Bring Me the Head of Han Solo
Harrison Ford has been a good soldier in the Star Wars. He did whatever was asked of him by his commanding officer, George Lucas, even when his commanding officer was wrong. Now that Ford is back in Star Wars, and J.J. Abrams is running the show, Abrams's first order of business should be to give Ford what he's wanted for decades: death. It's time to kill Han Solo.
For the good of the movie. For the good of the movies, which changed after 1977, largely for the worse. To restore balance to the Force. To redeem the much-abused Star Wars brand, so tarnished by prequels and such that Disney paid $4.05 billion for it. (Technically for Lucasfilm, but that's Star Wars, mostly.)
Abrams should welcome Ford back by rubbing him out. Honorably. Heroically. But decisively, and for the love of God, permanently. Not Spock-dead. Not Agent Coulson-dead. Dead. Solo? He gotta go-lo.
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, Ford built an airtight case for Solo's demise in Return of the Jedi, the original trilogy finale that opened 31 Memorial Day weekends ago. From the 2004 making-of documentary, Empire of Dreams:
Harrison Ford: I thought Han Solo should die. I thought he ought to sacrifice himself for [Luke and Leia]. He's got no mama. He's got no papa. He's got no future. He has no story responsibilities at this point. So let's allow him to commit self-sacrifice.
Screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan: I also felt someone had to go. . . . It should happen very early in the last act so you begin to worry about everybody.
Lucas overruled them, of course. He doesn't bother to say in that documentary what his rebuttal to his star and writer's fully-armed-and-operational-arguments was. Gary Kurtz, the producer of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back who parted ways with Lucas when they couldn't agree on Jedi's tone — Kurtz wanted it more downbeat, and to include Solo's death — said in a 2010 Los Angeles Times interview that Lucas forbade any plot developments that might cut into toy sales.
As someone who owned three different Han Solo action figures in 1985 or thereabouts — reflecting his very minor wardrobe changes in each of the three movies — I am the proof of Lucas's instincts as a businessman. Not that I'd have ditched them if I had seen Han Solo die onscreen. I sold my Star Wars figures cheap at a yard sale when I was 11 or 12. Puberty was going to arrive whether Han Solo died or didn't.
This might be why the hero of Ford's other franchise with George Lucas, Henry "Indiana" Jones Jr., Ph.D., always mattered more to Ford than Han Solo did: It's easier for a grown man to connect to his 12-year-old self than to his eight-year-old one. The Indiana Joneses are geared for a slightly older audience, whereas the heart of the Star Wars pictures is decidedly preadolescent. The difference, obviously, is sex. Indiana Jones has it. No one in the Star Wars universe does. ("When a man and a woman love each other very much, they lie down together and then, uh, Midichlorians, probably?") Try to imagine Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman in bed together and the viewscreen in your mind automatically flips to a musical number from the Ewok village. You can't do it.
Lucas's sudden artistic conservatism came at Jedi's expense. It was a massive hit, of course, but it's a much lousier movie than it needed to be. Empire, the trilogy's tense, frightening, mysterious, mythologically rich middle chapter, remains unimpeachable, a stellar achievement in fantasy filmmaking. But Jedi is a lumbering, repetitive, tin-earned toy ad, made all the poorer by a historically awful performance from Ford.
It isn't his fault that he spends the first 19 minutes of this 134-minute picture as a wall hanging in Jabba the Hutt's stately pleasure dome. (These time stamps reflect the "Special Edition" Jedi, as Lucas has made it tough to lay hands on the original theatrical versions, further alienating his constituents.) Or that Solo, so cocksure and unpredictable in A New Hope, so rakish and desperate and arrogant in Empire (Leia: "I love you!" Han: "I know."), seems to have suffered a possibly carbonite-induced testosterone plunge reminiscent of that dispiriting moment when once-edgy stand-up comics start talking about their adorable kids. (In fact, Solo is the father of twins by Leia in Timothy Zahn's 1991 Star Wars novel Heir to the Empire, but Disney announced only last week that that's officially non-canonical now — an "imaginary story," in the delightful language of 1950s DC Comics.) We'll forgive Solo his mojolessness during Jedi's first act — he can't even see, when he's first unfrozen. For a few moments, it seems his year or so as a conversation piece in Jabba's lair had left him afflicted with space PTSD. Intriguing! Will the balance of the film explore this?
As Darth Vader would say: "Nooooooooooooooooooooo!"
As soon as the rebel scum regroup from rescuing Han, Jedi falls to pieces.
Q: Why do the rebels ask Han, their freshly thawed flying ace, to lead the rebel ground attack on the Imperial shield generator that's protecting Death Star II: Ha, We Had a Spare?
Q: Why do they assign the bombing run on Death Star II to Lando? OK, yes, Han Solo won his ship, the Millennium Falcon, from Lando in a card game or something, but Lando's recent job experience is as the administrator of a mining facility on the planet Bespin. ("If we are to take out the Death Star — again, yes — we'll need someone with nerves of steel and a thorough understanding of the galactic tax code who knows how to take advantage of the incentives for tibana gas extraction facilities, which the Imperial Senate seems unlikely to renew at this juncture.")
A: Because this is a movie, and moreover, a movie primarily for kids. Fair enough. But why then does Ford spend so many scenes shrugging and mugging and bugging his eyes? The moment that seems to foreshadow his death — minute 53, when he looks at the Falcon and says to Leia, "I just got a funny feeling, like I'm not going to see her again" — is Ford's most convincing line reading of the film. It's the only time he's playing the arc he wants to play.
Imagine for a moment that the same strain of insanity that led Warner Bros. executives to envision Superman III, one of Jedi's competitors in the summer of 1983, as a Richard Pryor vehicle, had led Lucas to recast the role of Han Solo with Chevy Chase. What would that movie have looked like?
The correct answer is that it would be identical in every way to the Return of the Jedi we all saw. Harrison Ford is Chevy Chase in this movie. Whether this was an artistic choice or simply Ford's unwillingness to conceal his boredom, Han Solo has been reborn as a neutered, hapless dad. Even his haircut is 70 percent less cool than it was in Empire. "Hey, it's me!" he reassures Luke, seconds before stepping on a twig that gives his position away to an Imperial soldier. When it comes to guerilla warfare, Han Solo is one hell of a space pilot.
Ford's voiceover for the original release cut of Blade Runner — which he'd famously made as dull as possible in the hope the producers who'd demanded it over director Ridley Scott's objections would reject it as unusable — is better than his bored line readings in Jedi. His performance in the pilloried Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is better than his performance in Jedi.
You know what's light years better than his performance in Jedi? His swaggering star turn in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom only a year later. The violence and unpredictability of Indiana Jones in Temple of Doom is everything that Jedi's emasculated, minivan-driving, twig-stepping, Ewok-hugging, freely-sharing-his-feelings Han Solo isn't. Same with the movie, which feels tense and dangerous and utterly bonkers. (And more than a little — what's that word? — racist, but no more so than The Phantom Menace.) The point is that sneering, calculating, first-shooting, Nerf-herding Han Solo was still kicking around inside of Ford, but Ford wanted to save him for Indiana Jones. You can't blame him, really. After the triumph of The Empire Strikes Back, Lucas never really allowed Han Solo to become unfrozen.
Lucas has always been obsessed with control. After Star Wars, he risked his shirt to finance the three-times-as-costly The Empire Strikes Back himself so he could retain complete creative control along with sequel and merchandising rights — and take notes from nobody. Indeed, Lucas paid for the latter five of the six extant theatrical, live-action Star Wars movies out of his own deeper-than-a-sarlacc's-belly pocket. They are as indie, in the most literal sense of the term, as it is possible for indie films to get. This means that all the fart and whoops-I-stepped-in-shit jokes in The Phantom Menace are there because they're an essential part of Lucas's precious creative vision. If he's got a motto for Star Wars, it's No Child Left Behind.
Last week fans thrilled to a black-and-white photo from the first table read of the script for Abrams's Star Wars: Episode VII — which, if you're looking for reasons to be optimistic, was penned by Kasdan, who wrote The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark, in addition to writing and directing many films that've probably sold fewer lunchboxes: Body Heat, The Big Chill, Grand Canyon, etc. Kasdan was in the photo. Fresh young faces Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, and Domhnall Gleeson were there. Familiar but unrecognizable faces (because usually they're behind digital or physical masks, you see) Peter Mayhew and Andy Serkis, too. Oscar Isaac, the brilliant star of the brilliant Inside Llewyn Davis, showed up. And Abrams and R2-D2, watching from an open packing crate just outside the circle of chairs. (Droids get much affection but no respect.) Also present: Original trilogy stars Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and, most surprising of all, 71-year-old Ford.
The cosmic generational comedown of the prequels remains fresh in our memories. The last and least terrible of them, Revenge of the Sith, hit theaters nine years ago this month, which means any Blade Runner–type critical reconsideration suggesting that perhaps we judged George Lucas's busy, noisy, lifeless latter-day movies too harshly would've happened by now. What enthusiasm there is for the upcoming films — and there is a lot — is on account of the still-strong residual affection for the original movies, though Lucas can't stop tinkering with them. And because Abrams seems like he just might have a clue how to inject some life back into Star Wars, as his two Star, er, Trek films have demonstrated.
And because of the return of the original cast.
Don't squander this opportunity to restore balance to the force, J.J. Abrams. The last thing the tarnished Star Wars brand needs now is another bored and noncommittal Harrison Ford performance. (If he wants to walk on and transform into a werewolf, like he did in Anchorman 2, that'd be fine.) The pattern set by the first two trilogies is that in the first chapter, a mentor is sacrificed: Obi-Wan Kenobi in A New Hope, Qui-Gon Jinn in The Phantom Menace. In fact, Qui-Gon's slaying by Darth Maul, and the thrilling lightsaber duel surrounding it — more athletic than the one in Empire — is one of only a handful of scenes in the entire seven-hour prequel trilogy that achieves any emotional heft. The big Obi-Wan vs. Anakin fight two movies later, wherein Anakin sustains the injuries that will result in his rebirth as that mouth-breathing cyborg Darth Vader, needed to feel exponentially more dire than that earlier melee, given its significance in the saga. It didn't.
But then, Anakin lived — in the literal sense, anyway. And death is powerful. Especially in a genre where it's so rare and reversible.
To save Han Solo, we have to kill him.
Search your feelings. You know it to be true.
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