Solo Affect: The Narrative of Star Wars
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If you have seen Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (and if you haven’t, stop reading) you will be aware that (spoiler warning!) there is a significant (no, really last chance) development for Han Solo (told you). His part in the plot of Episode VII after a 32 year break is testament to how brilliantly realised the new film is.
One of J J Abrams’ strengths as a director is that he is a superb mimic. Super 8 was a Spielberg film in all but name and The Force Awakens predictably apes George Lucas who was taking his inspiration from Akira Kurosawa (the 70s Lucas. The 90s Lucas took his inspiration from money and yes-men while hiding in an ivory tower/ranch). Thanks to using actual Kodak film, cinematographer Dan Mindel has even added grain to the new film giving it an old fashioned soft-focus. If a bit more frantic in the telling, the plot line is very much a retread of the elements in A New Hope. If that sounds like a backhanded compliment, it really isn’t because the new film feels like an old friend. It’s phenomenal entertainment, fresh and exciting.
The few defendants of the much -and rightly- maligned prequels argue that there is no difference between them and the original trilogy. Actually nostalgic grown-up fan-boys like me are wearing rose-tinted spectacles, shocked that their favourite movies were made for children. And not especially well-made at that. Forgive me being ungracious to someone else's opinion, but that’s rubbish. The original trilogy was glorious and occasionally ground-breaking cinema embraced by those of all ages thanks to a timeless charm. The prequels were simply dreadful, ill-intentioned and cynical. Maybe they’d have had a chance though if Han Solo or an appropriate avatar had turned up to sell us the new films.
A typical Star Wars narrative is a thing of measured elegance. All the design and work appears to be in pre-production, allowing the plot to unfold easily. Great swathes of exposition are delivered in the swish of a lightsaber, while hiding that it’s all made up, sometimes on the spot; read The Making of The Empire Strikes Back about the various drafts and you’re left with the impression that Darth Vader was sat on a park bench picking petals: “I am Luke’s dad… no I’m not… yes I am…”. That’s part of the magic. It’s all rather neat and everyone thinks that was the plan when the only real constant demanded is a focus on character. The Force Awakens has been written by J J Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan with that same focus. Take a side-ways look at the structure of all the films (ignoring the prequels) and if you’re going to include Han Solo this far in, his fate is inevitable. Not some superficial fan-baiting spoiler moment, but an organic development.
In the original trilogy Han Solo was one of the characters that set it apart, but why is he so important? It’s simple really. He’s there to tell us how unimportant everything is. When we meet him in A New Hope he has no intricate back-story nor any commitments, except to Chewbacca and that iconic piece of junk, the Millenium Falcon. More importantly he doesn’t believe in the story. The Force? It’s all mumbo-jumbo. Nor does he care about the Rebellion. He’s pushing the other characters and plot to be accountable and does it with charm. It’s doubly effective because Harrison Ford felt the same way; still does if you read any of the current interviews! (In another stroke of serendipity Alec Guinness also felt lost and disillusioned in the twilight of his career by having to play the lost and disillusioned Ben Kenobi).
If Episode IV were a calm, flowing river, Solo and Chewie would fly the Falcon like a kid lobbing stones from the shore. Han is utterly unpredictable, which gives the otherwise straightforward plot an edge, one that was desperately missed in Episodes I to III. No-one could have got away with saying “midichlorians” to Han Solo and expect him to have kept a straight-face. Han’s sarcastic eye-rolling sense of humour continually disrupts the narrative. In The Empire Strikes Back they have to literally freeze him to shut him up! In the first series of 24 Jack Baur’s wife developed amnesia for a couple of hours, a trick to pace the real story. Same in TESB, but carbonite is much more fun.
Han is back to causing chaos in The Return of the Jedi, but to full advantage of the team; the saga can only conclude when he completely confiorms. General Solo, indeed: Fully paid-up member of the Resistance and prospective brother-in-law to Luke Skywalker himself while lending his pirate ship to become part of the fleet. Star Wars has always been about family and accepting Han and Chewie in is one of the saga’s arcs.
But surely now that the literal narrative smuggler is dealt with the Empire can finally win? Hold on... there’s a teddy bear with a rock! The Ewoks take over the unpredictable role in RotJ when Han becomes soft. And yes, I did just defend the Ewoks. Admittedly perhaps Han’s shift in tone and giving his day job to a bunch of muppets was why the trilogy’s third wheel isn’t as fondly remembered. I remember it very fondly, but certainly it’s rather more routine compared with The Empire Strikes Back.
So 32 years later, where is Han now? Back to being a smuggler, back to what he knows he is good at, but while he is briefly Solo (snigger) he cannot deny his responsibilities as once he did. There is a lovely conceit in the new film that the Jedi are a long-forgotten myth. It’s left to Han Solo of all people to admit to Rey and Finn that the legend is real. This is huge. He’s selling the mumbo-jumbo while filling Ben Kenobi’s shoes too.
Alec Guinness was playing an important trope in A New Hope, that of the mysterious old man (Ben Kenobi) leading the naive hero to their destiny. Unfortunately it’s usually one-way (as well as Ben, see also Gandalf’s “you will not pass!” in The Fellowship of the Ring). Breaking the hearts of millions of fans, J J Abrams has given that heavy responsibility to Han Solo and without magical/Force powers to resurrect him, I think we have seen the last of the rogue. Harrison Ford plays Han Solo as perfectly as ever this last time though. The banter with Chewie never misses a beat and there’s a weight to the characters that can’t be faked. Yet narratively speaking, his departure isn’t going to leave a hole.
Finn played by John Boyega is the closest fit. He plays a Stormtrooper that decides he’s had enough and only rescues Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) because he needs a pilot for the Tie Fighter he’s stealing. Sound like anyone we know? He spends the rest of the film wise-cracking, trying to find a way out and save his own skin. His only concession is a need to help Rey (Daisy Ridley).
And what of the feisty Rey? While the marvellous Daisy Ridley is clearly the equivalent of Mark Hamill, playing the young Skywalker of The Force Awakens, she is also far more independent and capable for herself than Luke’s farm-boy. And as well as having Force powers, she can fly the Falcon so Chewie still has his partner.
Keep a close eye on Finn and Rey in the next episodes. They’re likely to form a very tough duo. Han Solo can rest in deserved peace and Luke Skywalker has room to become something else. I worry about C3PO and R2D2 though...
There is a lesson in Star Wars for any screenwriter: When the plot is done, put Han Solo in it. Well not the actual Han Solo, granted, but turn one of the characters into an argumentative scoundrel who doesn’t agree with you or your silly story. Let him mix things up a bit. Preferably he should have a dog. And an awesome space-ship.