REBLOG: SOLO: A Poverty Story, by James Wylder

I know I already reviewed Solo, but I just read my friend James Wylder’s take on the film and I thought it was interesting enough that I asked him if I could reblog it.  I’m packing for Indy Pop Con tonight, so this is actually pretty perfect timing.  Enjoy the piece, and check out James’ other work!

Spoilers throughout, btw.


solo-a-star-wars-storyI remember when my family went bankrupt during the Great Recession. This isn’t an uncommon story, it’s practically the story of America. I’d already known we had less money than other families. Reduced lunch at school told that story enough. There was an element of shame involved, when I lied about not being able to join friends on outings I couldn’t pay for. Eventually, shame grew into a facade of bravado, and I started to take risks I hadn’t considered.

After all, if you’re going to lose even if you work yourself to the bone everyday and do everything right like my father did, all because of higher powers outside your control, then why not shoot for something you truly want? A goal, a dream. To be a pilot, perhaps, or even a writer.

* * * *

Solo: A Star Wars Story isn’t the movie I thought it would be. I went in expecting a fun romp, but came out of with a strong pull on my heart that wouldn’t let go. This is my movie, and by golly am I glad it exists, but it’s also one that is already being unfairly looked over for reasons completely outside the bright light shone onto the walls of theaters everywhere. It’s not going to find it’s audience at the moment, but it’s going to find its audience in time, because counter to my expectations, Solo a Star Wars Story is about something.

It’s about being poor and downtrodden.

But it’s in space.

Which makes it a lot more fun.

The signals are clear from the get go: the opening title cards of Solo aren’t in the traditional scrolling format of the main Star Wars movies, the non-existent blink-and-gone of Rogue One, or the Newsreel of Clone Wars. Rather, these title cards come straight out of Cyberpunk. The easiest comparison is to Blade runner, with its flash card information to electronic tones. When these end, we don’t get the traditional shot of space, we get a shot of a dark engine and wires, as Han tries to make a spark strong enough to hotwire it.

Han lives on Corellia, a poor industrial world, rather like the rust belt I grew up in (but in SPACE). The sky is coated over with smog. We’re in Star Wars, but this is a different side of Star Wars. We’re not even allowed to see the Stars yet. With him is Qi’ra, his teenage sweetheart and childhood friend. Together, they’re begging for someone to make a fanvid set to “Livin’ on a Prayer”. They’ve formed a little impromptu family of the two of them, and they plan to escape and survive. They won’t live in this hellhole forever. They’ll get out.

Their life together is one we’ll see repeated throughout the movie: Han and Qi’ra live under a selfish leader (in this case named Proxima) who exploits the downtrodden for their own gain. They have little power, and their only power comes from understanding the rules around which their masters have built their powerhold, and exploiting them. Han and Qi’ra escape, but the plan goes wrong and they are separated on two sides of an Imperial checkpoint. Han may be bold, and he might be able to escape some thugs sent by a crimelord, but he can’t defeat a government. He and Qi’ra are helpless against this immigration border, no amount of clever tricks or violence will stop an army with a wall when it’s government has decided the lives of the people on one side of that wall aren’t good ones. The pain of separating this family is a terrible one, totally morally bankrupt, and it’s hard to imagine how anyone could approve of such things in our own world. And yet, some people thought the Berlin Wall was a good idea.

So now we’re left with Han alone. Unable to survive from here on out, and now alone, he does the thing plenty of poor folks do who need to escape their situation: he joins the military. The cut from Han joining to him fighting in a dark muddy hellscape is one of my favorite things in the movie, and the whole sequence set within the Imperial Military adds more to the Star Wars saga than a lot of things that look more impressive: here we get to see how awful and hollow being in the Empire really is. Officers shout trite propaganda slogans about serving the Empire that they even sound tired of yelling. Soldiers take off time by watching other soldiers get eaten by slaves. Han doesn’t care about the Empire, it’s just another big powerful force that’s trying to press him down. But he’s seen tons of those. It’s nothing special. The difference is its big enough he can get lost in it, and so can other criminals. We’re introduced to Beckett and his crew, impersonating Imperial officers, who exploit the unquestioning nature of the Empire to blend in, and get Han thrown under the bus to survive.

Here is the first turn of the movie, and it’s a nice one. Han has no desire to kill anyone, or to be involved in a war. What the empire is fighting over is invisible to the audience, and Han. But as Han is thrown into a pit to get eaten by a monster, we get the movie’s first real acknowledgement of it’s overarching message. In the pit is a wookie slave, forced to kill and eat imperials who don’t follow the rules. Fighting won’t work, and Han recognizes something here: both he and the wookie are victims of the same shit universe. Even as the wookie beats him up, he convinces the wookie they can escape together, and they do, achieving something neither could have alone. They reach Becket, who is impressed at their moxie, and Han and his new wookie friend Chewbacca escape the empire.

Which brings us into the main plot. We’re thrown into an adventure, where we see Han is very good at piloting, and not as good at everything else that isn’t piloting as he thinks he is. We’re also introduced to Enfys Nest and the Cloud Riders, a group of marauders constantly trying to steal the takes that Becket’s crew is after. It seems to be a standard space western, and good fun.

And we also meet Qi’ra again. This is the second turn of the film.

Qi’ra has gone from Han’s childhood friend to a more weathered femme fatale since we last saw her. Han dreamed of coming back to rescue her, a masculine dream where he could rescue the princess and save her, but the world didn’t work out that way. Saying she “saved herself!” sounds too nice, neither Han nor Qi’ra have actually gotten anywhere good, they’ve just managed to survive by the skin of their teeth. They’re poor, and the world has been shit to them, and they’ve both had to do what they’ve needed to. We’re not allowed to see what Qi’ra had to do alone, but we can see she’s ashamed of it. It’s heavily implied she’s murdered people, tortured people, and engaged in survival sex. These haven’t been choices Qi’ra made because she wanted to: she made them because she needed to live. Qi’ra is a strong woman, but like Han she is no better than a commodity to the people who lord over her.

People’s bodies being commodities is a constant theme throughout the film: this is a film about the physical reality of being oppressed, not about a spiritual battle between light and dark. Barriers block bodies from other bodies who love them. Bodies sell themselves into the military to escape destitution. Bodies sign up to be used by crimelords to escape destitution. We see bodies sold into slavery, checked in the teeth like cattle. Bodies with the top of the head, and hence the brain, cut off and replaced by computers serve drinks to crimelords. Bodies everywhere, and each one of them is a person who lives and feels and hurts. And the broader universe keeps turning because they are small, and not Jedi or Sith or Generals or Royalty. These bodies have to survive somehow. And by god, does it leave a mark.

Later in the film is one of the most poignant moments, of the film, where Qi’ra throws a bomb, and screams in solace and rage as she kills slavers on Kessel. Without making this movie unwelcoming for children, we can see all Qi’ra has suffered in this moment. Her righteous fury at the kind of people who hurt her her whole life boils over, and we have to confront it. We have to see that pain as she cries out. No masculine fantasy could save her. She had to survive, and survive among men who hated her. And she did. And her body is here, and breathing, and screaming, and by the force does she scream.

The characters in this film are all broken people in different ways, each covering over their cracks with facades. When those facades crack, the movie truly shines. As a surviver of some traumatic experiences, Han reassuring Qi’ra that he doesn’t care what she had to do to survive, he still wants her, was a great moment, and one of my favorite in the film. The cracks start getting wider still, and by the finale we’ll see something from each of them.

Kessel features the next turn in the film. We’ve picked up Lando and L3, since they have a ship and the crew needs that. Lando is similar to Han in a lot of ways, but he’s made it. He’s still living on the fringe of society, and he’s had to make dreams with Crimson Dawn like the rest of the crew did, but he isn’t in anyone’s debt anymore. Lando’s flaw is now that he’s reached that point, he’s forgotten what it took to get there. L3, the droid co-pilot to his ship, is frustrated by the servitude of Droids. It’s been a running theme throughout all of Star Wars: the audience can see clearly that droids are people, but the characters treat them as less than people. We’re told Lando has feelings for L3, and he cries when her body gets wrecked on Kessel, but he still talks about how he’d wipe her memory if she wasn’t so useful, leaning in to tell Han that in aside, like a man trying to get another man to join in with him on a sexist joke.

That we can see that this is hypocrisy, and the characters can’t, is the point. It’s been the point for decades, but here it’s shoved in our face. On Kessel, we see droids and organic beings all being used as slaves, and get two parallel stories showing their plights are the same. Chewie breaks off from the mission to save his fellow wookies, and L3 breaks off to save her fellow droids. A revolution begins, and the people who oppressed both of them get some comeuppance. L3, as noted, is nearly destroyed in their escape though, and only her memory is saved by placing it inside the Millenium Falcon itself.

There is a certain horror to the way the characters put L3 into the ship, she had no control over it after all, but L3’s desire for revolution and change perfectly fits the symbol the ship becomes. She is the Falcon, and she will become the savior of freedom in the Galaxy. But even she is a commodity, like any other character in the film.

The finale of the movie see’s nearly every character Han trusted aside from Chewbacca betray him. Becket betrays Han, and Han is forced to kill him before Becket can kill Han. Lando abandons him mid-showdown with Enfys Nest. Qi’ra, despite hating the world she’s lived in, cannot imagine leaving it. She takes her superior’s place in Crimson Dawn upon killing him, and takes on the role of helping run the very people who hurt her. Her parting words to Han are telling, “When I imagined you out there, it made me smile.”
Han’s life is a fantasy to Qi’ra. It’s beyond her own reality, and seeing that Han had survived without compromising as much as she did hurts. “You’re the good guy,” she says, and Han replies, “No I’m not, I’m a terrible person!”
But she’s right, in the end. And in letting Han go, she avoids letting him see the scars.

A lot has been made of a big twist towards the end of the movie about who was running Crimson Dawn, but that’s tertiary to our point. It’s not the twist I’m concerned with, at least. Really, the big twist of the movie is the reveal of Enfys Nest: a teenage girl of color who took over the role of freedom fighter from her mother. One could guess she might be as young as Han was when we met him back on Corellia. This is the point the movie truly turns. Everything we thought was going on was wrong—this isn’t a story of a group of rag-tag heroes trying to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, this is a rejection of it. The gang Han is a part of are the same kind of people who pushed him down his whole life. Crimson Dawn and Becket are no different than Proxima in her lightless pool on Corellia. They’re all content to use downtrodden people to make some sort of gain. Caught up in the adventure narrative, we’ve missed the real struggle of the movie.

This is the true brilliance of Solo: it’s not just that Han is poor, and Qi’ra is poor, it’s that the moral of the film isn’t “You can pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you work hard enough!”, but rather, “If you’ve suffered, do what you can to help others not suffer like you did.”

Han doesn’t reject Enfys Nest, nor does he give up on his dream. He doesn’t want to be a rebel (at least not yet) he gives away the money that could secure a life of peace for him because he has known suffering, and can’t abide to let other people suffer just like he did, even though they’re different from him. Neither different upbringing, nor skin color hold him back. He doesn’t let his own suffering be an excuse to be selfish, and not be good. He helps. It’s an important message, and one worth remembering.

Often times, in circles of people who want to improve the world, there is a sense that everyone should be fully devoting themselves to it at all times. This is impossible, of course, but it also sidelines the little sacrifices people make who don’t have the luxury to devote every moment to that. Solo is a movie about the unity of the downtrodden in the face of oppression, but one where the freedom fighters continue their battle against evil while the protagonists go off to try to make some more money to eat at the end.

We can all do something, and you don’t even have to be a hero or special or particularly clever. You can just be a decent person, and be unselfish when the people who have devoted themselves to heroism need you to be. You can go to work, and struggle, and hurt, and just be a normal guy, but a good guy.

And maybe your life won’t be a fairy tale, it’ll be filled with mud and pain, but maybe in ten years you’ll trip onto an old wizard and the chosen one and accidentally win the heart of the princess anyways, who knows.