main character chemistry and a small army of interesting side characters the movie is thoroughly enjoyable!

While I do hope Disney will use the Anthology series to push the envelope on what Star Wars is and can be (again, Wuxia Star Wars now please!), and Solo is very much in the middle of the road, with hands at ten and two, it is simply so well crafted that it's impossibe not to grin throughout it.

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