Solo: A Star Wars Story comes at a bit of a difficult time for Star Wars, although most of the franchise’s issues have been vastly blown out of proportion. All of the new films have been commercial and critical successes, grossing over a billion dollars each (with The Force Awakens becoming the 3rd-highest grossing film of all time) and have connected both with longtime fans as well as a new generation eager for their own Star Wars stories. But there have been bumps along the way for Disney, who took over the reins from George Lucas in 2012, magnified by a fanbase that is vocal and demanding, occasionally to the point of absurdity. There was an outcry when decades of Expanded Universe stories were struck from the canon, giving Lucasfilm and Disney a clean slate to start fresh with their own stories and timeline. The Force Awakens was an unprecedented smash, seemingly designed expressly to please longtime fans, but it had its detractors who complained that it was basically a rehash of A New Hope. Rogue One was likewise a hit, but stories of massive reshoots led to (untrue) rumors of a production troubled by interference from Disney, while some fans found the characters to be less compelling than the original heroes or the new trio from The Force Awakens. Then The Last Jedi dared to be different and bold, and critics responded with enthusiasm, but a vocal minority strongly objected to how the film handled Luke Skywalker and planned boycotts and sabotage of the film’s online ratings. The Star Wars fandom has never been more divided, and it has become impossible for the artists behind these films to please everyone.
Of course, that was never really possible, but the internet magnifies the voices of the angry while ignoring the voices of the masses who seem to have generally enjoyed everything they’ve been given so far. We live in an age where fandoms increasingly claim ownership of the things they love, and the expectation has grown that studios have an obligation to deliver exactly the film that each individual wants, just as they had always imagined it in their head, regardless of the fact that there are thousands of different viewpoints about the “correct” direction of the franchise. These people want to only focus on characters from the original trilogy, those people want to honor the prequels, others just want to see the new heroes. These people want family films, others want R-rated “adult” movies. These people want movies about the Force and the Jedi, others want to spend time in the world of bounty hunters and smugglers. Some want Old Republic movies, others want to fill the gaps between the prequels and the original trilogy, while more would rather see what happened after the fall of the Empire. Some want the movies to have a political side, the way George Lucas intended, while others take any instance of inclusive representation of women, people of color, or LGBT individuals as a “SJW” or “Feminazi” agenda from people who only want things to be “PC”. Star Wars is such a broad franchise, with so many diverse fans, that no movie will ever satisfy everyone. Yet everyone expects every movie to satisfy them personally. It’s a lose-lose situation.
All of this is to say that Solo: A Star Wars Story, much like Avengers: Infinity War, does not exist in a bubble, and it’s impossible to try to completely separate the film from the context in which it exists. Solo comes in with its own set of burdens that could potentially threaten its success alongside the current state of the film industry and the Star Wars fandom. Its production featured the departure of its original directors, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, partway through filming over “creative differences”, leading to Ron Howard stepping in to finish the film, while early negative fan reactions to the film’s lead fueled rumors of acting coaches and major concerns by Disney. And then there’s the constant talk that “nobody asked for this,” that a film about Han Solo’s origins was not something people particularly desired to see. But my goal is always to take each movie at face value, judged not on everything that went on behind-the-scenes, or the prevailing winds of the current internet conversation, with the hope of enjoying it. The fact that Solo works pretty well is a testament to the creative forces behind it, as well as the guiding hands of producer Kathleen Kennedy, who has stuck to her guns as the president of Lucasfilm and who has a vision of the types of Star Wars movies she wants to see made. Solo is a fun adventure, filled with the action and humor we expect from Star Wars, punctuated by moments of connection that enrich these characters we know so well, and holding a few surprise cards up its sleeve. It may be the “safest” Star Wars movie yet, in that it is neither revolutionary nor particularly challenging, without as much to say as earlier films, but it’s an enjoyable ride that combines the new with the familiar in unexpected ways.
Solo is not so much a biopic focused on Han Solo’s early days as it is about the defining adventure that helped form him into the reluctant hero we first meet in the Mos Eisley Cantina, the Captain of the Millennium Falcon with Chewie by his side. Solo opens with Han as a young man on his home planet of Corellia, a resourceful and petty criminal who dreams of scrounging together the money to buy a ship and escape with his girlfriend Qi’ra. He eventually makes his escape, although it doesn’t go quite the way he’d imagined. The film then jumps forward a few years as Han gets wrapped up in larger criminal enterprises, complete with heists, crime lords, and competing gangs, and quickly finds himself in over his head. A job goes south and Han and Tobias Beckett, an older criminal who takes Han under his wing, find themselves with the need to put together a team for a dangerous job in order to save their own necks.
Solo checks a lot of boxes with a story that never feels like it exists solely to check boxes. Ever wondered how Han got his last name, or how he and Chewie met, how Lando and the Falcon fit into the equation, or what exactly the Kessel Run is? Solo has your answers, but it does so in a way where the events unfolding feel surprisingly natural. Rogue One had an easier job, as so little was known about how the Death Star plans were captured, but Han has made a lot of references to his life and his past, if only in passing, and Solo both has to and gets to work those into the story. These moments and references get a variety of different treatments. Some are respectful of the legacy of the original films, and are given a certain amount of weight, while others come in unexpected ways, through humor, or as merely as passing nods. But it’s not just Han’s life being tied together, as Solo is filled with callbacks to all eras of the movies as well as the two animated shows, the books, and even the now-defunct Expanded Universe.
Solo and Lucasfilm owe a huge debt to Ron Howard, who stepped up to the plate as director after Lord and Miller were fired. Howard has crafted a film that always feels like a ride, with something to bring a smile to your face around every corner. The script, from Star Wars legend, and accomplished filmmaker of his own, Lawrence Kasdan and his son Jonathan, is loose and fast, filled with exciting action sequences and balances new characters with those we know so well. But it’s Howard who provides the film’s energy and gives it that unique Star Wars feel, while still allowing it to be unexpected and to blaze its own path. It’s Howard’s most fun film since 1988’s Willow, which had its own connection to George Lucas, and it shows that he hasn’t lost the ability to craft an adventure after all these years. He clearly has a reverence for Star Wars and Lucas, and while that reverence shines throughout the movie nevertheless has a playfulness about it.
Solo is anchored by a solid cast in both new and existing roles. Alden Ehrenreich delivers a winning performance as young Han, an unenviable part to play if ever there was one. The production team wisely avoided having him do a Harrison Ford impersonation, which frees him up to capture the spirit of Han without having to be tied down to exactly matching Ford’s mannerisms and voice. Ehrenreich’s Han is a little less confident, a little less jaded, and a little more optimistic than Ford’s older version, as he struggles to find a balance between protecting himself and doing the right thing. It’s easy to see the Han we know growing out of this “kid”. Woody Harrelson was a smart addition to the team as Beckett, Han’s reluctant mentor. Harrelson is almost always a joy to watch, and this sort of character is right in his wheelhouse. Emilia Clarke has some good moments as Qi’ra, but Solo at times seems unsure of how best to use the character. She has good chemistry with Han, and is supposed to be a bit of a mystery, but she’s one of the film’s weaker aspects. Paul Bettany gets to chew the scenery as crime boss Dryden Vos, and is excellent as always. But it’s Lando and L3-37 who steal the show. Donald Glover is perfect as Lando, capturing Billy Dee Williams’ swagger and charm, while bring out his hot-shot side that was only hinted at in Empire Strikes Back. Glover is equally at home flirting with everything that moves, making wise cracks, saving the day, or piloting the Falcon, and his Lando is everything I could have wanted from the character. But he’s equally matched by his co-pilot/partner L3, a tough droid played through motion capture by Phoebe Waller-Bridge. L3 is Lando’s equal, just as capable a pilot and able to keep Lando’s ego in check, but with layers all her own. L3 is an advocate for droid rights and equality, and it’s refreshing to see a Star Wars character with beliefs and goals more complex and aware than simply defeating the bad guys. She definitely stole the show for me, and I only wish we’d gotten more of her (though she does feature in the Solo companion novel Last Shot, a portion of which deals with Lando and L3 before the events of the film).
Solo nicely carves out its own look and feel, while still meshing well with the Star Wars universe. Where Rogue One tried really hard to match the look of the original trilogy, Solo gets to blaze its own trail, giving us a different, grittier aesthetic, one that feels more at home with smugglers and criminals. It replaces epic space battles and lightsaber battles with speeder chases, shootouts, and heists, in a way that makes it feel more like an action movie than a war movie. There are a number of smart moments that show us what life was like under Imperial rule for those with nothing, the boredom of officers with crappy posts, the ease of bribery, and the impressive sight of Star Destroyers being assembled overhead as those below struggle to scrape out an existence. Solo does a good job combining practical effects, sets, locations, and creatures with computer effects, and its different settings feel varied and unique, even while they still fit into the standard sci-fi tropes of desert place, snowy place, etc. John Powell does a great job with the score, giving it a more organic and down-to-earth style with guitars and other different instrumentations, along with an assist on a new character theme for Han Solo by John Williams.
Solo has a lot going for it, but it has its issues too. It’s a little slow to get going, and it’s probably a hair too long. There are a few moments that fall flat, and certain characters feel underutilized. There’s one surprise that works well as a connection to the larger Star Wars canon, but which will confuse casual fans and which doesn’t seem to have much of a point except to set up possible future films. But more than that, Solo seems a bit superfluous. I don’t mean that it’s a story that doesn’t need telling, because no Star Wars story needs telling. The only ones that did were the ones George Lucas told. But the best Star Wars movies, including the original six plus The Last Jedi and Rogue One are about something. They have larger themes to chew on and some sort of commentary to make. Solo lacks that, and as such it lacks importance. It’s a fun ride, and an enjoyable way to spend a couple hours at the movie theater, but it doesn’t have the impact of the best moments of Star Wars. It’s the sort of issue that may only be a problem for me, and there are plenty of people out there who just want Star Wars to be fun and are happy to have a film that is less serious and which they think is trying to force a message. But to me, if Star Wars is going to continue to survive and put out movies year after year, it needs to evolve beyond a continuing cycle of spectacle and reheated familiar stories. We’ve seen the reluctant nobody become a hero many times already, and as great as that sort of story is, these movies can do more. The Last Jedi and Rogue One showed that, even if they did end up being divisive.
In the future, perhaps Star Wars movies will become smaller and more varied. There’s room in the brilliant universe that George Lucas created for massive spectacles that advance the overall plot forward, while also giving us more intimate looks at moments that would otherwise be sped past, or exciting new characters doing their own things. I don’t fault Solo, or the executives at Lucasfilm and Disney for playing things safe, and for giving us generally what we expected with this movie. But that doesn’t change the fact that I want to see more in the future. More diversity of voices both onscreen and behind it, and more depth. There’s definitely room for fun adventures like Solo, too. But every movie doesn’t need to try to please every fan, particularly with these “anthology” films. It’s impossible anyway, so the better approach would be to find interesting stories to tell and trust the audience to follow along, rather than hoping to get ahead of them. Fans will always find something to love or something to hate, depending on their outlook, no matter what you do. Solo is not in any way a disappointment, and given the greater context of its production and release it’s actually an enormous achievement, but it won’t go down as one of the more memorable Star Wars outings. Fun, funny, exciting, and surprising, but not memorable.