A Non-Intern Take on Solo

I liked it, quite a bit in places, and (snarking aside) I can also see why it did (relatively) underwhelming business in its first weekend: it’s light in the way Star Wars films haven’t been before. Star Wars films have had humor, and have had snark, and have had quips and banter (usually through the graces of Lawrence Kasdan, who also offers them here in conjunction with his son Jonathan), and even have merchandise-ready cuddly creatures. But the core of Star Wars films is always something serious — the rise and fall of families and empires and personal morality.

It sets a tone, and that tone’s consistent through Star Wars films, until this one. This one flips the script: It’s got skullduggery and betrayal and death and personal sacrifice, but the core is weightless, and so everything ultimately feels consequenceless. This is a Boy’s Own Action Film, and there’s nothing wrong with that, except that’s all it is in the end, and — surprisingly! — I think many of us implicitly or explicitly expect more, or at least, different, from the Star Wars universe.

Does this mean the film is a failure, or a disappointment? Taken on its own terms, and considered as its own film independent of the Star Wars context, I don’t think so. This film is aggressively competent; it hits its marks. The action is sufficiently actiony, the acting is actual acting, the pacing is perfectly pace-y, and there’s no one place where the film falls down for me. It’s very fine summer entertainment and on that score I don’t think anyone involved should feel like they’ve done anything wrong. This is a film director Ron Howard, one of the most consummate directors working, could have done with his eyes closed, even if he hadn’t parachuted in at the eleventh hour to take over from the film’s previous directors. I can’t imagine that Howard, whose first film as a director was the Roger Corman-produced quickie Grand Theft Auto, didn’t enjoy directing those speeder chase scenes. It was like going home for him.

(While I’m at it, “taken on its own terms” is one reason why my intern’s review here was positive — as she notes in her review, she’s not nearly as steeped into the Star Wars universe as many other people, including me. She’s not carrying around the baggage of expectation. It makes a difference.)

All of this raises the question of whether Star Wars films should have the burden of their franchise’s particular thematic gravity. Why can’t you have a light, zippy, largely consequence-free story like Solo in this universe? Well, maybe you can: Solo will likely clear $200 million globally before Friday, and Solo has the reasonable good fortune of not having any film opening this weekend being a potential blockbuster, so it’s a decent bet it’ll stay at number one. The weekend after that the big film (Ocean’s 8) skews into a largely different demographic. So that’s two weekends for Solo to make up a bit of ground before The Incredibles 2 comes to snag its audience. If its box office grosses don’t drop too steeply this next weekend, or the weekend after, it might actually end up doing just fine overall, if (realistically) still well below other films in its franchise. If Solo earns out in theatrical, then the possibility for more Star Wars films like it isn’t entirely off the table, with some appropriate tweaking in the story and script stages.

Even if Solo does eventually — and again relatively — faceplant at below $250 million domestically and below $500 million globally, remember that Disney will still make money on the film when ancillary, merchandising and licensing is all hauled in. In other words, don’t cry for Disney, or LucasFilm, or for anyone else involved in the film. They’re all just fine. Solo will be to Star Wars what Cars is to Pixar: Valuable not for the theatrical box office, but everything else.

That said, I do think Solo flying in a bit lower than other Star Wars films should appropriately give LucasFilm a tiny bit of a pause for introspection. Were I giving Kathleen Kennedy advice, I would tell her three things: One, space your Star Wars films twelve months apart (December has been really good to the Star Wars franchise recently; don’t mess with that); Two, pay attention to overall tone so that the all the Star Wars films are consistent even when you’re trying for a little bit lighter; Three, the rest of Disney’s release schedule is not your friend. Avengers: Infinity War sucked up more than a little PR/marketing oxygen from Solo ahead of its release; The Incredibles 2 is sucking up that oxygen post-release (this is another reason to stay in December). Disney is now big enough to cannibalize itself, and I think that’s relevant to Solo, and the Star Wars franchise in general.

(Also I would tell her not to listen to the whiny manbabies posing as Star Wars fans on the Internet, stomping their feet about everything they stomp their feet about. But I expect if I did so Ms. Kennedy would look at me crossly for assuming she actually would listen to them; she’s smarter than that.)

In short: Solo: Perfectly good! I liked it! Only sort of what I come to Star Wars films for! Which is fine, and also possibly a teachable moment for the people making the films. I’ll be interested in how the next “Star Wars Story” film goes.

(Update, 6/2/18: Looks like Solo is dropping something like 66% in its second weekend, for an estimated weekend take of $28 million. Which is… not good. We’re looking at the faceplant scenario at this point.)

The Big Idea: Brenda Clough

What happens when a science fiction writer goes back in time? A serialized novel following up one of the most intriguing woman characters of 1859! Brenda Clough explains how she got from here to there for her series A Most Dangerous Woman.

BRENDA CLOUGH:

I have always thought of myself as an SF and fantasy writer. But I realize now, what I really am is a fan of plot. What I love more than anything is breakneck story-telling. With hairpin turns of development that yet are inevitable, a novel as strong as neat rye whiskey, as speedy as a Porsche, tightly-packed as the app icons on the screen of an I-phone. And I want history, the fathoms-deep delve into the mind and heart of an era – a story that can be both perfectly of its time and yet the window into it for us, the modern readers. I want a book like a time machine.

I want to write, yes! a Victorian triple-decker novel for 2018. A little uncomfortable, for a writer whose brief is to write about the future. But the nice thing about a career in fantasy and science fiction? I can do it. On the page I fear neither God nor man. I have made it all up from whole cloth in my day. This is not rocket science – I’ve done rocket science already!

It has long been clear to me that Wilkie Collins sadly dropped the ball after he wrote his classic sensational novel The Woman in White. Honestly, Wilkie – it should have been shatteringly clear to you that this work cried out for a sequel. The world is in desperate need of more stories about your redoubtable heroine, Miss Marian Halcombe, how could you have missed this? There’s gold in them thar hills, pal. She was the Modesty Blaise of mid-Victorian England, a James Bond in crinoline and corsets. And if you didn’t mine it, I will.

I love plot, yes – it’s the engine of a novel. But if you want a book to go, character is the gasoline. And once I invited Marian Halcombe to take the wheel of the Porsche we were off at speed. Because Marian is one of the first feminist heroines in literature. An ugly woman, in an era when if you couldn’t marry you were bupkis, in the original novel she combated villains to secure happiness for her sister Laura. Is it plain to you, with this one-sentence summary, that the next bit of her story involves happiness for herself? Immediately the car that is my novel began to fill up, not only all the original Collins characters but a new batch.  A husband, of course she needs a husband. But a sexy and rich one.

Teenagers discovering their purpose in life have their own genre, YA. It’s about time we had a happily married couple doing all the married things, in addition to the hair-raising adventure and the cliff-hanger perils. And Victorian thrillers had the full spectrum of awful perils. I blissfully borrowed them all. Bigamy. Dickensian slums with no drainage at all. Nests of anarchists in the heart of London. Murder. Prison – prisons in the 1860s were exceptionally nasty. I see no reason why he should not get typhus in jail, do you? And medical care for that typhus was shuddersome, fantastically useless from our comfortable vantage point. Unwed motherhood, in an era when there was no birth control and having sex without the marriage license rendered you unfit for the company of decent people. Science fiction and fantasy writers know that there’s no point in writing a novel set someplace different if the full gruesome terrors of that time and place aren’t exploited to the hilt. If you’re going to Middle Earth, you have to have orcs, and giant spiders aren’t so bad either.

But I don’t want to just blast from the past. A work published today needs to speak to the modern reader. And the fact is that we often don’t realize how far we’ve come. We live in the bubble that is the present, and we don’t look back. A brief tour through the historical record reveals that it is really worthwhile to have antibiotics and penicillin. The song tells us that we built this city on rock and roll.  No, we didn’t. A city is built on clean water supplies and proper sewage disposal. London in the 1860s, when the Thames was a standing sewer of horse urine and human turds, will prove it to you. Can we lose this again? Oh sure – go to Flint, Michigan and see people poisoned by faulty water supplies. Can women or persons of color lose the rights gained over the last century or so? Open your daily paper. Today I read a statement by a black rapper assuring us that slavery wasn’t so bad. Honestly, dude? Or consider the Rohingya Muslim minority, in Burma. They were citizens of Burma at one point – there are 135 ethnic minorities in Burma with citizenship. But one day they woke up and they weren’t citizens any more, but deportation bait.

We have a civilization which we believe – just like the Victorians, the Romans, the Athenians under Pericles – is the greatest in history. But we can easily let it slip through our fingers, just like that, by inattention or fuggheadedness. Maybe it’ll help, to read a story in which awful things happen to people because a better solution simply isn’t available yet. That’s what historical fiction can do – it says, “This is how it was – behold how it’s better now.” Just as science fiction declares, “See this one trend: if this goes on, we are so toast.” What a relief; I went right around the world, and came back home again. I am still in my genre. This book is in the same line as Jurassic Park or On the Beach.

Fiction allows us to test-drive stuff. Is it a good idea to marry the rat-bag gambler, or should you play it safe with your sister’s suitor? Read Gone With the Wind and save yourself heartache. I hope that you can look up from reading the appalling things that Marian Halcombe gets into (and out of, by main strength) and realize that you don’t want to do that yourself.

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