The hero of Solo can’t be Han Solo

dmwqziuvoaut69--1038845.jpgI’m starting to worry about Solo: A Star Wars Story.

My fears are probably misplaced: Disney has so far had a strong batting average since it became the steward of Lucasfilm— to say nothing of its success shepherding Marvel. And to be honest, the thing that scares me isn’t the loss of the original directors, or complaints about Disney’s heavy-handed involvement, or concerns about the cast. The nagging doubt I have is that it may not be possible to do justice to the character of Han Solo in a prequel because Han Solo isn’t a hero yet.

The challenge that Solo faces is that it needs Han’s character needs to end up as we see him in A New Hope. And there’s no way around it, but Han Solo isn’t a hero at the start of Episode IV. He’s not even particularly nice: he’s a selfish, money-grubbing pirate. Han only offers passage to Alderaan to Luke and Obi-Wan to pay off his debts. He’s perfectly happy to sit out Luke’s plan to rescue Leia until he’s enticed with an offer of payment. And, yes, Han shoots Greedo in self-defence, despite the best efforts of George Lucas to make us forget.

The reason that the audience reacted poorly to Lucas’s retcon of Greedo’s murder is that it undermines Han’s character development. The whole point of his character arc is that he starts off as a despicable— if charming— scumbag, a low-life criminal, yet by the end of the film, enough of Luke’s idealism has worn off on the old smuggler that he’s inspired to risk his life to save his friends and destroy the Death Star. That’s the standard Hollywood formula: a flawed character learning to overcome their failings in the face of overwhelming difficulty.

The challenge, then, is how can Solo present Han becoming the unlikable cad he is in A New Hope in a way that doesn’t alienate him to the audience. Solo has to end with its lead character as the selfish murderer that Luke meets in the Mos Eisley cantina. There are plenty of examples in fiction of narratives that centre around unpleasant yet fascinating characters and their fall into darkness: one only needs to think of from Macbeth or Breaking Bad to realise that Lucasfilm could pull off this kind of narrative arc. The problem is that falls from grace are by definition tragic, and I doubt that Disney wants it’s second Star Wars anthology to leave the cinema feeling bummed out. This is going to be fun-filled, action-packed romp, full of knowing glances and memetic one-liners, not a heavy-handed character study about how a wide-eyed young pilot became the scruffy-looking nerf herder who fried Greedo on sight.

Maybe that’s why so many prequels disappoint. The resolution to great fiction should be “surprising yet inevitable:” that is, the ending should surprise the audience, but in a way that makes it clear that this was always the way things were going to go down. We’re surprised that Frodo cannot bring himself to destroy the ring, because the sheer weight of narrative causality would seem to compel the hero to fling the source of the villain’s power into the fire; yet somehow, it seems inevitable that the Ring would seduce Frodo, because we’ve seen its influence over the course of three books/movies. The problem with this is that it’s hard to surprise the audience when we know how the story is going to end. It’s an issue that Star Wars itself has faced more than once, most notably in the prequel trilogy where the transformation of Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader was a foregone conclusion, yet it was difficult to square how the character went from petulant adolescent to cold-hearted space-tyrant. Even Rogue One, a film that sticks its landing with far more success than the earlier prequels, was a foregone conclusion: the rebels get the Death Star plans, and the only surprise was the gradual realisation that the film’s heroes were not going to make it out alive.

I’m going to see Solo whatever happens. I’m probably going to love it. I may end up taking back every word I’ve just written come May, like when I said I wasn’t going to watch Game of Thrones anymore. I just wonder if a film detailing the early life of Han Solo is necessarily the slam dunk it appears to be at first glance.

Maybe they should have just made the film about Lando?

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Spooktober, Day 26: Halloween films for people who don’t like horror

Today I thought I’d do something different for Spooktober. I know horror isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and I didn’t want anyone to feel left out because I think there’s enough magic in Halloween that it doesn’t just have to be about blood and suffering and that cold, pale hand resting on your shoulder…
So, just for a change (and not at all because I’m starting to run out of horror-related books to talk about), I thought I’d throw out a few ideas for films to watch for people who don’t like horror. Feel free to throw suggestions at me for any others, because I might be coming back to this later if I don’t read fast enough!

movieposter.jpgThe Cabin In The Woods

“Yes, you had “Zombies.” But this is “Zombie Redneck Torture Family.” They’re two entirely separate species. It’s like the difference between an elephant and an elephant seal.”

I’m going to start with a borderline case. Of all the films on this list, The Cabin in the Woods is the closest to actual horror, with strong, bloody violence and the occasional jump-scare. It also presupposes a familiarity with horror movies (or at least their tropes). But it’s also critical of many of the mean-spirited and pointless cliches that pop up again in horror— especially teen slasher movies— so it’s worth seeing even if you don’t like horror, so long as you’re okay with the grisly parts.
It’s similar in tone to Buffy the Vampire Slayer (which isn’t a surprise given the involvement of Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard), full of wit and never really taking itself too seriously. It recognises how problematic horror can be, and the self-awareness helps cushion the blow.
There’s not really more I can say about it since explaining the film’s premise is basically a spoiler (seriously, even the trailer gave it away). Feel free to watch it with the lights one, because the joy of this film isn’t really in the scares. I’m willing to bet that by the end, you might even be cheering for the monsters…

Hotel TransylvaniaMV5BMTM3NjQyODI3M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMDM4NjM0OA@@._V1_UY1200_CR90,0,630,1200_AL_.jpg

“What is this place? It is a place I build for all those monsters out there lurking in the shadows, hiding from the persecution of human kind. A place for them and their families to come to and free themselves. A place void of torches, pitchforks and angry mobs! A place of peace, relaxation and tranquillity.”

“Cool, so it’s like a hotel for monsters?”

“Yes, exactly. A hotel for monsters. Way to sum it up.”
Part of me wishes I didn’t like Hotel Transylvania. It want’s to dismiss it as just another cookie-cutter CGI movie spat out for half-term, loaded with gratuitous celebrity voice actors and pop culture references. It even ends with a dance party to pop music. So why do I like it so much?
It’s fun, it’s harmless, and there are cameos from just about every classic movie monster I can think of. At its core, there’s also a lovely, touching, earnest performance from Adam Sandler as Dracula (yes, I’m as surprised as anyone). Sandler manages to play the Count as a sympathetic but misguided overprotective dad, and it’s genuinely heartbreaking when we discover his motivation for wanting his daughter safe. It helps that Dracula is animated with such fluidity and comic timing, and the most heartwarming smile ever seen from an animated STD-metaphor.

06-dyk-nightmare.jpgThe Nightmare Before Christmas

“There’s children throwing snowballs
Instead of throwing heads.
They’re busy building toys
And absolutely no one’s dead!”
This one’s pretty obvious.
Which side do you fall down on? Is The Nightmare Before Christmas a Halloween movie, or a Christmas movie?
I was a sensitive child. I screamed all the way through The Little Mermaid when I first saw it because I was terrified that a singing cephalopod might turn me into a polyp. But I never had a problem with The Nightmare Before Christmas. That might be because I was so traumatised by Tim Burton’s short film Vincent, which ran before Nightmare, so I had no terror left for Jack Skellington et al.
I suspect most people that are reading this know how good this film is. The stop-motion animation is excellent. The character designs are charming. The songs are memorable (they’re probably stuck in your head right now). Is there anything new to be said about The Nightmare Before Christmas?
Well, it’s possibly the most accessible allegory for the dangers of cultural appropriation

dracula1931.jpgDracula (1931)

“To die, to be really dead, that must be glorious! There are far worse things awaiting man than death.”
Quick experiment: imagine Dracula speaking. How does he sound? What accent does he use? I am willing to bet that ninety-nine point nine percent of people reading this are hearing Bela Lugosi.
Whether you like or not, for most of us Lugosi is the count. His performance has this strange, stilted pacing (“I neffer drink… vine”) that makes him feel eerie and inhuman. It’s almost heartbreaking to watch with the knowledge that his role as Dracula left Lugosi typecast for the rest of his career. He’s become so iconic, his role so often imitated, parodied and mocked, that it’s almost impossible to take seriously. Which is why I’m tempted to suggest that if you’re going to watch the original Universal adaptation of Dracula, treat it like a comedy.
Maybe it’s unfair to point out the flaws of a film whose leading man was born in the nineteenth century, but Dracula is pretty safe to watch now. If anything, its age has leant it a goofy charm and magnified. Why does is Castle Dracula infested with armadilloes? Was anyone really convinced by a rubber bat on a string hoisted outside the window? Why do all the Transylvanian peasants speak English? How does no one instantly grok that the sinister pale man in an opera cape might be up to something?
It’s not my favourite cinematic Dracula (I love the camped-up ham of the 90s version with Gary Oldman), but it’s probably the safest if you don’t want to get too scared. The central performance is mesmerising, and there’s a lot of fun to have from watching everyone else ham it up in response.

ParanormanMV5BMjA1OTU1NDM3N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMjYxNTg0Nw@@._V1_UY1200_CR89,0,630,1200_AL_.jpg

“But what about the people who hurt you? Don’t you ever want to make them suffer?

“Well, yeah, but what good would that do?”
I don’t get why Paranorman isn’t celebrated as a modern Halloween classic.
On paper it’s reasonably straightforward: young Norman is ostracised as a weirdo due to his ability to see and talk to the dead, until the day he is called upon to stop a witch’s curse from coming true. But what really gives Paranorman its soul is the way it’s prepared to tackle difficult themes in a way that doesn’t feel inappropriate for a family film.
Everything about it screams “Halloween,” from children who talk to the dead, to witches, to zombies, to ancient curses. Like all of Laika’s film, there’s a fundamental faith in the essential decency of mankind. No one in this movie is genuinely evil: the conflict comes from the prejudice and short-sightedness of the characters. It’s a necessary lesson for anyone to learn, whatever their age may be.

Spooktober, Day 10: The Ring, by Koji Suzuki

06-Sadako-1.jpg

‘Before you die, you see the ring…’

Today’s entry in our Spooktober marathon is going to be a little different because although The Ring was initially a novel by Koji Suzuki, I’m going to be talking mostly about the film adaptation(s). Why? Because The Ring is one of those rare anomalies where I honestly believe that the film adaptation is better than the original novel. Partly it’s because I’ve only read the book in translation; partly it’s because the films excise some of the more problematic aspects of the novel (including, the more sordid details of Sadako’s backstory, and Ryuji’s rather tasteless enthusiasm for sexual assault). Mostly I think it’s because this is a story that works better with a supernatural bent than a pseudo-scientific explanation: Sadako in the film is a ghost, in the Japanese tradition of vengeful onryo, rather than a combined electromagnetic/psychic manifestation of syphilis. But then, the first movie was directed by Suzuki himself, so it’s not like I’m downplaying his role by stating a preference for the film.

It’s also unusual in that the western remake is not only competent but arguably as good as the original. So whichever interpretation is your favourite is up to you.

In case you’re not familiar with it, The Ring is the story of a cursed videotape that kills anyone who watches it, and the desperate quest to find a way to stop it. Although it felt fresh and new to a Western audience, The Ring is actually working within a rich tradition of Japanese horror: ghoulish spirits seeking vengeance with power they never had in life; haunted, animated technology; the invasion of the everyday by the uncanny. It all reads like a subversion of the typical ghost story tropes, leading to an end that puts a genius (and savage) twist on the hope that appeasing the spirit will deflect its vengeance. Yet it’s also subtle: the Japanese film only features one horrifying moment towards the end, but I still had to stop and switch on the lights a couple of times while watching as the tension built but was never really allowed to deflate. It’s a work that lingers long after it’s over by playing on our paranoia, by stoking the fear that our everyday environment and all our technological comforts could be used against us.