New Essay Up at the Federalist

Don’t particularly care for the title they gave it, but such is life. This one is a semi-sarcastic examination of the idea of ‘The Age of Faith’ as it applies to the modern age

Sample:

We’re not taught how to reason in school: we’re just presented with “right answers” and told to put those down. Science textbooks don’t delve into the complexities of research, competing theories, the long, hard process by which accumulated facts slowly create a clearer and clearer picture of the workings of nature. They just list the facts, laws, and theories as ready made, sometimes with an understated sneer at those who initially doubted them for failing to give the right answer.

It’s like this with most aspects of our lives. When was the last time you actually heard someone lay out the reasons why, say, racism is wrong, or democracy is good? We don’t make arguments, just statements of faith based on what we’ve been taught to say.

The trouble is that this kind of faith-based approach is very fragile (which is one of the reasons the old Christians didn’t use it). It’s apt to breed resentment and rebellion, and to crumble if the observed facts don’t seem to match the received doctrine.

We’re sometimes told with horror that half the country doubts evolution. Well, why shouldn’t they? They’ve been taught it as a matter of faith, not as a scientific fact dug out of nature through observation and reason. They’ve simply been told, in essence, “This is true and you’re a bad person if you don’t believe it.”

We should only expect some people to rebelliously turn their backs on it for that reason alone. Then again, there’s the fact that anyone of basic intelligence can see where evolution, as it is usually taught, seems to contradict the observed world around us. It doesn’t make sense that the vast variety, beauty, and efficiency of the natural world came about simply by random mutations that happened to be beneficial (I am told modern evolutionists generally think the situation is much more complicated and interesting than that). So, when forced to choose between the rather patronizing faith that’s been shoved down their throats or their own good sense, they choose the latter.

Read the rest here.

A Thought on Aretha Franklin

More specifically, on some of the responses to her death.

I’m a Detroit native, and for that city the death of Aretha Franklin is as the death of a home-grown President or war hero. She was a major and beloved figure in the city’s history and culture, all the more so because, unlike many of her contemporaries, she continued to make her home there after she made it big. Personally, I don’t have much interest in her music, but that hardly matters; the woman left behind a staggering artistic legacy and brought joy and inspiration to millions, and that counts for a lot.

The trouble, and the reason I’m writing this, is that I keep hearing commenters who seem to think that isn’t enough. They keep trying to talk about how she ‘changed the world’ or ‘changed the complexion of American music and society.’ Meaning no disrespect to her (and I suspect she’d agree with me), but this is nonsense. Black female singers were not at all uncommon or unpopular before Miss Franklin. In terms of breaking down barriers, Marian Anderson, a generation before, was probably much more instrumental than Aretha Franklin.

This is a problem I notice a lot when a major entertainment star dies; people feel the need to insist that their work had a significant social or political impact. That it ‘changed the world’ somehow, rather than simply being an excellent example of the craft. I remember the same thing was done when Prince died: articles about how he ‘changed the world.’

The problem with this is not just that it’s faintly ridiculous, but that it is actually rather insulting to the field of entertainment. It seems to imply that the real purpose of entertainment, the thing that makes it worth celebrating, is the effect it has on the socio-political landscape. Not whether it brings joy or inspiration or comfort to people, but whether it moves the social needle in the preferred direction.

See, to my mind the fact that Aretha Franklin was a fantastically gifted performer whom millions of people loved to listen to is far, far more important than any supposed social impact her music had. The latter will always be dubious at best (how can you possibly say objectively what effect a certain brand of music had on people’s opinions or behavior? Individuals would be hard pressed to definitively say that of their own lives, let alone some armchair commentator speaking about thousands upon thousands of strangers), the former is undeniable. The latter is, when all is said and done, ephemeral: social issues come and go (despite the best efforts of some parties to keep them on life support for as long as possible), but art and music remains. It may not always be as popular, but if it touches hearts in one generation, it will do so for as long as it is remembered. Great entertainment and great art are immortal, or at least much longer lived than socio-political matters.

Moreover, being a singer was her profession; the celebrate the fact that someone did her life’s work so well seems far more to the point than celebrating third-party speculation about how her work may have affected some other issue.

Basically, what I am saying is that entertainment has value independent of and superior to any kind of socio-political effect it may have had. I think most people would agree with me on that, but one would hardly know it from the way we tend to honor the passing of great entertainers. This is part and parcel of our tendency to subordinate all other concerns to the political, causing us to devalue the actual virtues of a artist’s work in a desperate grasp to talk about the same tired issues once more.

In any case, Mrs. Franklin left behind a great body of work that will likely remain beloved for generations to come, which is an enviable legacy. May she rest in peace.

 

An Observation

Human excellence is essentially individual. Ten thousand men of ordinary skill, by pulling their resources, could never have produced Aristotle’s Ethics, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, or Bougeureau’s Abduction of Psyche. Even in the cases where crowds do great things, there tends to be a single genius guiding their efforts: the American Revolutionaries never would have succeeded without George Washington, and Standard Oil would never have arisen without Rockefeller. Achievements by great masses of men tend to be, in fact, the achievements of one man with a large group as his instrument. Excellence is magnified in collaboration, but never created from collaboration.

Star Wars Conclusion

My ranking of the films:

  1. Empire Strikes Back
  2. Star Wars
  3. Return of the Jedi
  4. Revenge of the Sith
  5. Rogue One
  6. Attack of the Clones
  7. The Phantom Menace
  8. Solo
  9. The Force Awakens
  10. The Holiday Special
  11. The Last Jedi

So, we’ve at last reached the end of my retread through the entire ‘Star Wars’ film series. It’s been an interesting ride, to say the least. I imagine someone with the time to do a thorough research project (and access to backstage information) might be able to do a full study of how the film industry and society in general has changed in the intervening years through the lens of this series of films.

What strikes me most of all is just how far above every subsequent entry the original films are in every substantive way: story, plot, dialogue, character, theme, you name it. Comparing the original trilogy to the modern trilogy or the prequels is strange. It isn’t just a difference in quality; it’s a difference in competence. It’s a little like watching young Mark Hamill acting opposite Sir Alec Guinness (or, alternatively, Daisy Ridley trying to act opposite the venerable Mark Hamill): one side knows their craft in a way the other simply does not.

I don’t want to make a generalization, but it really does seem like the quality of film and filmmakers has steeply declined even in the thirty-odd years since Return of the Jedi. Even absent George Lucas’s quixotic attempt to write and direct the entire prequel trilogy himself after decades of comparative idleness, we have a huge, multi-billion dollar company like Disney staking a massive investment in these films and the best they can come up with is the uneven Rogue One. The quality of writing and storytelling in these later films is nothing short of an embarrassment, at times offensively so, and now we don’t even have the excuse of George Lucas trying to make it a personal project. This is a branch of the top entertainment media company in the world throwing enormous amounts of money and promotion at a project with The Last Jedi as the result. Meanwhile, some forty years ago, that same ‘branch’ made The Empire Strikes Back.

Something certainly changed in the meantime, whatever it might have been. Somehow we went from Leigh Brackett to Rian Johnson. It’s not just a matter that there is no comparing them as writers; it’s that someone made the choice to hire one and someone else made the choice to hire the other and thought the script he turned in was acceptable, and that this was done under the auspices of the most powerful film and entertainment company in the world.

What that tells me is that no cared about the quality of these films. They assumed that a Star Wars film would make money, so it didn’t matter what they put out there. It seems like ideology, not quality and not entertainment was the chief motivation. The characters have the consistency and depth of wet cardboard, but we can boast that there is not a single white male among the heroes and that they’re headed by a ‘strong woman’. The story is a nightmare of writing mistakes and plot holes, but the important thing is that shows men to be incompetent failures and women noble saviors who step up to tear down the past and fix the mistakes of the male order, while working in a few anti-capitalism messages as subtle as a sledgehammer. That was what mattered to the writers of these new films: politics and diversity. Not entertainment, not character, not ideas, not wonder, not ethics, not myth; just fuel for wannabe hack sociologists (but I repeat myself) to write about.

Basically, the conclusion I reach is that ‘Star Wars’ has suffered the fate of a wealthy country that turns to socialism following the mis-management of an incompetent regime (that would be the prequels): everything that made it successful or beloved is gutted and replaced with the new ideology under the assumption that it will always continue to make money no matter what. Then, as it dissolves into poverty and chaos, its new masters increasingly turn on the people themselves, blaming everyone and everything except their own insane choices until the country is run into the ground and thoroughly destroyed.

‘Star Wars’ is now the Venezuela of film.

Thoughts on ‘Phineas and Ferb Star Wars’

Past Entries:
-Star Wars
-The Holiday Special
-The Empire Strikes Back
-Return of the Jedi
-The Phantom Menace
-Attack of the Clones
-Revenge of the Sith
-The Force Awakens
-Rogue One
-The Last Jedi
-Solo

I wanted to end this series on a high note, so, despite the fact that it’s explicitly not canon (the opening crawl ends with “None of this is canon; just relax,” a disclaimer I wish all the recent Star Wars films carried), let’s talk about Phineas and Ferb Star Wars.

For those unfamiliar with the show, I’ll give a summary: Phineas and Ferb is a show about two genius step-brothers – cheery, out-going Phineas and taciturn, British Ferb – who, determined not to waste their summer vacation, spend each day doing something fantastic and impossible. They build rollercoasters in their backyard, go into space, become superheroes or pop stars for a day, and so on, in the company of their friends: super-cute girl scout Isabella (who has a not-so-secret crush on the perpetually oblivious Phineas), Bollywood math genius Baljeet, and secretly-cultured bully Buford. Meanwhile, their older sister, Candace, jealously tries to get them into trouble by telling their mom about their antics, except their projects always conveniently disappear at the last second, making Candace look insane. These disappearances are usually caused by side effects from the efforts of the “evil” Dr. Doofenshmirtz to take over the Tri-State Area with an endless series of ‘inators’ (drill-inator, turn-everything-evil-inator, rain-inator, etc.). He’s perpetually foiled by Special Agent Perry the Platypus…who maintains a secret identity as Phineas and Ferb’s beloved pet.

It sounds weird, and it is, but it’s a fantastic show in many, many ways that we don’t have time to get into here. For our purposes, the important thing is that in the show’s fourth and final season they were given the opportunity to do an hour-long crossover special with Star Wars, applying the show’s absurdist-yet-sincere tone to the Star Wars universe.

 I’ve written about this one before, so there will be quite a bit of overlap here, but I wanted to go into more detail about why I think this special is the best piece of Star Wars content to come out of the move to Disney.

Rather than attempting to simply re-create the story of Star Wars with Phineas and Ferb characters (e.g. Phineas as Luke, Ferb as Han, Isabella as Leia, etc.), the special takes a rather more creative and bold approach. It posits that versions of the Phineas and Ferb cast exist in the Star Wars universe and played an unseen, but crucial role during the events of the original film. This allows the original to stand more or less untouched (apart from one or two sight gags, the special doesn’t violate the continuity of the original film at all, which is frankly very impressive in itself) while also letting them tell their own story alongside it.

The plot goes that Perry the Rebelpus was the agent who stole the Death Star plans (from the ‘Empire Administration offices:’ a star destroyer with an office building stuck on top). Meanwhile, Phineas and Ferb are moisture farmers who live next door to Luke Skywalker, but unlike him are perfectly content with their lot on Tatooine, making the most of every day in typical Phineas and Ferb fashion. In fact, they’re too content: the special cleverly foreshadows that the boys’ easy-going satisfaction with their lot in life might not be the best thing for them long-term, and that they ought to leave their comfort zone sooner rather than later.

This is precipitated when they run into R2-D2 and accidentally end up with the Death Star plans. Realizing what they have, the boys chase after Luke and the others to try to restore what they lost, taking up with Isabella the smuggler (who is by far the most detached from her canon personality) and repeatedly crossing paths with Candace, an overzealous, underappreciated stormtrooper (who is accompanied by fellow troopers Buford and Baljeet, evidently the dregs of the Imperial military).

Meanwhile, on the “fully operational Death Star,” we meet the evil ‘Darth Enshmirtz,’ the Death Star’s original designer, which, of course, is why it has a self-destruct mechanism (this joke is even funnier in the wake of Rogue One, where it’s revealed that that is the canon explanation for why it was so easy to destroy). In typical Doof fashion, he’s bitter at not being appreciated for his work and so plans to build a new doomsday device to become the top Sith.

So, the first thing to note is that, even though it’s a spoof, the special actually puts in the effort to tell its own story, with its own character arcs, progression of events, and themes. Where The Force Awakens was just an awkward retread of the original, Phineas and Ferb comes up with an original story that works on its own terms…and does so while literally being a retread of the original. Thus, instead of a character discontented with his lot and yearning for something more, this special gives us two characters who are content, but who probably shouldn’t be and end up pushed out of their comfort zone and forced to attend to more important matters.

What’s more (and again, unlike The Force Awakens), this character line continues through to the end of the story and is reflected in the other characters. Phineas and Ferb end the story having given up their peaceful life on Tatooine, but having also found something worth believing in. They’ve expanded their lives beyond the narrow scope that we found them in.

Early on there’s a scene where their parents actually try to get them to go off somewhere and see more of galaxy, expand their horizons. When Phineas shrugs the suggestion off, saying they’ve got everything they need, their father mutters, “Wait until they find out there are no girls on this planet.” This ties into their meeting Isabella, who takes them into space to follow the Millennium Falcon, and has a payoff when she kisses Phineas at the very end. The character thread is established, given a clear ‘tell’ (in the form of girls), and pays off when Phineas, having grown beyond his narrow home world, receives a kiss from Isabella to drive home what he had been missing.

(The kiss is preceded by Isabella double-checking that they’re not related, in a funny reference to Luke and Leia’s relationship, but also motivated by the late-game revelation that Candace is Phineas’s long-lost sister. So, it’s both a nod to the fans and completely motivated in story).

This is the sort of thing The Force Awakens was missing with Rey: she was waiting for her parents, then was told they’re not coming back, then goes off to find Luke and be trained as a Jedi. The final point doesn’t tie into the first one, and none of it ties into the rest of the plot involving the super-Death Star.

Speaking of which, we have Darth Enshmirtz’s new super-weapon, the Sith-Inator, which makes whoever it hits extremely attune to the Dark Side of the Force, driving them evil in the process.

Now, it’s largely played for laughs as a typical Doof ‘inator,’ with him giving a catchy musical number about how he’ll “no longer be the lowest of the Darths” and fantasizing about choking Imperial officers and impressing the Emperor. But the idea itself is actually kind of cool, especially once it hits Ferb and he applies a more serious approach to it (we’ll come back to it, but Darth Ferb is one of the special’s most impressive accomplishments. It can’t have been easy to make Ferb actually intimidating, but man do they pull it off).

Having just come off a re-watch of the films, I think a weapon like this actually could work in canon: it would just multiply or add midichlorines to the bloodstream, but such an unnatural process and sudden surge of power would of course heavily incline one to the Dark Side. In any case, despite the absurdist tone of the special, I could see an entire trilogy being built around that kind of weapon: something that could turn an ordinary person into a powerful Force User inclined to the Dark Side. That’s both a lot more creative and a lot more insidious than just another planet buster, and without the logistical problems of just how the heck they made the darn thing. Can you imagine a trilogy where the new Republic suddenly found itself faced with a whole army of near-Vader level Sith?

Basically, in telling a joke for a cartoon special Dan Provenmire and Jeff Marsh (the creators of Phineas and Ferb) came up with a much better plot for a new Star Wars trilogy than all the highly-paid writers that the Disney studio could muster could come up with over the course of several years for their massively-expensive tent-pole film series. Just think about that.

What’s more, the device sets up an extremely tense and emotionally charged confrontation between Phineas and Ferb (all the more so for fans of the show, since this is something we never would have expected to see). The whole set up, with Ferb’s implacable hostility and Phineas’s desperate attempts to reach him even as they duel with lightsabers works very well. And again, they set it up even in the context of the special by showing us just how close the brothers are, which further lets us feel just how wrong and evil the Dark Side is if it can threaten a friendship like that.

(Meanwhile, they also make a very funny joke about how lightsabers keep getting more complicated and impractical: “Oh, we’re allowing modifications?”).

The fight ends up involving Perry and Candace as well, so now let’s talk about Candace as the stormtrooper. Once again, this goofy cartoon thoroughly embarrasses the multi-million-dollar blockbuster. Candace, like Finn, is a stormtrooper who ends up defecting to the Rebels. However, in her case, it’s an actual character arc: we spend a good deal of time with her, Buford, and Baljeet as stormtroopers, and even though it’s in the midst of a goofy subplot where they’re assigned to get socks for Darth Vader (which leads to some great gags, such as Baljeet saying ‘socks’ to the tune of the Imperial March and a store on Tatooine called ‘Tall, Darth, and Handsome’), we do get to see things from a stormtrooper point of view and get a sense for what working for the Empire was like.

Just the fact that Candace describes Rebels as “cruel, heartless sub-humans who are messing up the galaxy” gives her more depth that Finn ever had (I’m also kind of surprised they got away with the term ‘sub-humans’ in a kids’ show). She has a perspective informed by her training; a reason why she thinks she’s on the right side. She actually believes in the Empire, despite the mistreatment she receives from it.

There’s a very fun song where Candace sings about why she’s proud to serve in the Empire: “Now I’m a bad mama-jama and I rock a mean helmet / if I see a Rebellion then you know I’m gonna quell it / I’m a certified, full-blown, armor-wearing zealot / and it feels so good to know I’m always right!” Again, this gives us a very believable sense of how the rank-and-file Emperor troops view the war, which we never got in the films, even when they actually have a defecting stormtrooper as a main character.

Then, when she turns, it’s not just because she suddenly “makes a choice” for no reason: something happens that blatantly contradicts her beliefs, making her question them for the first time. The scene where she turns is actually quite striking; when she asks Buford and Baljeet, “We’re the good guys, right?” there’s genuine uncertainty in her voice (some nice vocal work by Ashley Tisdale there). And, believably enough, once she starts to question her assumptions, then she starts to realize other things that didn’t fit into her image of the Empire (“Didn’t we just blow up a planet?” “Yes, that is sort of hard to justify, morally”). Again, it’s mostly played for laughs, but it’s still a genuine arc. The characters have clear motivations for what they do that make sense in the context of the story rather than being dictated by the script. Even in the midst of all the absurdist humor, they act like human beings.

Likewise, Isabella goes through much the same story arc as Han Solo, but again, it works. We meet her as a cynical loner who snaps at Phineas that “this isn’t a friendship, it’s a spaceship, so don’t invade mine.” Then, as she sees the loyalty the brothers have for each other, she starts to feel the desire to do likewise.

There’s a scene near the end where she bumps into Han Solo at a bar and they each prod each other into doing the right thing. Goofy as it is to have Han Solo talking smack with a little girl, it kind of works. Certainly I can much easier buy Han having a rivalry with Isabella than I can him abandoning his wife and son and losing the Millennium Falcon. I can almost imagine that it actually did go down like that, with Han trying to distract himself with a drink, but being challenged on abandoning his friends. Dang it, it’s a good scene; for all the absurdity and cartoon logic, it works.

Speaking of humor, it’s classic Phineas and Ferb: very smart, but very silly at the same time. Like when two Rebel technicians discover that R2 doesn’t actually have the plans, their first plan is, “We’ll blame Jar Jar!” Then there’s a bit where two of the Imperial officers are talking and one starts making fun of Vader, then trolls the other by pretending to choke (not only is that funny, but I can actually picture the Imperial officers doing that sort of thing). Another great gag has Darth Enshmirtz gloating about how valuable his timeshare on Alderann has become, while in the background…

Likewise the great Phineas and Ferb dialogue is present in full force: “You see? You paint a big red ‘X’ on the floor, people will stand on it.” “And you thought we were gonna die in space!” “You go see if that kid’s evil yet.” “Not a bad set: one death, one dismemberment. Not bad for a Tuesday.” I want to say there are more quotable lines in this hour-long special than in all the Disney ‘Star Wars’ films put together, with the possible exception of Rogue One.

Yet, as indicated, the show’s trademark sincerity is equally on display, as in the aforementioned battle between Phineas and Ferb, or Phineas’s genuinely shocked reaction when he learns about the Death Star (“I never thought the Empire would go that far!”).

Then, near the end, there’s a moment where the main characters are standing on the Death Star, expecting to die, and they just kind of accept it, with Phineas saying that at least they went out for something they can believe in. Again, genuine human emotion and human reactions, even in the midst of all this absurdity, and a real, coherent plot with actual character arcs.

I also like that, though this is Phineas and Ferb, the writers didn’t try to shoehorn the standard show plot into ‘Star Wars.’ The classic catchphrases – “You guys are so busted!” “Whatchya doin’?” and so on – are present, but in contexts that make sense in the story. They don’t, for instance, have Linda as an Imperial officer that Candace is trying to ‘bust’ the boys to. They have this story to tell, and they tell it, working in references to the show where it makes sense, but not forcing it. Likewise, the Phineas and Ferb characters really do work in their roles: Candace’s misguided zealotry is perfect for a stormtrooper, Doof as a low-level Sith wannabe, Perry as a rebel agent and so on. Again, Isabella is a little jarring just because she’s so different from her usual character, but she works in the role (I especially like how her goggles take the place of her trademark hair bow).

Above all, it’s abundantly clear that the writers loved Star Wars and respected it. Even as they’re using the material for jokes, they still evince a thorough knowledge of the world and appreciation for the story and characters. Luke, Han, and Leia aren’t in it much, but they’re recognizably themselves when they are. When Luke chats with Phineas and Ferb about their modified speeder, it does feel like something Luke might do. And when Phineas says that he and Ferb have ‘Jedi lessons’ with Obi-Wan every Tuesday, it’s a gag, but it also makes sense for Obi-Wan’s character that if there were a couple of Force-sensitive kids nearby he would try to train them. And again, it sets up the duel at the climax (I also like that they made the choice not to have Obi-Wan present outside a silent cameo, apparently recognizing they didn’t have the resources to capture Sir Alec Guinness’s performance).

There are a lot of little jokes showing “the other side” of events in the original film. We see Han’s abortive attempt to bluff the guards over the com-link from the perspective of the officers receiving his message, for instance (“Aw, I was just getting into that conversation!”), and we get to see just what that garbage monster thing was and what it was doing (“That not trash, dummy, that’s a guy!”).

When I first saw this special, I wasn’t expecting to like it that much. I loved Phineas and Ferb, but the idea of crossing over with Star Wars seemed a step too far. But the moment the first notes of the opening song ‘Tatooine’ started playing, with Phineas and Ferb singing about how much they love their home, I knew it was going to work and I enjoyed every minute of it. It works best if you’re already a fan of both Phineas and Ferb and Star Wars, and I don’t know how it would play to someone unfamiliar with the show, but for me it’s easily my favorite ‘Star Wars’ story to come out of the move to Disney.

Thoughts on ‘Solo’

Past Entries:
-Star Wars
-The Holiday Special
-The Empire Strikes Back
-Return of the Jedi
-The Phantom Menace
-Attack of the Clones
-Revenge of the Sith
-The Force Awakens
-Rogue One
-The Last Jedi

Well, the good news is that Solo is immensely better than the abomination that was The Last Jedi. The bad news is, that still leaves it plenty of room be be pretty darn bad.

The film purports to be the origin story of Han Solo, showing where he came from, how he met up with Chewbacca, Lando, and of course how he acquired the Millennium Falcon. It posits that he began his days as a young orphan on the planet Corellia, stealing junk under the command of the sinister Lady Proxima – a centipede-like alien who burns in the sun yet has glass windows in her private chamber – alongside his girlfriend Qi’ra. During their escape attempt, Qi’ra is captured and Han hastily joins up with the Imperial military to avoid the same fate. Three years later he deserts to join a small gang of crooks led by a man named Beckett, hoping to earn enough money to buy a ship and go back to rescue his girlfriend. The job goes south, putting the survivors in hock to a crime lord named Dryden Vos, which forces them to take on an even bigger job that brings in Lando, the Falcon, and the Kessel Run. Oh, and Qi’ra is now working for Vos as his ‘top lieutenant.’

The galactic mob boss has a twenty-something girl whom he’s known for less than three years as his most trusted lieutenant. That’s the kind of film we’re dealing with here (needless to say, how this came about is never explained).

Okay, so there are a lot of problems with this movie.

In the first place, the structure of the film is odd. There’s a part early on where Han is settling in with his new crew preparing for a big job, and it felt as though it ought to have come much later. The characters bond, then half of them get wiped out in the very next seen and we have another set of characters for the rest of the film. The whole thing is kind of disjointed and occasionally confusing, without much of a unifying plot. Han is trying to earn money to buy a ship to go back to Correllia to get his girlfriend: how does that translate to serving with the Imperial infantry for three years? Then he meets up with the girlfriend and she’s working for Vos, so…so much for that motivation, we switch to trying to square debts with the crime boss, which he didn’t really incur since it was the guy he was working for who made the deal, but that leads to pulling another heist, which leads to an encounter with the nascent Rebellion (more on that in a bit), then turning on the mob boss, then…

You see what I mean? It’s less a single coherent plot than a series of small plots awkwardly stitched together and revolving around Han Solo trying to escape with his girlfriend until that motivation just kind of drops. There are too many characters who are set up, then drop out of the film entirely or disappear for long periods of time. Lady Proxima is set up and presented in the form an obviously very expensive puppet, then disappears for good after about thirty seconds of screen time. What was the point of that? Beckett’s crew – including his girlfriend – die a couple scenes after they’re introduced, then after a brief funeral are pretty much forgotten for the rest of the film. Again, what was the point? It adds nothing to his character or his relationship with Solo. In fact, the entire train heist could easily have been cut with minimal re-writes and the film probably would have been better for it.

Lando, surprisingly enough, isn’t in the film very much, and most of the time that he is involved he spends sitting on his ship or hanging out in the background, then he dumps the others like a coward as soon as he gets the chance. Why? Maybe if the film were more streamlined he could have been more involved; we might have gotten the chance to see him and Han become the friends they’re supposed to be instead of it just sort of happening because…actually, I don’t know why. They really have no reason to be friends by the end of the film. Maybe they’re saving that for a sequel.

Though, to be fair, I thought Donald Glover was okay as a younger Lando. He doesn’t have half the charisma of Billy Dee Williams, and he gives some very strange readings, but simply as a performance and outside of the nonsense they have him do (or not do) he was acceptable, for the most part.

The origin of the Millennium Falcon, however, falls completely flat. Turns out it’s just a ship Lando happened to own which was already the fastest ship in the galaxy, already called the Millennium Falcon, and which Han really has no reason to be particularly attached to even by the end of the film.

That’s a recurring problem here: though the movie is supposedly about how Han became Han, there’s very little of actual ‘origin’ to this origin story. That is, the things they provide backstory to are mostly glossed over without any kind of effort or weight to them. Where did he get his blaster? Beckett just tossed it to him before a job. His name? A random Imperial officer typed it into his application sheet. His ship? Well, Lando had it, then Han beat him at cards at the very end. Oh, and nothing about it came from Han’s loving care: it was just always like that.

Nor are Hans’ abilities given any explanation: his fantastic piloting skills, his mechanical skills, his shooting skills, improvisational skills, card playing, none of it is earned: he just has it. He drove a speeder and got kicked out flight school, so now he can automatically fly the Millennium Falcon better than anyone through the space storm that is instant death for everyone else. He shows up to a card game that, as far as we’re told, he’s never played before and almost beats Lando (would have if Lando hadn’t cheated, which…ugh, why? Why are you trying to make Lando out to be a completely unlikable person?).

As for Chewie, the film posits he was a prisoner of the Empire that they fed deserting soldiers to. Only Han spoke Wookie and so convinced him to join him in an escape plan. So, a big, important scene in the film and the life of our hero revolves around Han imitating Chewie’s growls. It is exactly as stupid as it sounds. Oh, and the film makes a point to explain that Chewbacca’s nickname is a nickname because Han didn’t want to say his actual name all the time. Glad they took the time for that rather than, say, giving the Millennium Falcon an origin that amounted to more than ‘it was there.’

(Han and Chewie also get a shower scene together. I’ll just throw that out there, because that’s pretty much what the film does).

There is a brief allusion to Han’s father, and that he worked on building freighters like the Falcon, but it’s passed over in a couple lines. That is a nice idea, and I would have much preferred to hear more about it, maybe have a flashback of Han and his dad, than to have yet more scenes of his girlfriend telling him that she’s a bad guy now.

The Qi’ra character is a problem because we in the audience know Han isn’t going to end up with her, and her presence in the story raises several issues, particularly the aforementioned questions of just how the heck this random street rat rose to become a professional assassin and bodyguard to a major gangster in only three years. That, and she’s not very interesting, doesn’t play much of a role in the plot apart from being Solo’s motivation, and her scenes are very repetitive. Again, she keeps reiterating that Han’s a good guy and she isn’t, and he keeps denying it. They don’t talk about anything that matters, like “how did you get off that planet?” or “What happened to you after we got separated?” Just vague references to being good or bad people.

Also, it’s one heck of a coincidence that, after being separated for three years these two just randomly bump into each other on the other side of the galaxy. And that brings us to another problem: that much like The Force Awakens this film seems to simply spawn in things whenever it needs them. There’s literally a moment where Beckett says they need to talk to the bad guy and his ship just appears. There’s a bit at the end where Han chases after Beckett, who has at least five minutes’ head start, but somehow Han ends up standing calmly right across his path.

Then there’s L3-37.

L3 is clearly an attempt to recapture the positive effect of K2 from Rogue One, but it badly misfires. Someone decided to make her an advocate for ‘droid rights’ with all the hostile self-righteousness of a modern college student (“We are sentient!” “Why? Because you’re my organic overlord?” etc.). She has a fantastic navigational computer for no reason at all, which is the only justification for her existence in this film (and it’s a pretty flimsy one at that: why would a droid even have such a computer? Wouldn’t that sort of thing be loaded onto a ship?). And are they really trying to make out that robots really are sentient beings with rights who suffer injustice by being treated like machines? Is Star Wars really poaching ideas from the Astro-Boy movie?

Whether this was meant to be making fun of SJWs or pandering to them, it doesn’t work at all. L3 is not funny and she’s not charming; she’s just obnoxious to the point that I almost cheered when she finally got shot to pieces.

Oh, and there are jokes suggesting she and Lando are sleeping together. Lando has sexual innuendos with a robot. Who thought that was in any way appropriate for a Star Wars film?

That said, it is unintentionally hilarious to see Lando cradling half her body and crying over this droid as she shuts down, as if he couldn’t just fix her and turn her back on.

Only, he can’t because he uploads her into the Falcon. So, the Millennium Falcon canonically now has the mind of a self-righteous sex toy. Thank you for that, movie.

Also, what is the deal with ‘Marauders’ in this movie? First they’re played as bad guys, and have kind of a cool ‘80s action-flick vibe to them. Then they disappear for an hour and it turns out they were the beginnings of the Rebellion and are led by a fourteen-year-old girl.

Uh…I have questions.

First of all, did Disney forget that the Rebellion got started about the same time as the Empire? We saw it beginning in Episode Three; we don’t need this nonsense about the start of the Rebellion. Also, why is their leader a teenage girl? Was she really the most qualified person available? Are we meant to forget that they’re responsible for the deaths of the monkey guy and Beckett’s girlfriend? Because the characters apparently did, as they don’t feel the need to mention it (again pointing to just how pointless that sequence was). It just feels like a twist for the sake of being a twist.

Speaking of twists, this film has a doozy. Are you ready? It turns out the Space mobster who was introduced murdering a man, has threatened to kill our heroes multiple times, and is heavily implied to physically abuse the female lead…is a bad guy.

No, I ‘m not kidding: they play this up like it’s a major revelation, with dramatic music, a slow lead in, and a ‘shock chord’ on the reveal that the criminal organization the main characters are trying to appease is actually evil. It’s ridiculous.

Though, to be fair, it’s less absurd than the other major twist, which is that the secret head of this criminal organization is none other that Darth Maul. Again, I’m not making that up: he survived being cut in half and dropping down a bottomless pit and some, what, twenty years later just shows up with mechanical legs and his double-lightsaber, which he turns on and then turns back off for no reason. I won’t even attempt to go over that one.

All that and I haven’t even touched on the film’s biggest liability: the lead actor.

I do not know why anyone thought casting Alden Ehrenreich in this role was in any way a good idea. He looks nothing like a young Harrison Ford (his face is too broad, his eyes are shaped different, etc), he sounds nothing like Ford (his voice is much higher), and to top it all off he is not a good actor at all. His very first line (“You should see what they look like!”) is awkwardly delivered, and he doesn’t improve as the film goes on. His inflection is off, he doesn’t seem to know what to do with his facial expressions, and his dialogue is almost never convincing. Like, when Beckett punches him in anger at one, point, his “what was that for?” just sounds vaguely confused. Some lines he mumbles, others he over-plays as though he’s in a high school drama performance. It is just a remarkably bad bit of casting, especially for such an iconic role.

(I can only imagine what it must have been like for Ron Howard to direct this guy: (Muttering)“Good God, I was giving better performances than this when I was six.” (aloud) “That’s great, Alden! Let’s try that again…”)

Then there’s the clumsy fan-service, which is much more akin to that in The Force Awakens than Rogue One: we have things like Lando’s Jabba disguise showing up (apparently, he just had it in his closet for a good decade), the monkey guy making random references to ‘minocks’ and the cantina, Chewie losing the same piece in the holo-chess game that he loses in the original film, and so on and so forth. It’s all pretty clumsy and at times patently desperate.

Also, a lot of emphasis is placed on Han’s dice, which were introduced in The Last Jedi, as well as hyperfuel. It’s as if this movie were retroactively trying to make that one a little less moronic. Yeah, that’s not gonna happen, guys; just let it go.

Okay, so let’s call it: this is a bad film. But is there anything to like about it?

Well, what I find I appreciated the most is that Han and Chewie’s relationship is pretty much spot-on. I don’t like the scenario for how they met, but their friendship develops well over the course of the film and they actually have some good back-and-forth. The film at least knows to treat Chewie as an actual character, unlike the sequels.

I kind of appreciate that the film underplays the Empire angle, trying to show a more ground-level perspective, and that we get a bit of a feel for what day-to-day life under the Empire was like (though describing it as a “lawless time” makes no sense whatsoever).

And I will say that at times the film just feels like Star Wars again, with the ships, the fantastic aliens, and the light tone. When they fly through a nebula and run into a giant space monster, it’s awesome. That’s the sort of thing we want from Star Wars. Likewise the idea of the space storm, and some of the imagery inside it is really cool (though they didn’t need to repeat the ‘asteroid field’ theme music).

Some of the humor does work. I like the bit after they escape the space storm where Han and Lando stand looking at the battered Falcon. Han comments on what a great ship it is, while Lando, surveying the damage, answers “I hate you.” I also laughed at the card game scene where Han snaps at an alien with six or seven eyes on stalks to keep all his eyes on his own cards.

Then, near the end, there is one ‘origin’ moment that works: wherein Han indeed shoots first. It isn’t given the set up that it ought to have had, but it was one of the few moments in the film where this felt like Han Solo: where you believed the connection between this character and the one we met in Star Wars.

On the whole, though it is a bad movie, it isn’t a malevolent movie. There were parts that worked and parts that at least entertained. There was some creativity, even if it was swallowed up in stupid choices and desperate fan-service. Except for the weird sexual content (again, why?) it’s pretty harmless, especially compared to the sequels.

But as an origin story for one of the most iconic figures in film? This is an embarrassment.