The prequels didn’t ruin our childhood as some of the annoyed fan mantras claimed. How can our childhoods be ruined when we had Star Wars so predominantly in them?!
WATCHING SKIES – STAR WARS, SPIELBERG AND US
There has been a disturbance in the Force. Did you feel it? But this wasn’t the observation of some villainous First Order boss- cum-intergalactic Noel Coward wannabe in a gold lamé smoking jacket. No, this was from Star Wars fandom itself. And like a 1978 Holiday Special, it was mostly unwarranted – and a bit unpleasant to witness.
It was a dark time for some fans. Still reeling from all the alleged mistakes they themselves projected onto 2017’s The Last Jedi like a R2 hologram confused by a restraining bolt, along comes Solo – A Star Wars Story. Publicly beset by production woes and eleventh hour replacements of its original directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, Solo has allegedly underperformed creatively and financially. In the space of just six months, some angry fans have gone miraculously from being WGA accredited writers to Producers Guild club members to Burbank-based box-office experts. No-one is denying the passion. No-one is berating the enthusiasm. Another 1970s movie famously suggested how in space no-one can hear you scream. However, in 2018’s cyberspace everyone can hear you scream. And the end-result is an ever echoing geek chorus of over-shared mantras, armchair observations of a whole industry and – when tempers and internet anonymity rise – this particular episode finales with a rather unpleasant last act. Actors and actresses receive online abuse, directors are bizarrely blamed for the downfall of an entire multi-billion franchise, blatant bigotry and sexism barely even bothers to hide itself and then suddenly the gatekeepers have an “agenda” – a political and societal objective to give roles to women, make caped-lothario Lando Calrissian “pansexual”, bring in “ethnic characters” that “tick boxes” and how the producer of E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, Jurassic Park and The Sixth Sense is a “toxic” influence who clearly “doesn’t know what she is doing“. When some flip out to even the widest, loosest suggestion Lando could be into all genders, that is an annoyance the character (who we never saw sleep with anyone in 1980) might be as gay as a cape room on a spaceship. It is always ever fascinating how those who have experienced the least bigotry about their race, gender or sexuality are the first to scream “it’s PC gone mad – don’t make Star Wars politically correct!”. There is no such thing as ‘political correctness’. It is just a line where decency end and bigotry begins. And it is a line some fans sadly crossed in their The Last Jedi and Solo backlash.
The more in-depth, passionate fans do not make the box-office for any big hit. That is down to the regular cinemagoer on the street – the person that says “two tickets for Star Wars please” and might spontaneously grab a Solo Blu-ray at the grocery store counter. Some over-faithful Jedi church-goers hated down on Solo before they saw it, tried to create some viral boycott and usually ended it all with the hilarious caveat – “this film I haven’t seen yet stinks and I am glad I will only be seeing it twice on its opening weekend“. Star Wars wasn’t made for angry men in their forties and fifties. They were actually the studio heads and dwindling cinema audiences of the pre-Star Wars 1970s that George Lucas was railing against when he had that notion to make a movie about Luke Starkiller. Conversely, many film fans hate retconning in their movies (going back to a known title and changing the continuity of events to make a new version work now). Agreed. But, it is always a mystery how some love retreating and re-wiring their childhoods in angry hindsight to strangely profess “they ruined my childhood!“. Not one Star Wars production ever ruined anyone’s childhood. Okay, one Star Wars Holiday Special and half an Ewok TV movie came close.
If Solo or The Last Jedi wasn’t quite your cup of blue milk, then fine. I didn’t like every episode of Stranger Things or Sense8. A big wedge of Marvel films don’t always work as films. But I don’t react by letting my thumb and 240 characters or less blame women, artists and writers who have toiled away for decades on their work only to be shot down by those who haven’t. When you go to Disney HQ or even Lucasfilm Ltd. they are not ignorant sweatshops. They are bustling, vibrant, multi-staffed, diversely populated and energetic hubs of creativity. If you want to feel a real, tangible sense of being somewhere where cutting-edge technology and creative thinking is thriving – walk around the Lucasfilm campus.
The suggestion these films are just “done now by committee” is missing a reality. If a group of professional writers, producers, story-liners, story producers, executive producers, directors, and heads of department are working together on a story and the beats of what will become a script – then yes, call that a “committee“. But, that body of artists and experienced professional does not consist of people with a lack of artistry and skill. And those folk work long, very long, hours, weeks, months and even years. Despite the lazy “Disney is bad” finger-wagging, that studio and Lucasfilm Ltd are at the highest end of their industry. If Rian Johnson lands a directing gig on a Star Wars movie or trilogy, that is because he was the man who the property holders wanted. The same property holders that watch and consume all sorts of cinema and genres. Johnson was the man whose career and working reputation were what Kathleen Kennedy and her producing partners were all highly savvy to. These are not lightly made decisions. But, no – because Johnson was responsible for some less mainstream indie works and some didn’t warm to The Last Jedi (2017), he is immediately some “post-modern auteur” who isn’t right for Star Wars. Well, do you know who was also a “post-modern auteur“? George Walton Lucas Jr. And this writer has yet to meet and work with any director on any level that is not an “auteur“.
Other phrases that have been naively bandied about include “snowflake millennials” and that Star Wars has some “liberal agenda“. If you are a Star Wars fan and think the franchise shouldn’t have a liberal agenda, then maybe Star Wars or indeed all movies are maybe not for you. One of the agreed definitions of a “millennial” is someone born circa 1977. The series which is allegedly pandering to millennials is technically borne from one itself.
Rian Johnson has very astutely and bravely realised from the get-go that his Episode VIII could not be a reheated buffet of previous Star Wars tropes. Some aficionados might berate his choice to kill off Luke Skywalker and introduce new female characters to the mix. Yet, these were his decisions to make as he was contracted to. They were narratively correct. For a Star Wars film to end and we don’t know where it is going is not a fault. It is a total creative sleight of hand ever rarer to big franchises. When some fans cry “Disney doesn’t care about the films and just wants our money!” they are overlooking how we only had more Star Wars episodes because A New Hope made money. That business we call ‘show’ is still a business. Disney were also the organisation George Lucas chose to hand on his legacy to. No doubt that was not a decision he made lightly. And one which hasn’t even fully played out yet. Yes, studio heads and money men and women with less emotional ties to a franchise are part of the mix too. But that is sort of how big movies have been created and buffered since the dawn of cinema.
And before some shoot first and assume an attempt at a different perspective equals the thoughts of a pro-Disney sheep – Solo does indeed have its problems. Hindered by an inability to let its lead hero truly shine and become an active participant rather than passive bystander, plagued by a constant oil-refinery palette whatever the location, a wealth of characters who are not narratively necessary (Thandie Newton and even Woody Harrelson repeat rather than add) and a leading lady possibly missing the acting chops to take it all to the next level, Solo feels like a constant set-up to something it doesn’t quite smuggle under the fence. Solo could have been Dirty Rotten Space Scoundrels – with Han and Lando bickering and battling their friendship into happening as an older force of nature (played by a Marion Cottilard or Cate Blanchett type) fleeces them both in the last reel. As it is, the film is constantly changing what its story arc is. First it wants to be Last of the Corellians with Ehrenreich promising to come back to rescue Clarke’s Qi’ra. Then it is Space Paths of Glory in some muddy trench before ending up as Ocean’s Eleven-38 and a heist movie which has lost its Coaxium prize twice already. It is a film of constant disconnect. We have a truly great motif of liberated droids who are then not allowed that glory moment of returning the favour (ex-slave robots storming Paul Bettany’s HQ and sacrificing themselves could have worked, no?). We have a line from Qi’ra that suggests “every pilot needs his co-pilot” as she sits in the co-chair and misses the moment Chewbacca should have gone there first. And we have a film whose main curveball is Darth Maul – quietly forgetting that the last time cinema audiences saw him he was sliced in half and dropped from a great height. And yes – I know that in another story world Maul cheated death. But – this is the cinematic Star Wars world. Keep it vague and shocking. Fine. But don’t jump the Sarlaac and leave confusion rather than surprise as the final taste in the mouth.
However, unlike some panicking fan forums, posts and Tweets suggested before the film had even trailered, none of these issues are down to the casting of Alden Ehrenreich and an eleventh hour change of directors. These are because – sometimes, just sometimes – a film with every brilliant intention in the world doesn’t quite gel together on opening night. No-one sets out to make a bad movie. Perhaps opening another Star Wars film barely six months after the last one wasn’t such a great idea. Perhaps we didn’t need Rogue Two so quickly. Perhaps today’s world of various franchise cinema vying back and forth for attention like rush hour on Coruscant is something to be mindful of when moving forward. A new Star Wars movie should play out like Christmas, not another British bank holiday.
But then this sky kid saw Solo again. And whilst some observations remain unchanged, what I saw on the second spin of the dice was a film that didn’t have to change cinema to make its mark. It was just a two hour piece of fun that threw us back into that kinetic world of battered ships, dubious gangster aliens, hologram villainy, a big score, a proud title card and a romantic swagger. It was a film that has great set pieces – the Coaxium runaway train sequence and The Kessel Run are brilliantly, breathlessly executed. Time will be good to Solo. I refuse to suck the joy and life out of something like some fan-pire – forever afraid of the light whilst holding Rotten Tomatoes up to every counterargument like a bulb of garlic. Why we continue to hold much faith in the online scorings critics make of other critics thoughts is beyond this fan. My VHS generation continue to adore the worst excesses of bad 1980s sci-fi cinema – but suddenly a new Solo film has to be The Godfather IV to hold any worth?! Write a script. Make a short film. Cut a scene together on your phone. You’ll learn more about the precarious vagaries of movie production than tapping into Rotten Tomatoes.
And then grab a kid (preferably one that knows you) and take them to the movies. Take them to a big, loud blockbuster with heroism, aliens, dinosaurs, falling bridges and last minute escapes. When it comes to Star Wars, we always do. Partly because it is our great tradition now. But also because sitting watching a new Star Wars movie with the target audience is fun. You can bet a Corellian portion they will enjoy the experience like we all did watching the cinematic skies of Return of the Jedi in 1983 or that creaky CBS/Fox video of The Empire Strikes Back that 4:3’d the film to death, but our childish hearts didn’t notice or care. When it comes to Star Wars , take a leaf out of Rian Johnson’s book and be the spark. Sparks stop things going too dark. And no-one wants to be the kid blamed for why we don’t have nice things anymore.
Mark O’Connell is the author of Watching Skies – Star Wars, Spielberg and Us – available now from all good stockists and in the US from September.