Boy, this one’s frustrating.
To start, I suppose I should address the elephant in the room: I’m not going to relitigate the director situation in this piece. I have my own theories on how it all went down, but the fact is that none of us know and none of us are likely to ever know, at least not for a very long time. I’m also not going to play the game of trying to attribute individual scenes or sequences; that’s folly under the best of circumstances, and this clearly isn’t. By most accounts, the movie as it exists is almost entirely Ron Howard’s and that’s how I’m going to approach it.
So let’s talk about Ron Howard’s (and Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan’s) Solo.
Doing an origin story for Han Solo is a fundamentally bad idea, but it’s one that’s been kicking around in some form or another for the better part of two decades. In early drafts of Revenge of the Sith, Lucas had written in an appearance for a young Han on Kashyyyk. After that idea was ultimately abandoned, the story of Han meeting Chewie and winning the Millennium Falcon from Lando was meant to be part of the never realized Star Wars: Underworld live action series Lucas was developing before shifting his focus primarily to The Clone Wars. As late as 2012, Lucas was still planning to do a young Han Solo movie and commissioned Lawrence Kasdan to write the script – thus begins the life of what would eventually be known as Solo: A Star Wars Story.
So why do I say a young Han Solo movie is a bad idea? After all, it’s one that comes from straight from George Lucas, and I’ve spent the better part of this series so far defending Lucas’s underlying story instincts even if I think his ideas weren’t always properly executed. The problem is that where we meet Han in the original Star Wars is the only correct place to begin that character’s journey. Unlike Anakin and Obi-Wan and Yoda who are characters we’re meeting at the end of their journeys, Han is at the beginning of his. Sure, there’s inherently more action implied in being smuggler than a moisture farmer, but in terms of character arcs, doing a young Han Solo story wouldn’t make much more sense than a young Luke Skywalker movie; both of these men are waiting for the defining moments of their lives, it’s just that one of them isn’t actively yearning for it.
Therein lies the fundamental problem: to not negatively impact the arc Han Solo follows in the original film, he can’t really go on much of an arc in the prequel. Either Han spends the entire movie running in place, or we see that his journey began long before we first met him, which threatens to undermine what made the character so compelling in his initial appearance.
Solo, weirdly, does both.
As the movie begins, we meet Han on Corellia, roughly six years after the end of Revenge of the Sith. The planet is home to massive Imperial shipyards and amidst these grand machinations for galactic conquest, a young Han is able to slip through the cracks as one of crime lord Lady Proxima’s army of children miscreants. He and his girlfriend, Qi’ra, have long talked about escaping Corellia to find freedom and adventure out among the stars, and that idle fantasy threatens to become reality as Han manages to steal a supply of the dangerous and highly valuable hyperspace fuel, coaxium. They flee from Proxima’s thugs as they make a run to the local spaceport, but in the chaos, Han is separated from his companion, and Qi’ra is forcibly pressed back into service for Proxima. With nowhere else to turn, Han signs up for the Imperial Navy, hoping to get enough experience as a pilot to someday return and rescue his friend. The story then jumps forward another three years, Han falls in with a group of guns for hire, and we proceed to have every facet of Han as he existed in the original movie explained to us in excruciating detail.
This is the frustrating thing about Solo. For all the talk about the small-universe syndrome and “prequelitis” that plagued George Lucas’s prequel trilogy, it never, ever reached the absurd depths that this movie sinks to. We see Han meet Chewie, we see Han win the Millennium Falcon, from Lando, we see the origin of Lando’s mispronunciation of Han’s name, we see Han get his blaster, we learn that Han’s last name was made up by an Imperial recruiter playing off the fact that he is alone. Literally, the big emotional climax of the movie is little more than a fan service punchline playing off the longstanding “Han shot first” meme. Some parts of this work better than others – the meeting between Han and Chewie is genuinely a delight – but all of it, combined with endless empty reference to bits and pieces of Star Wars apocrypha (fucking Teräs Käsi?!) adds up to a film that is more concerned with eliciting cheers of recognition from a Star Wars convention crowd than in telling any sort of compelling story on its own. And Disney wonders why this movie didn’t make any money.
In some ways, I sincerely think Solo is the worst Star Wars movie. It without question is the worst Star Wars script. What saves it from being totally irredeemable, though, is that the craft on display is impeccable. For whatever we may have lost with the firing of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, Ron Howard is an excellent director – better by far than George Lucas. So even though, on paper, I find Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith to be more compelling stories, Solo is endlessly more watchable as a film. It’s dumb as a bag of bricks, but it’s fun! It moves like a rocket, propelling you from setpiece to setpiece before you have a chance to dwell on how empty it all is from a story perspective. The aesthetics, especially in the creature design, is top notch; some of my favorite aliens in all of Star Wars are in this movie. And, most importantly, the performances are terrific.
It would have been very easy for them, when casting this movie, to just go with a Harrison Ford impersonator (did someone just say Anthony Ingruber?), and while that may perhaps have been appropriate given the script for this thing, they thankfully made a much better choice in casting Alden Ehrenreich. Ehrenreich’s Han is brilliant – easily the best part of this movie. He manages to strike that perfect balance of capturing the essence of the character without ever tripping over the line into impression. For all the praise Donald Glover received for his portrayal of Lando, much of which is clearly deserved, even he occasionally slips into just doing a Billy Dee Williams impression. Ehrenreich never does, and his performance is all the better for it. There’s also the new characters in Emilia Clarke’s Qi’ra, Woody Harrelson’s Tobias Beckett, and most of all Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s L3-37.
L3, by herself, is the most interesting thing to come out of this movie. A fully sentient droid character who insistently pokes at some of the lingering questions about the nature of this world that have gone largely unaddressed since 1977. The question, specifically, is are droids people? L3 argues adamantly that the answer is “yes”, and the movie gives her an incredibly compelling case. The sequence midway through the movie where L3 leads a droid rebellion in the spice mines on Kessel is one of the absolute high points of the film, which is why it’s so infuriating that the film proceeds to immediately kill her off. Except, it’s worse than that; the movie’s not content to merely let her die, instead it condemns her to the cruelest, most existentially horrifying fate imaginable. This droid, who the film has successfully argued is a living being, has her consciousness removed from her body and uploaded into a ship. Not just any ship, but the ship: the Millennium Falcon. The foremost advocate for droid’s sentience and independence is doomed to have her consciousness trapped inside a vessel, stripped of her autonomy and her very voice, an eternal slave to organic lifeforms. And what is the reason for inflicting such a needlessly cruel fate on this character, a fate that the film breezes past and never bothers to explore the profound weight of? To provide backstory for a throwaway joke in The Empire Strikes Back. No story idea is inherently bad – the terrible fate inflicted on L3 could have been used to make some bigger statement, but this movie has no interest in that, and frankly doesn’t seem to fully consider the weight of what this moment implies. It’s all just a byproduct of even more empty fan service. And that brings us all back to Han.
Han Solo never had a musical theme in the Star Wars movies. He shared a love theme with Leia, but he never had one of his own. For Solo, John Williams wrote a theme for Han, and it’s actually great! The weird thing, though, is that this leitmotif feels less present in the film than the themes for Luke Skywalker and the “Rebel Fanfare”. Luke’s theme I can more easily live with as, over time, it’s almost fully transitioned from belonging to this one character to merely being a catch-all representation for Star Wars as a whole (it is, after all, most commonly known as the “Star Wars theme”). The “Rebel Fanfare” is a different story. The “Rebel Fanfare” has always been a theme for the Rebellion and the Rebel Alliance. It appears at the beginning of Star Wars with the Rebel fleet fleeing from the Empire, but then once the action reaches Tatooine, it’s totally absent until our heroes arrive at the Death Star. That’s because none of these characters are rebels yet. Luke’s looking for adventure, Han’s looking for profits, Ben’s looking to make up for an old failure. It’s only once they actively choose to defy the Empire, to become Rebels, that the corresponding fanfare comes back into the film. So why, then, is the “Rebel Fanfare” all over this movie that is almost entirely absent of actual Rebels? The movie treats the “Rebel Fanfare” as the theme for the Millennium Falcon, the precedent for which, some may argue, was set with The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. The difference, however, is by the time of those films, the Falcon has earned its status as a symbol for the Rebellion, not so in Solo. In Solo, it’s just a ship; one that belongs to a smuggler, doing a job with a team of pirates, who we later learn are indirectly working for a former Sith. The “Rebel Fanfare” is completely out of place.
Why am I spending so much time talking about the score? Because it’s strangely a microcosm for what I find frustrating about the film. Broadly I like John Powell’s score. I think Han’s theme is great, the new love theme for Han and Qi’ra is terrific, and I love how different a lot of it sounds from a traditional Star Wars score. But then, it’s peppered with quotes from existing themes that are actively out of place in the story being told, serving only to trigger nostalgia rather than accentuate the story at hand. Han is not a Rebel yet, so why is the “Rebel Fanfare” all over this movie? Han is not a Rebel yet, so why does he choose, at the pivotal point of the movie, to help a group of Rebels rather than looking out for his own self-interest?
This is the movie’s most fatal failure. In order for Han’s arc in the original Star Wars to work, we need to understand that he begins the film as a cynical scoundrel, looking out only for himself and believing in nothing greater than his own sense of well being. That’s what makes his decision to return at the end of the movie and help the Rebellion against impossible odds so significant. It’s something he wouldn’t have done prior to meeting Luke, Leia, and Ben. Except now we know that Han has made a habit of helping out rebellions ten full years before the events of the original film. This is the fundamental challenge of making a young Han Solo movie: Han has to end the movie in kind of an ugly place. He can’t follow the traditional arc of an adventure hero; he can’t save the day, get the girl, and go home happy. His origin story has to end on a down note. It might have been interesting to do a story where Han has a backwards arc from the original, where he begins as an idealist and ends as a bitter cynic. But that’s not the direction the movie went. Instead he decides to stick his neck out and double-cross Dryden Vos in order to help Enfys Nest’s burgeoning band of rebels. In return, he’s summarily betrayed by his mentor and his oldest friend, but the movie never quite lets that crystalize as the source of his cynicism. It’s obvious that this movie was intended to have sequels, and perhaps maybe there was a bigger plan to do exactly what I’m suggesting with regards to a backwards arc, but the movie made all of 85 cents and so there’s not likely to be any sequels. Oops!
All of that, combined with the cameo appearance by Maul and the business with Qi’ra feels deeply embarrassing in retrospect. Leaving some breadcrumbs hinting at future stories is one thing, but loading up the last 30 minutes of the movie with dangling story threads while simultaneously failing to resolve the central arc of your main character is just sloppy writing. Everyone likes to point to The Empire Strikes Back as a justification for this type of ending – and I don’t want to get into this too much since I’ll be digging deep into Empire later this year – but that misunderstands what made the ending of Empire work. It obviously doesn’t have the neat bow on it that Star Wars did, but Empire Strikes Back does resolve its character arcs. Luke has been struggling to understand his role in this whole fight and in the end he finds out with devastating clarity. Han is still wrestling with his commitment to the Rebel cause dovetailing with a will-they-won’t-they screwball romance with Leia, and in the end he makes a clear choice on both fronts, potentially giving up everything in the process. It ends on a down note, but it’s definitively an ending.
Han doesn’t have an arc in Solo. Sure he makes the decision to shoot Beckett, but again, that plays more as some broader metatextual joke than as an actual turning point in his story. Throughout the movie, Han is determined and eager to prove himself, but he’s also willing to do what’s needed to survive, whether that’s shooting out a window to injure Lady Proxima and facilitate his escape, or shooting Beckett in the chest to facilitate his escape. As for helping Enfys Nest, he does the same for Qi’ra and Chewie and Rio and the Wookiee slaves on Kessel. Not only does Han never change, he never changes in a way that specifically undermines his original character arc.
Placing this movie amid the Star Wars canon is tricky. If I can just skate along on the surface, I really enjoy the performances, the direction, the creature design, and the general aesthetic, but as soon as I apply any amount of pressure when it comes to thinking about its story and characters, the whole thing just falls apart around me. Combine that with the incessant and incessantly empty fan service, and the whole thing proves to be immensely frustrating. It’s more Easter egg hunt than movie, where it seems as though the filmmakers didn’t fully think through the often troubling implications of trying to connect everything to the earlier films. Is it more watchable than most of the prequel trilogy? Sure, almost certainly, but I find far more to appreciate in the narrative ambition of Episodes I, II, and III than in the hollow pandering to nostalgia on display in Solo.
As the only Star Wars film to not make money, Solo holds an interesting position in the franchise, but it’s one I feel proves that there’s more to the appeal of this series than nostalgia. Yeah, people respond to the familiar iconography, but there needs to be something greater for them to latch onto. Basically, it’s not a good formula for success to have actors spout off a bunch of references to Wookieepedia entries and forget to make a movie.
Leading up to the release of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, I am endeavoring to watch every canonical Star Wars movie and TV show in the in-universe chronological order. Follow along with…