Monday, August 20, 2018

Movies nowadays, Ready Player One, and how I would have written Solo: a Star Wars Story

I wouldn't call myself a die-hard fan, but I like Star Wars pretty well. So like many people, I saw Solo: a Star Wars Story on opening weekend.

I'm 43 years old, and I saw the original trilogy in theaters. Many people my age grew up thinking Han Solo was one of the coolest characters around. We waited 30 years for Episode 7, and if the internet is anything to go on, many big fans of the original movies were split on whether the new films were worth the wait, or whether they "ruined their childhood." Personally, I would have preferred if they had done the new movies a bit differently, but it's not really up to me, so I have tried to enjoy the movies as they are.

For the most part, I think the reason I don't like the newer movies as much is less to do with whether or not it feels like Star Wars, and more to do with my distaste with how big budget movies tend to be made nowadays. To me they feel rushed from action scene to action scene, with the minimum character development they can get away with. I don't see the passage of time done well, which hinders story development and any semblance of an epic feel.

My go-to movie to show what I mean is Starship Troopers. In that movie, we follow the main characters from their utter beginning in high school, through their respective neophyte military careers, through their veteran status, where they have gained a ton of experience, learned, and grown a lot. I feel like Starship Troopers does a great job of this, and I feel like those characters really did grow and learn over time.

I recently saw Ready Player One, and while I enjoyed the movie, I don't even consider it to be the same story as the book, and it's not nearly as strong or epic a story. Much of the reason for that, I think, is because events just sort of happen to the characters. They're thrown from scene to scene in quick succession, and the whole movie takes place over the span of what, 1 day? Without time for the events to sink in, the characters don't learn anything, they don't grow, they hardly even have any agency. In the book, events occur over big lengths of time. Wade's relationship with Artemis grows over many interactions over time (never mind how sort of stalker-y it is). Solving the puzzles takes time and thought. Wade spends time hiding from IOI, planning his infiltration of it, etc. It's not all just immediate idea-to-resolution.

After reading Ready Player One, I also read Ernest Cline's other book, Armada. To me, Armada feels like an earlier book, which was probably written first, and some parts of which Cline probably built upon when writing Ready Player One. One of the things that made me feel like Armada was an early attmempt was that the entire epic-seeming story takes place over the span of 1 day. People can't process such epic events, learn from them, and grow over such a short timeframe -- it doesn't sound right, it doesn't feel right, and it doesn't come across right.

But that seems to be how they make movies nowadays. Maybe not every movie, but the big budget blockbuster movies seem to go that way. Certainly the new Star Wars movies have. And that brings us back to Solo: a Star Wars Story.

Let me be clear, I am exactly the audience for a movie about a young Han Solo. I heard a great point made, that it really should have been a Lando Calrissean movie -- we met Han in a dive bar, and nobody cares how someone ended up a loser in a dive bar, but when we met Lando, he was king of a mining colony, and it would be cool to see how a lowlife grifter became king of a mining colony. That may have been a better idea to start with, but I'm still in for a Han Solo origin story. There are all kinds of things they talk about or hint at in the original trilogy that would be fun to see on the big screen, even if they're not new and surprising.

I went into Solo with low expectations as far as that origin story goes. I fully expected a modern-style movie, with the characters rushing from action scene to action scene, but at least it would be in the Star Wars universe, with cool Star Wars stuff, and plenty of references to the original Star Wars movies. In that I was not disappointed. I enjoyed the movie well enough, but it's definitely not how I would have written a Han Solo back story...

In my view, there are certain obvious items that must be included:
* The Kessel Run -- what is it, and how did Han Solo do it in 12 Parsecs (what does that even mean)?
* Chewbacca -- how did Solo earn his life debt?
* Millenium Falcon -- what happened between Han and Lando that resulted in Han owning the Falcon?
* What was Han like when he was younger, and how did he become a smuggler?
* How did he become the scoundrel we meet on Tatooine, who we know has the strength of character to become a hero of the rebellion?
* And perhaps we should see him drop his cargo at the first sign of an imperial  starship (because hey, even he gets boarded sometimes).

To be fair, Solo: a Star Wars Story did address most of that, but to be honest I don't like how they did. It's possible that some of the story was taken from or inspired by the Star Wars expanded universe stuff that I'm not familiar with, but that doesn't make it any better. So how would I have liked to see the story go?

For starters, the Kessel Run... I would have preferred to see it be established that the Kessel Run is some well known thing in smuggler society, like a dangerous route (via Kessel) from one important area to another, a route so dangerous that the Empire doesn't bother patrolling it. So smugglers who want to avoid imperial entanglements do a "Kessel Run," through this longer, more dangerous route. The more brazen the pilot, the more dangerous route they're willing to take, and the less out of the way they need to go, and it's well known that the shortest, reasonably safe path is on the order of 20 parsecs (and that takes a skilled pilot with some savvy navigation software or whatever). Maybe this is well known because for fun (or for gambling), smugglers regularly attempt to outdo each other, with the leaderboards in bars around the galaxy showing 20 parsecs as the current record.

I would like to see that established early in the movie, perhaps referenced later as well, to give the idea that it's a well known, ubiquitous thing, but it shouldn't be a record that Han Solo is out to break. I'm not sure he should even start out as a smuggler. You see, Han Solo tends to sort of bumble through life, occasionally doing big things almost by accident. So instead of being some hotshot smuggler pilot, I'd like to have seen him sort of fall into the role of smuggling something for Jabba the Hutt, drop his cargo when approached by an imperial starship, flee along the dangerous "Kessel Run" path, and while fumbling with the computer and trying to escape the imperials (not a stupid space squid), he accidentally takes a shortcut that nobody in their right mind would try on purpose. But due to luck and the fact that he's inherently a decent pilot, and maybe the Falcon's really good navigation system, he manages to survive, making the Kessel Run in only 12 or so parsecs. Of course when we see him on Tatooine a decade later, he's bragging about the feat, but it's not something he did on purpose, nor something he'd likely try again. Some of that is similar to what happened in Solo, but I'm not a fan of the space squids, and I don't think they established the "Kessel Run" as a thing people would be talking about years later.

Next, Chewbacca. Simply put, my understanding is that Han somehow rescued Chewbacca, and as a result Chewie owes Han a life debt, and so follows him around and they became friends. Solo did show something to that effect, and I didn't mind how they treated that relationship per se, but I might have written it a little differently. First off, the rescue in Solo didn't seem like that big a deal. Would that type of thing justify a "life debt"? Also, Han did it to save himself as much as to save Chewie. I think it would have been cool if, maybe again almost by accident or as an afterthought, Han did something to really save Chewbacca (and other Wookiees?) in a big way, but didn't take Chewie with him and be buddies right away. Like maybe he somehow saves Chewie's life, then later he's in trouble, and Chewie is there to help out. Then Han's like "thanks" and leaves again, but later hooks up with Chewie again and is like "why are you following me around?" And Chewie says he owes him a life debt, and Han's like "whatever *shakes head and goes about his business* -- maybe he lets Chewie tag along (like in Solo, when he finds out he's a decent co-pilot). Like Han and Luke in A New Hope, I could see Han initially being reluctant friends with Chewie, but then having the hairball grow on him over time.

The Millennium Falcon and Lando. I think Solo did a pretty good job with Lando. Or at least Donald Glover did. But the poker style game where Han won first lost to Lando due to cheating, and later won due to counteracting his cheating, was disappointing. Who is this guy, and why is he so confident at this game? James Bond spent an hour of screen time in Casino Royal "outplaying" Le Chiffre at poker, and if you ask me, they blew that (there was a great hand where Bond DID out play him, but that didn't amount to anything in the movie. I found it anticlimactic when Bond finally won simply by drawing the best possible hand, not due to any skill). If that's the way they were going to go, I would have preferred to see some reason to believe Han could outplay Lando, or some reason he thought he could anyway. Lando cheating was probably good (I think Han accused him of that in the original trilogy), and catching him cheating like he did in the movie was good too, I just didn't like the "oh, poker? Turns out I'm like, really good at poker!" (I know it wasn't "poker" -- but that Sabat game or whatever it's called seemed pretty similar to poker to me). All they really had to do in the movie is show Han playing Sabat in the beginning of the movie to hustle people out of their portions or something and that would have played better for me. Other than that, I think the movie did an OK job of summarizing things between Lando and Han, I guess.

Overall, I wouldn't have made Han Solo's back story a heist movie. I think I would have liked to see Han as a more regular (if mischievous) guy, who for one reason or another gets in over his head. I guess Solo did portray him as trusting, and then he got betrayed, and maybe as a result he's all hard and cold by the time we see him in Mos Eisley. I guess that works, but I'm not sure I liked how it went down in the movie.

I'm no screenwriter, so I don't know that I could really write a Han Solo origin story as a movie, but I do think I would have preferred to see some of the things I mentioned in lieu of some of the stuff that they did in Solo: a Star Wars Story (preferably done by someone who's good at writing movies). And I would like to see the action unfold over time, not over a day or a week, but over enough time the the actions have some long term effect and meaning.

No comments: