I have already recorded a video giving my immediate post-theater reactions to The Force Awakens and written out a spoiler-free review of the movie. Now I’m writing analyses of various aspects of the movie one by one. I started with a spoilerish post on How Disney Used Luke Skywalker. Now below find my spoiler-filled take on the treatment of Han Solo and other characters and storylines that he touches in the film.
Anticipating Star Wars: The Force Awakens I watched the trailers and commercials countless times. I dearly loved seeing Han turn to Chewie on the Millenium Falcon in the trailer and say, “Chewie, we’re home.” This wonderfully nostalgic moment is also Han’s first appearance in the film and it is an appropriately charming one in its proper place. I had hoped it would be more dramatic than this being just another iteration of the running gag in the original trilogy where Han was always anxious to maintain proprietorship of the Falcon. I thought it might be some more monumental reason that they were being reunited with the ship. But, whatever, it was fun. Also the introduction of the ship in the first place was fantastic when Rey was running towards a top notch ship and Finn pointed out another closer ship Rey dismissed it as a piece of junk. It was hilarious and perfect when the “piece of junk” ship they had to settle for turned out to be the Falcon. This was one of the deluge of references to the original trilogy (in this case Luke’s own initial poor assessment of the Falcon) that worked best. The Falcon was a fantastic character in the movie. Its acrobatic maneuvers and the story device that required it to be flown riskily low to the ground all the time were all ingenious and made for great fun. Chewie was also a blast in the movie. He made as terrific a comic pairing with Han as in any other film. Whenever he’s in the cockpit of the Millenium Falcon, Han’s schtick transcends mere nostalgia pandering to being a genuinely funny resumption of a number of great long running jokes about his personality and how he expresses it when piloting. It was also moving, at least in the trailer, to see Han the Force skeptic from A New Hope tell Rey and Finn that “it’s true, all of it” with the stony stare of a man who’s come to believe something profound and serious through hard experience.
So far so great as far as Han and his partner and his ship go.
But then something is off. Han and Chewie are revealed to be simply back to smuggling. Really? Han Solo who had ascended to become a general in Return of the Jedi and who personally disabled the shield generator on the Death Star to ostensibly free the galaxy is just a smuggler again thirty years later. Really? Okay, I thought, I’ve read Empire, Jedi, and Force Awakens screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan recently gush about how Han is his favorite Star Wars character to write for–so much so that he’s going to write the Han Solo prequel that’s coming soon–an he probably loves the character in his classic rogue mode and so is just putting him back there so he can be the lovable anti-hero that fans initially fell in love with. At first I just rolled with this despite the fact that it rolled back some of his original trilogy character growth without much explanation. Han is at least undeniably fun this way.
But then a bunch of cyber punks who didn’t fit with Star Wars’s aesthetic showed up and grated my ears. Then a cartoonish monster that was apparently supposed to evoke the mynocks Han fought off in Empire rolls up. The monster seemed like a carelessly executed sop to fans of aliens in Star Wars (like me). It was a CGI creation so transparently animated and so unconvincingly fit into the very corporeal set as to be more reminiscent of the worst of latter day George Lucas’s CGI creations than any of the classic Star Wars corporeality that we were promised a return to. Now, I appreciate many more of Lucas’s CGI creations and choices to include them than most people, but I can still spot that some of them turned parts of the prequels and (most horrifyingly) the tinkered with original trilogy into a borderline cartoon at points. This monster fell into that category. It was jarring.
But that was the least of my worries as far as Han went. Starting when Kylo Ren was revealed to be Han Solo’s son the retro-Han nostalgia writing became increasingly, woefully, insufficient to the story obligations of the character. I didn’t buy at all that when Han Solo’s son had gone off to become a genocidal crusader the best thing Han could figure to do was to simply return to his career in smuggling. It’s one thing for the cocky young devil-may-care Han Solo to be a cynical rapscallion pirate only worried about money, adventure, and oh so charmingly sexually harassing women into bed. But there was a character arc throughout the original trilogy in which over and over again Han, when push came to shove, was a loyal guy with a conscience and capacity for growth. Instead of starting this film with the lessons repeatedly learned in the original trilogy and the growth accomplished in those movies here as the basis, we see Han back to being a lowlife smuggler wasting his potential and needing to be cajoled into doing the right thing. But this time that right thing is bothering to try to deal with his son who happens to be pivotal to all that is wrong with the entire galaxy. And this is a problem Solo’s known about for quite a while.
This is just shoddy serial storytelling. This is the kind of storytelling more befitting a TV show where in routine episodes nothing happens to fundamentally change the characters and they just reset to their baseline character type at the start of each next episode. No one actually grows. By contrast in serial storytelling, and especially in the kind that is flourishing in the early 21st Century on television, characters regularly undergo changes that contribute to long arcs of development. They are supposed to evolve with circumstance changing events episode to episode. Han should have started from a baseline of far greater loyalty and responsibility now that he had been through the events of the original trilogy. Skipping that is not the worst narrative crime ever (since it gives us a more playful and fun Han possibly to have him still be a bit bad, still be the guy who will shamelessly throw his enemy in the jaws of a monster to save himself, in order to reassure the audience that this movie is made by people who know that he shot Greedo first). Ostensibly we’re supposed to find the old school untamable Han nostalgically endearing and gush about getting another taste of that old timey Star Wars magic back on the big screen. But really the overall story implies that everyone’s favorite rogue not only failed to grow as he had seemed to in the original trilogy but that this made him such a lousy father that it contributed to his son turning to the dark side. And even this hasn’t gotten him to get his shit together. So while we’re getting to indulge in the fun antics of a Han Solo who refuses to grow up after all and who we’re supposed to be sympathetic to as such, we get hit simultaneously with this jarring counter-message that having such a man for a dad would be bad enough to ruin a kid and turn him looking to dubious sources for role models of order. And Han is still not substantively changed!
The film should have picked a tone here. Either add some genuine weight and responsibility onto Han’s shoulders—maybe Leia can actively resent him for his role in alienating their son rather than be filled with bittersweet nostalgia for their (inexplicably) fated romance. Maybe Han could have had more than that one conversation with Leia wherein he actually reflects on his choices in life and expresses some anguish about what’s become of his son. Maybe Han can have some of his own goddamned initiative from early on in the story to confront Kylo and make things right. Maybe we can be prepared for what’s supposed to be an emotionally heavy confrontation with his son by seeing some indication Han gives a crap about him before Leia tells him to.
But no, instead he’s a grizzled, cynical, exhausted old daredevil still thrill-seeking and has to be roped in to facing the major problem of his son. And then we’re supposed to be affected and buy the relationship with Kylo Ren when they confront each other? I was just trying to acclimate to the concept that this man who in no way resembles either his father or his mother in either behavior or appearance actually is their kid. I’m trying to find some way to actually even be convinced that they know each other, they’re somehow like each other thanks to the influence of genetics at least and preferably thanks to some standard mannerism copying children manage. Maybe even a bona fide personality trait in common would be nice? With no real sense for how exactly they’re related or what their relationship could possibly have been like, and with no prior screen time to establish their history together, we’re supposed to nonetheless be greatly affected by Kylo Ren’s decision to kill him.
I’m sorry but I didn’t buy it. All I could see were a million abstract calculations forcing this moment. It didn’t organically evolve of necessity. It wasn’t earned or convincing. I felt like this was a by-the-numbers covert movie reboot attempt to rush to give Rey her equivalent scene to Luke watching Darth Vader startlingly kill Obi-Wan. On the other hand it was also a rushed contrivance to drive home that Kylo Ren was an inverse Luke who would reject the appeal of the light side presented by his father in parallel to how Luke rejected the pitch for the dark side coming from his father. This is all about turning Han’s character into a disposable plot device for Rey and Ren’s developments, which is an ignominious end point for one of the silver screen’s most iconic characters. It’s not in principle a terrible idea for being the way Han dies. But if that’s where you’re going, you can tell that story in a more concentrated way that earns the emotions by actually establishing a relationship between Han and Kylo Ren first, actually watching their relationship implode and give insight into how Supreme Leader Snoke won Kylo Ren away from his parents and his uncle’s influence. But that initial seduction to the Dark Side storyline might have felt too much like a retread of Anakin’s story from the prequels and the last released films just covered that territory.
All in all they tried to cram a condensed, rushed, unconvincingly rehashed trio of familiar plot dynamics into half a movie and make its resolution surprising and emotionally resonant. But it was hardly surprising to see Kylo Ren kill Han. It would have been completely ridiculous to introduce this initially badass new villain and just redeem him in the first film using the same exact method of love we saw in the immediately preceding episode (Return of the Jedi). It was clear they had to go through with Kylo killing Han. It’s also not surprising when one knows that Harrison Ford never liked the character of Han Solo because he found him shallow, thought he should be killed off in Return of the Jedi to increase the sense of stakes for the characters, and has felt chilly towards Star Wars for decades. It’s not surprising when all these factors combine to give Abrams a juicy beloved character to kill off as a cheap short cut to establishing that he can supposedly be dark and brave and create a sense of real menace in his stories.
Basically, this didn’t look like the plotting of people interested in organic character development and patient storytelling. It looked more like a way to accept that Ford is in his seventies and hates Star Wars and so can’t be counted on as a central figure in future films. Then in this context we can milk the fans’ built-in love of the character to try to boost up Kylo Ren’s credibility as dark for being able to not only kill his father but the Han Solo that we all love so much (You bastard!). And we can give Rey her “Luke watches Vader kill Obi-Wan” shock so that this movie can totally work like a reboot wrapped in nostalgia rather than just the latest, new path-breaking, episode in an ongoing series.
Finally, the film seems to flirt with leaving the world of the films for a bizarre meta-commentary on the relationship of Han to Star Wars’ main fanbase. We were all children when we discovered Han and started looking up to him. It’s a bit contrived when Kylo attributes to Rey the wish that Han Solo could have been her father. She may be some sort of lonely person longing for a family and Han might be in principle a ripe father figure. But she has barely any time getting to know him. Kylo is instead talking to us and telling us that while we might have wished Han could have been our dad, it would have been a lot less glamorous in real life to have a man who is ultimately just a ne’er-do-well smuggler for a dad. Maybe that’s the older Kasdan somberly reflecting on the tragedy of parenthood articulated in Philip Larkin’s unsparingly cynical poem:
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.
Maybe we grow up thinking we can be Luke Skywalker and bring our imperfect dad back from the Dark Side but instead we’ll be just be Kylo Ren and be sent to the Dark Side by the father who on paper should have been our hero, since he’s everyone else’s.
That’s an attempt at a heavy moral, I guess. But its delivery was quite a mess. The only other alternative is that the Han we have many reasons to love wasn’t so bad a dad. Neither was the courageous and principled Leia we know and love not a bad mom. And nor was the Luke Skywalker who was emotionally wiser than Yoda and Obi-Wan combined such a terrible uncle or Jedi trainer. Maybe the point of the movie is the other theme–Kylo Ren was a privileged brat who suffered a catastrophic ton of teenaged angst over being sent away to the Jedi equivalent of boarding school and so turned to the Dark Side despite a number of objectively positive adults to look up to. And insofar as that’s a pretty compelling reading, as at least partially the explanation, based on the movie as it stands Episode VII has bafflingly gone back to the well of trivializing the turn to the Dark Side as a matter of being a shortsighted, highly emotional teenager who just needs to grow up. What a shallow treatment of the seductions to evil. What a completely uninsightful thematic choice. Episode II can be forgiven, I think, because Anakin’s overall arc turned out to be deeper and much more plausible than that. He’s tempted to embrace his will and his powers in a way completely unencumbered by morality because he sees moral restraint as a limit to being able to protect the ones he loves. That’s a real seduction to evil that plagues good people all the time; even ones with otherwise terrific influences. But so far Episode VII equates going to the Dark Side with going through teenage mood swings and temper tantrums. Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren is only superficially more bearable than Hayden Christensen’s Anakin here. His first temper tantrum with a light saber seems threateningly out of control and scary from a character who seems mostly the master of himself and all those around him. But by the second tantrum? It seems pitifully juvenile. And as soon as he takes off his mask, he’s just a frightened boy underneath.
The Dark Side deserves a better caliber of representative.
Full Star Wars analysis from Camels With Hammers: