Early in William Gibson’s novel “Pattern Recognition,” from 2003, Cayce Pollard, a highly paid professional “coolhunter,” wanders through a London department store. Pollard is hypersensitive to the semiotics of brands: when a product is lame, she feels it physically, as a kind of pain. In the basement, she stumbles upon a display of clothes by Tommy Hilfiger. Recoiling from the “mountainside of Tommy,” she thinks, “My God, don’t they know?”
This stuff is simulacra of simulacra of simulacra. A diluted tincture
of Ralph Lauren, who had himself diluted the glory days of Brooks
Brothers, who themselves had stepped on the product of Jermyn Street
and Savile Row . . . . But Tommy surely is the null point, the black
hole. There must be some Tommy Hilfiger event horizon, beyond which it
is impossible to be more derivative, more removed from the source,
more devoid of soul.
I thought of this scene this weekend, after watching “Solo: A Star Wars Story.” “Solo” is an entertaining movie, with engaging performances, vivid production design, and enthralling action sequences. It’s also distressingly forgettable—it’s about nothing, an episode of “Seinfeld” with hyperdrive. In “Pattern Recognition,” Pollard wonders if Hilfiger’s blandness might be the source of his appeal: where most preppy clothes are freighted with meaning, Tommy allows you to look preppy without actually being that way. Similarly, “Solo” evokes “Star Wars” without quite being it. It isn’t the “null point” of the franchise, but it’s close.
To begin with, “Solo” confronts the problems of any prequel. It feels unnecessary and anticipatory of the real action, filling in the blanks without pushing the story forward. We already know what will happen—Han will meet Chewbacca, make the Kessel Run in twelve parsecs, win the Millenium Falcon in a card game, and end up a rakish bachelor—and this puts any genuine suspense out of reach. It’s hemmed in, moreover, by the staid psychology of the “origin story,” according to which people are destined only to become themselves. In origin stories, people almost never contain multitudes, and circumstances rarely leave room for choice; “Solo” discovers that the young Han is pretty much identical to the older one, with the same skills, mannerisms, and values. It would’ve been interesting to learn that Han was once a sensitive boy with a musical gift, or a talented athlete with prospects for the pros, or a genuinely flawed person in need of improvement. Instead, he turns out to have no hidden self and nothing to regret. Our understanding of him does not change.
Because “Star Wars” is so self-consciously mythic, “Solo” is especially vulnerable to the “simulacra of simulacra” problem. The original film was already an inspired remix, and nearly everything in the new movie is an echo of an echo. Donald Glover and Alden Ehrenreich are charismatic actors, but, as Lando and Han, they’re doomed to imitate the performances of Billy Dee Williams and Harrison Ford, who were themselves channelling blaxploitation and “Rebel Without a Cause.” (Emilia Clarke plays an intriguing new character—Han’s ex-girlfriend, a galactic gun moll—but isn’t given enough time to develop her in detail.) The movie’s set pieces—a high-speed train robbery, against-the-clock heist, and asteroid-field spaceship chase—are spectacular, but they’re also deeply familiar, either from the genre films that supply the raw material for “Star Wars” or from “Star Wars” itself. Even the details of the action are predetermined. Because the Millenium Falcon is so wide and flat, one of its coolest moves involves turning ninety degrees to slip through vertical spaces, which then prove too small for its Imperial pursuers. Early in “Solo,” Han attempts this maneuver with a land speeder (in a faux surprise, he fails); later, he does it successfully with the Falcon, while escaping a field of space debris. In “The Force Awakens,” Rey tips the Falcon while zooming through a wrecked Star Destroyer; in “The Empire Strikes Back,” Han does it while navigating a canyon on a giant asteroid. Space flight in “Star Wars” is intrinsically exciting, but repetition is rarely transcendent. Meanwhile, as the film draws to a close, its climactic moment turns out to be a riff on the “Han shot first” controversy—an inside-baseball fan debate about a 1997 revision to the original “Star Wars,” from 1977. The franchise is trapped in a loop of self-love.
At the center of “Solo” is the famous Kessel Run, during which Han must navigate a vast celestial storm. The sequence is thrilling and visually delightful; it’s also designed to evoke the asteroid-field chase in “The Empire Strikes Back.” In both chases, the Falcon bobs and weaves around giant rocks while someone (in “Solo,” it’s Woody Harrelson) tinkers with the ship’s engines; TIE fighters wipe out against tumbling asteroids, until a giant monster lunges into view (in “Empire,” it’s an asteroid worm; in “Solo,” a space jellyfish). For a number of reasons, the sequence in “Empire” is better than the one in “Solo.” It’s more cleverly assembled, cutting between broad humor (a toolbox falling on Han’s head, Chewie’s pained roars) and the Falcon’s graceful, balletic turns. But the biggest difference is the acting. As Solo, Ford is boastful, peremptory, and manly, almost to an unlikable degree; Carrie Fisher’s Leia is alert, assertive, and intelligent—it’s easy to imagine her writing the sorts of witty, forthright memoirs for which Fisher herself became known. The chase is also a seduction. (“You don’t have to do this to impress me,” Leia says, inaccurately.) The chemistry between them is lively and real.
Although many talented actors have appeared in the latter-day “Star Wars” movies—Natalie Portman, Oscar Isaac, John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, Ewan McGregor, and so on—none have seemed as present and vivid as Fisher and Ford in the original films. (For my money, only Felicity Jones, in “Rogue One,” and Laura Dern, in “The Last Jedi,” have come close.) The original actors were well cast. But there’s also the fact—simple and obvious though it may be—that they were first. They had the luxury of imitating no one in particular, and so could come across more fully as individuals. Unlike the actors who followed them, they could evoke no one but themselves.
During the sixteen-year interregnum between “Return of the Jedi” and “The Phantom Menace,” “Star Wars” fans were desperate. Their hunger for new films was so acute that, during trailers for the theatrical re-release of the original trilogy, in 1997, audiences cheered the Lucasfilm logo when it appeared onscreen. In 2012, when the Walt Disney Company spent around four billion dollars to buy Lucasfilm, it was hard to see the downside. “Star Wars” has never been indie; it’s impossible for a merchandising empire to sell out.
Still, the Disney acquisition changed the nature of “Star Wars” in fundamental, structural ways. In the May 28th, 2018, issue of the magazine, Stephen Metcalf explores Hollywood’s shift away from individuated, star-driven movies and toward sprawling “cinematic universes”—infinitely expandable constellations of intellectual property, through which actors can drift more or less at random. “Star Wars” is in the midst of this shift. It used to be a “saga”—a story told in the epic mode, in which the fate of the world is inextricably tied to the souls of cosmically important and irreplaceable individuals. It’s becoming a “universe,” in which atomized and interchangeable people embark on adventures that are individually exciting but ultimately inconsequential. At the moment, there are numerous “Star Wars” projects in the works, including one helmed by the creators of “Game of Thrones.” Each one will make the “Star Wars” universe bigger, while making each individual act within it smaller. From time to time, a cinematic universe will contain a story that’s complete in itself: the tragic, memorable “Rogue One,” from 2016, told the stories of its characters from beginning to end. On the whole, however, cinematic universes eschew real endings in favor of plots that are permanently incomplete. At the end of “Solo,” a new character is introduced (Enfys Nest, the leader of a biker gang called the Cloud Riders), and an old one is brought into the story (the cheesy villain Darth Maul). Their presence has little meaning within “Solo,” serving only to transform it into a prequel for some yet-to-be-written follow-up.
When the universalization of “Star Wars” is complete, it will no longer be a story but an aesthetic. We’ll be able to debate which actor played Han Solo best, just as we weigh the pros and cons of different James Bonds. We’ll keep up with the new movies not because we want to find out what happens—the plot, if one exists, will be an impenetrable trellis of intersecting arclets—but because we like their vibe, their look, and their general moral attitude. Collectively, the “Avengers” and DC Comics universes address a common set of issues: terrorism, globalization, inequality, the failure of states, and the responsibilities of élites. Similarly, “Star Wars” may become an endless meditation on adolescence through which different actors precipitate, first as teen-agers, then as parents. In film after film, interchangeable young people will wrestle with the dark side before embracing hope. There will be an infinite supply of high-speed space chases and lightsabre duels. But the story will never end, and so will have ceased to be a story.