One of the first things a film student is (hopefully) taught is the concept of three-point lighting. It’s more or less what the name describes. You have the key light, which is used to illuminate the primary subject(s); there’s also the fill light, which is used to heighten or diminish the effects of shadow; and there’s the backlight, which hits either the subject from the rear, or the environment behind. In removing any one of these light sources, or by including or substituting natural light, one can create specific combinations for specific purposes, and produce strange and dynamic images. Such experimentations have defined the looks of various genres, from German Expressionism to Film Noir to the French New Wave, right up to reruns of MR. BELVEDERE.
Or sometimes it’s just bad. Take backlighting, for example. If you shoot on a darkened stage, kill the key and fill lights, and blast the subject from behind, you end up with a silhouetted person or object. Alternatively, if you film outdoors, and place your actors in front of a daytime sun, you’ll potentially wind up with grey, washed out people, and details that are difficult to discern. Sometimes this is a stylistic choice to create a singularly striking visual moment; rarely is this done Just Because, being that more often than not, the cinematographer has a bounce board handy to reflect the natural light back at the subject, and thus highlight their features.
If this is starting to bore you, keep in mind that you don’t have to know a thing about lighting to know when it’s bad. If it looks wrong, it’s because it is wrong, much like poorly-recorded sound is like listening to a series of underwater digestive problems. So with that said, no one would think for a moment that a STAR WARS movie — much less one that was scrapped and then more or less reshot from scratch at great expense — would be filled with so much backlight that it became difficult to know who was talking at a given time, and that scenes meant to be dark would be blacker than the pit of my soul. Seeing SOLO for the first time at a Fan Screening the eve of release, I honestly thought the calibration in the theater was off; when I took my son the next weekend, I realized, nope, this movie looks like it was shot by the very same film students who fucked around on their phones instead of listening to the underpaid adjunct professor imploring them to pay attention to the basics of lighting. A more appropriate title for Ron Howard’s interstellar journeyman effort would have been SO LOW: AN EYESTRAIN STORY.
I’d call the behind-the-scenes drama surrounding SOLO unprecedented if 1) we hadn’t already seen a high-profile Hollywood situation where an entire film was shelved and remade using the same cast, same sets, and more or less the same script; or 2) Disney and Kathleen Kennedy weren’t battling their way to finish each of the new STAR WARS entries because they can’t hire people they actually like. THE FORCE AWAKENS was seemingly thrown into production before there was a script anyone could agree upon, and although production was delayed by an on-set injury, it was one that seems to have had the relative benefit of jarring the stick out of Harrison Ford’s vice-like asshole. ROGUE ONE had nearly half its material reshot by Tony Gilroy while Gareth Edwards was made to stand around and ask who needed more coffee, anybody? Only THE LAST JEDI sailed in on time and on budget…but it was THE LAST JEDI, and its smooth production can now be seen as a cause for alarm. At least you can see what’s happening onscreen, though.
But SOLO was almost entirely dumped in the trash compactor, after original directors Lord & Miller were apparently trying to turn a screenplay by Larry Kasdan and Larry Kasdan’s Less Successful Son, into a comedy. Or something. There are a lot of veiled hints and innuendo regarding the events leading up to their sacking, as well as those surrounding the subsequent hiring of the blandest mayonnaise sandwich around, Ron Howard. Outside of a tell-all book, there really isn’t much incentive to dig for details, simply by virtue of the fact that no matter who delivered final cut, SOLO is and would have been an utterly joyless, flaccid slog. It’s soulless and empty, like the hollow chest cavity of a cadaver no one wants to claim, and one that everyone is pretending hasn’t bloated to the point of near-gaseous explosion. ALSO: it’s under-lit.
There are reasons to like this film (e.g., you’re wrong), and even more reasons to watch it once and literally never watch it again. I’m not going to fault Alden Ehrenreich for being born with zero resemblance to Han Solo, and a voice higher than my six year-old son's; that’s Lucasfilm’s fault in attempting to recast an actor who seemingly defies imitation. On the other hand, I’m not going to praise Donald Glover — an actor I normally adore — for doing little else than a very passable Billy Dee Williams impression. I will give a shout-out to Emilia Clarke for her convincing performance as a talking doll, however.
For me, apart from it’s uselessness as a story — did anyone really care how Han got his last name? — is its place in the viewing order, and how aggressively it attempts to validate the Prequel Trilogy. Yes, SOLO is another standalone story-before-the-story; one that not only has zero at stake, but undermines its own concept by making Han a guy willing to fight for a Rebellion against the Empire…right before he has the exact same arc in the original STAR WARS. But this time, rather than simply being a prelude to the Original Trilogy as ROGUE ONE was, SOLO acts as a semi-sequel to REVENGE OF THE SITH as much as it establishes the swashbuckling spice pirate we will later meet in Mos Eisley. The connections aren’t overt, as we don’t encounter Palpatine or Vader or see a Death Star under construction; rather, there appears to be a not-so-subtle tilt toward walking back on Disney’s earlier attempts to distance the new films from a trilogy that we’re still arguing about, literally, today.
THE FORCE AWAKENS seemed specifically designed to remind older fans why they should commit themselves to another potential clusterfuck, while roping in the next generation of cosplayers and toy collectors. Apart from a few throwaway references to clones, the “balance of the Force,” and a Podracer that’s seen in the junk heaps of Jakku*, THE FORCE AWAKENS stuck to characters and iconography from the Original Trilogy (some would say to a fault). For someone like myself who wants to watch the unmolested versions of the movies I grew up on, where Anakin’s an old dude at the end and the music playing during his appearance isn’t the soundtrack from the Rainforest Cafe, then THE FORCE AWAKENS makes for a smooth transition. I can just turn off the screaming, hysterical voice in my mind that remembers monologues about sand and little boys chirping ARE YOU AN ANGEL? to uncomfortably older women we’re supposed to believe they will someday fuck. If you enjoy the Prequel Trilogy, more power to you. I don’t, because I’m right and you’re wrong, and I only want to remember those films in order to write angry essays. Just kidding. Sort of.
ROGUE ONE threw me a curveball in the form of Jimmy Smits. Jimmy Smits? God damn it. So now I had this mosquito buzzing around in my head, not ten minutes into the film, reminding me about that fucking scene where Bail Organa drives the getaway car and Yoda says, “Whelp, ass my kicked got. Swamp my real estate broker looking for shall commission if bitch wants receiving.”** Ten minutes in and I’m already distracted. Then where do we find ourselves but on the same lava planet where Anakin Skywalker made the stupid mistake of jumping when he was specifically told not to? Because really, if you got your arms and legs cut off and left for dead, wouldn’t you want to build your dream castle there, as well? One senses that the producers might have tittered slightly; hence Mustafar being the one and only planet in ROGUE ONE not to receive onscreen identification.
Then THE LAST JEDI came out swinging and not only recapped — briefly — the means by which one “Darth Sidious” rose to power, but gave this expository dialogue to the one and only character in the entire film that none of us could choose to ignore. At this point, having largely succeeded in their corporate-minded endeavors, it was clear that Disney was eyeballing those three bastard movies and all the associated tie-ins, and realizing that by framing them with stuff that didn’t suck as badly, it was possible to mine gold in them thar hills.
Which brings us to SOLO.
Now, look, I’ll be transparent about this: if I have Prequel Hangups, they’re my hangups. Personal continuity be damned, STAR WARS is no longer a trilogy, or even a trilogy of trilogies. It’s a franchise in the truest sense of the word. Once upon a time, one could argue that the books or comics didn’t “count,” and that the films alone were canon; but with characters like Saw Gerrera ported over from the cartoons, it’s pretty clear that this is now a Marvel-ized galaxy of interconnected multimedia. Be that as it may, whatever your personal preferences, the Prequel Trilogy will forever be the redheaded stepchild of the series, and some of us hate redheaded stepchildren and want to be free of the sight of them, or else smack them for all they’re worth.*** Being made to acknowledge those films and characters is sort of like being made to acknowledge that time you and your wife had a threesome she now regrets: Yeah, it happened, but let’s not invite the young lady over for dinner, please.
One can hear the machinery of war grinding within the pitch blackness of SOLO. There are still Mace Windu toys to be sold! Who wants a Sio Bibble bumper sticker? A Geonosian fly swatter? Maybe you don’t now, but you will once we bring back Ewan MacGregor for a young(ish) Obi-Wan Kenobi movie! So instead of name-dropping a few items, let’s turn SOLO into one gigantic Easter egg that’s going to rupture that chocolate bunny’s rectum upon delivery, and leave it bleeding out Hershey’s syrup while stunted man children write AICN articles about how upset they are. Remember that terrible MASTERS OF TERAS KASI game for the PS1? Referenced. That bounty hunter who was shoehorned into THE PHANTOM MENACE during the eleventh hour so she could be established as the one Jango Fett (originally) hired to kill Padme? Referenced. That pretty flower planet where Lady Washboard Abs comically dies during Order 66, because of course she’s a girl and of course she dies on a flower planet? Referenced. Mimban? Lando novels? My therapy bills? Referenced. It isn’t just the image that’s backlit and backlit only; no one bothered to illuminate a compelling story, because the spotlight is bouncing between trivia items designed to repackage shit no one wanted the first time around.
These items become all the more aggravating given all the reverse-foreshadowing. Look, the secret and nonsensical origin of Lando’s skiff guard disguise! Han says “I know” in reference to something! Chewie pulls arms out of sockets! The Kessel Run! Lucky dice! Capes! Nicknames! Mispronunciations! Han shoots first! CUT TO CREDITS, WITH LITERALLY EVERYONE WHERE THEY WILL BE THE NEXT TIME YOU SEE THEM.
And Darth Maul.
The guy who was cut in half. The character who was so lacking in character that he had to have red skin and devil horns to tell you he was evil. The action figure who came with a Mountain Dew-style double lightsaber because he was X-TREME. The villain who died so definitively that audiences are suddenly pulled out of his big reveal and confused by when SOLO is supposed to take place (unless there’s a walking, talking Wookiepedia there to tell them the entire arc of a cartoon series no one really cares about, and shouldn’t, given the decision to bring Darth Maul back as a robot spider.) He even fires up his lightsaber while he’s on the phone, because that’s how badass he is. X-TREME!
Apparently, Maul wasn’t even decided upon as the gangster Heavy until Ron Howard was brought aboard, and only then because Howard’s kid guzzled an energy drink, set a halfpipe on fire with his wicked skateboard moves, and then crushed a skull with the flex of his bicep. Well, maybe that’s not entirely true, but Howard’s son supposedly said Darth Maul was “rad,” so it’s more or less a one-to-one comparison. Regardless, an arbitrary decision not only raises all sorts of unnecessary questions, but seems designed to launch a sequel, be it STILL SO LOW: MY EYES ARE BLEEDING, FFS, or KENOBI, which will likely have a shorter name.
Am I bringing my own baggage to the table? Yup. Am I being fair to SOLO? Yup. It’s an ugly, boring movie filled with ugly, boring performances, and represents the moment Disney began consciously re-evaluating potential profits from Prequel-minded ventures. We all knew it would happen sooner or later, so there’s only so much Nerdrage one can summon at this point; but a little restraint goes a long way, folks. Want to make me give those other movies a second look? There are ways to do it without hitting me over the head with so many references that it makes me hate the Prequels for new, and hitherto unexpected reasons. SOLO has all the subtlety of an angry Chipotle fart in the shower — something we can all smell, but something we (thankfully) can’t see.
*I like to imagine that’s a vehicle that crashed and accidentally killed all of Anakin’s playmates for being such terrible child actors.
**I sincerely apologize for my terrible Yoda imitation. As we all know, he’s typically far more sexist than in this example.
***I was smacked a lot, and I wasn’t even a stepchild, so believe me when I tell you I know of what I speak.
Erik Kristopher Myers (aka ekm)