Solo, Lucasfilm’s latest addition to the canon, in no way represents a standard Star Wars film. Viewers will encounter zero mythos involving Jedis and The Force. The film doesn’t grapple with massive allegorical topics, either. Destiny does not face off against free will, while franchise flagships like democracy-vs.-dictatorship and the tragedies of war merit muted mentions at best.
Of course, pushback started before anyone had even seen the thing to know that, with near-instant cries for a standalone Lando film or a smaller, original story impacted by the larger global (galactic?) situation (something like Prospect, for instance) instead. What ultimately made it to screen likely won’t change those desires. In fact, hardcore fans may also walk away from Solo thinking more about why this film exists or what went into specific decisions rather than the core story itself.
That’s unfortunate, because Solo mostly makes for a fine summer blockbuster. Its creative team has taken some beloved action-film DNA and satisfyingly shifted it to a galaxy far, far away. But for those wanting more from their favorite space saga, expect to let out a few Wookie roars upon exit.
Existing Star Wars lore already explained that Han Solo came from Corellia, an industrial planet known for producing ships and good pilots. Solo starts by showing that even at a young age, our anti-hero worked as a bit of a smuggler. Han’s initially doing some dirty work for Lady Proxima (a local organized crime boss who looks like a caterpillar) in order to earn enough money to buy a ship and leave with his main squeeze, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke
Things don’t go as planned, of course. After a deal gone bad, Qi’ra and Han smuggle a bit of hyper-valuable hyperfuel hoping to bribe an Imperial ticket-taker for a one-way ride off the planet. But Proxima’s forces stay in pursuit, and the two would-be lovebirds get separated. Han suddenly has only one escape option: to enlist in the Imperial army in the hopes of becoming a pilot.
One timejump-20-minutes-into-this-film later, Han sighs his way through some grim, Full Metal Jacket-y battlefields before noticing potential fellow smugglers. Han observes that Captain Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) has some would-be deadly bullet holes in his uniform, so he wants in on whatever Beckett, Val (Thandie Newton, Westworld), and Rio (voiced by Jon Favreau) appear to be scheming. Beckett at first seems impressed by the gall of young Solo, but he doesn’t want some unknown variable screwing with his plans, either. “You have a talent for sticking your nose where it doesn’t belong,” Beckett says—and he soon tattles on Solo’s indiscretions to a nearby official.
Dire punishment awaits for such disobedience within the Imperial ranks: it becomes time to feed The Beast. Suddenly, Han finds himself chained in the mud of a monster’s lair while Beckett’s crew inches closer to swiping an Imperial ship and heading off to finish an even bigger heist. How on Earth does a down-on-his-luck soldier go from here to smooching an intergalactic princess?
Solo certainly has story to spare even after its busy first act. But this initial segment gives viewers an idea of what’s in store: the stakes throughout Solo never veer too far into the macro-fate of the Universe, and action itself largely carries the film.
This being an ILM-production, that’s not a bad thing. Do you enjoy the highly stylized getaways of Baby Driver? Han and Qi’ra at one point hop into a Jeep-like hovercraft for a fun chase through a rundown shipping area, complete with our driver putting some familiar lucky rearview ornaments up before getting started. Prefer a good ol’ fashioned, highly meticulous train heist a la that famous Breaking Bad episode? Solo has it. Maybe Speed and the ticking-timebomb-as-mode-of-transit setup really gets your pulse moving—Solo has that, too. The film executes each of these major set pieces with the visual panache you’d expect from the best VFX pros, and they’ll represent the film’s apex for a certain kind of viewer.
Generally, the performances prove to be a lot of fun, too. Harrelson eventually has you forgetting he’s Woody Harrelson as he settles into a gruff, unwilling, and imperfect mentor role (as seen in past Harrelson performances from The Hunger Games to Kingpin). Newton delivers Maeve-like badass-ness as seen in Westworld. Glover as Lando will make those standalone film shouters feel vindicated, Favreau as Rio gets some of the best one-liners (out of context but still solid: “I’m telling you, you’ll never have a deeper sleep than curled up in a Wookie’s lap.”), and Phoebe Waller-Bridge (writer/star of Fleabag and creator of Killing Eve) will steal the show for many as new droid-companion/activist L3-37.
And that’s to say nothing of our eventual villains.
This leads to one of the biggest challenges for Solo throughout. If we care about this particular origin story at all, that’s largely due to the performance—not the story itself—behind Han Solo 1.0. In the late 1970s and throughout the ’80s, Harrison Ford represented the biggest badass in Hollywood. Even if Han wasn’t your cup of tea, his on-screen persona eventually had built-in degrees of Indiana Jones and Blade Runner’s Deckard, too. A Ford character meant inherent intelligence, recklessness, ability, and maybe-kinda-sorta deserved smugness. Whether in a temple or a TIE fighter, he instantly became the coolest person in the room (unless, of course, Leia showed up to knock him down a peg).
Alden Ehrenreich, by contrast… phew. Whether it’s due to script design or his performance, this version of Han never owns the room. Maybe it’s because their voices sound similar, but it became hard to shake a niche comparison to Mark Duplass’ character in The League. Young Han has tricky ideas and smarmy attitude, but it doesn’t click (or work out) with the same success rate as the character Star Wars fans know and love.
Narratively, this can work in retrospect—Solo is an origin story, after all, so Han needs to grow into his persona over time. And throughout this film, young Solo feels like he’s workshopping action-hero wit. It’s obviously intentional at some points. After nailing a getaway later in the film, he turns to a trade worker nearby: “I just did the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs.” The guy just shrugs it off, but Chewie barks. “Not if you round down,” Han replies. At other times, though, the script feels like it’s forcing “Hey, remember this is Han freakin’ Solo” moments. When Han comes face to face with a bad guy asking for a reason not to kill him and his colleagues, Solo comes up with a quick plan B.
This situation isn’t helped by the film’s great casting. Glover and Harrelson prove their status as some of Hollywood’s best scene-chewers. Newton and Waller-Bridge demand attention even in the smallest doses. And Favreau and Glover get the best one-liners, not Ehrenreich. Instead, our lead seems to spend more time talking to himself (err, to Chewbacca), waiting for a Wookiee roar, and interpreting something for the audience than he does spitting things that may become iconic Han Solo-isms. When Chewbacca has more (indecipherable) lines than a Thandie Newton character, it feels easier to blame design as opposed to execution on this one.
Solo the film will not fall short with fans due to anything Ehrenreich does or doesn’t. And actually, any candidates for hair-on-your-arms-tingling cinemagic instances will involve him silently taking in a moment (his first glimpse of hyperspeed or look under the hood of the ol’ Falcon, for instance). But if you followed this film’s own origin story, it’s hard to shake the big what-if. Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the creative duo behind delightful surprises from The Lego Movie to 21 Jump Street, had this project. But something happened, and all of a sudden Lucasfilm decided the steady hands of Ron Howard had it instead.
A movie casting Glover or using a droid-rights-activist bot in a meaningful role can’t be entirely without some welcomed weirdness, yet Solo likely scaled the amount of that back with Howard at the helm. This represents just one area where the film introduced concepts but didn’t quite go far enough; there are at least two other noticeable (and more frustrating) occasions.
Look again at the cast described above, and you’ll notice little written about Qi’ra. She’s arguably the second-most central character here, yet Solo largely wastes Clarke by giving us very little of this person who should inarguably be the film’s most complex new character.
Throughout Qi’ra’s screentime, she infuriatingly seems to mostly react to the actions of some guy. We never learn what happens nor what she thinks of the time between her last interaction with Han on Corellia and the events post-timejump, but her character’s ultimate fate implies a lot happened off-screen and goes on inside her head. (To only further emphasize her importance, Qi’ra’s ending implies she also factors into the longterm canon more than most.) Star Wars has shown an ability to write excellent, multi-faceted female characters from Leia to Rey to Jyn Erso. Solo wastes an opportunity to do the same.
The other area where Solo shortchanges its audience concerns those aforementioned grandiose statements embedded in the franchise’s history. If the film eschewed this entirely and simply stuck to a tight, action-focused plan, it probably would’ve landed better. Instead, Solo repeatedly hints at wanting to say Something Important™ without ever making it a priority.
Adjacent to the plot, for instance, L3-37 keeps pushing droid rights, but it’s largely a running gag despite that exact question slowly percolating in the real-world or the obvious social identity-analogues such a plot could maybe artfully explore. (Don’t bother asking much about the diversity of sexuality in the Star Wars universe despite recent Lando blog posts—this, too, is merely left to an L3 one-liner on-screen.)
Somehow even the most basic Star Wars themes about good and evil, or dictators and democracy, also get left largely to the background only to merit mention in the film’s final moments. The plot of Solo depends heavily on how valuable natural resources can be and how those in power can monopolize (and potentially deplete) them, but retrospection on those facts or sequences exploring the consequences barely comes up.
Again, Solo feels like a popcorn-munching action film when it’s at its best, so maybe asking for such lofty goals within that framework is too much. But by playing it down the middle, Solo leaves plenty of room for an audience to question motive. The general lack of stakes makes it seem like Lucasfilm made Solo to serve two typically opposite forces: diehards who want confirmation of every detail within an expanded universe, and Disney executives that like boatloads of money to come without ruffling any audience feathers.
Do you care about Han’s famous boast that he did the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs? How about how he first met Chewie or Lando? Did you ever wonder about the origins of his surname? Do you crave karmic proof over whether he shot first (or wonder how he got that blaster in the first place)? Solo has all that and set pieces that will satisfy folks who seek out big spectacles like the battles of Infinity War, the vistas of Gravity, or the MPH-stunts of The Fast and the Furious.
Evidently, there may already be more Solo films in the works. Perhaps a future sequel can become the Godfather II of the Star Wars universe or at least help us understand how Han himself became so gruff and capable over time. But this new film will succeed at the box office despite any gripes because it ticks the right boxes for what entices a summer blockbuster fan while containing enough wit and visual pizzazz to continue this franchise’s success with the youngest film-going demographic. The Star Wars machine pushes forward in hyperdrive. Just brace for a few frustrations along the way.