Written By: Daniel Kinsley
After Disney bought Lucasfilm Ltd. LLC in 2012, Star Wars was prepared to roar back in to the public mainstream consciousness,* under the leadership of newly minted president Kathleen Kennedy (a long-time producing partner of Steven Spielberg) after George Lucas stepped away from the spotlight of his mammoth creation.
Fast forward six years, and the Disney machine has cranked out four new films (TFA ; Rogue One ; TLJ ) and now Solo (2018). While all of these films (save for TLJ) have had some degree of behind-the-scenes drama, perhaps none eclipses the saga that led to the firing of co-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (LINK) (21 Jump Street, The Lego Movie). With all of the turmoil, including the hiringing of a new director (journeyman Ron Howard), massive unplanned re-shoots, and a shifting release date, many had written the film off as a disaster before anyone had even taken a first look.
Now that the film is out, this writer can make a ruling: not only is Solo not the disaster many predicted, it is actually pretty great. Don’t get it twisted; on the surface, Solo is about as blatant of an IP cash in as there ever was, it just so happens that by and large, it works.
Genre fandom (or at least in certain angry corners of the internet) is not populated by casual fans. Star Wars is somewhat unique in that regard, as its fandom is populated by the niche, as well as the populist, which is what could make Solo prone to divisiveness. In many ways, the film feels (to this writer) like it will play far better to the casual fan than the hardcore one. Throughout its 2 plus hour run-time, there are plenty of callbacks, winks, and explanations regarding the myth of beloved Original Trilogy rogue Han Solo. Some of these are subtle enough ** to really land, like where the name “Solo” came from, while others (Chewbacca is too long to say! He’s gonna need a nickname!) feel like groan-inducing studio notes. Taken as a whole, mileage will vary from person to person as to how effective these nods are, and this writer will bet on an even split between the indifferent and the pedantic. For this viewer, most of the callbacks were tangential; what else does one expect of a prequel film?
The action begins in media res, with Han (Alden Ehrenreich) and his lover Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) attempting to evade a local crime syndicate long enough to escape the desolate planet Corellia. Han manages to escape, while Qi’ra is left behind, leaving Han to vow to return for her. In an effort to escape additional scrutiny, Han joins the Imperial Army, determined to train as a pilot. Three years later, Han finds himself relegated to the Imperial Infantry after being expelled from flight academy for insubordination. During a battle on the planet Mimban, he crosses paths with a group of thieves disguised as soldiers led by the charismatic Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson).
Once Han hooks up with Beckett’s crew, the film really takes off, as does Ehrenreich’s performance. For genre fans, few performances are as iconic as Ford’s cocksure take on the space rogue (and with good reason). While Ehrenreich’s performance is sure to be divisive among fans (like the rest of the film) it certainly does not deserve to be. Not only does the kid hold his own, but he gets the chance to truly shine. The performance works because he made a choice to take the best parts of Han Solo and sand off edges that the character hasn’t earned yet. The most important grace note, though, is that Ehrenreich understands Han is a good guy who wants everyone to believe he is not. By the time A New Hope (1977) rolls around, life has hardened him to the point where it may be more than a facade, but at his core, Han is (and always has been) a good man.
While Ehrenreich is undoubtedly the star, it is very much an ensemble film. As Han’s mentor-in-crime, Harrelson is complex, funny, and heartbreaking, and it is a reminder of how reliably great he can be (and also how effortless he makes it look). Emilia Clarke gets to play just as much depth with Qi’ra, who turns out to be far more than just the love interest for Han. It is an assured performance and one that signals Clarke will have a career after the end of Game of Thrones. *** Donald Glover has drummed up a bit of buzz for his performance as Lando, but those clamoring for a solo (sorry) Lando film are overreaching, in this writer’s opinion. Glover is great at an awful lot of things, but here he is just okay. It may be that he is simply outshined by his primary screen partner, the android L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) who runs away with damn near every scene she is in.
As the film goes on, some of it may be familiar, but sometimes what is more important is how well a story is told. Much like Rogue One was a war film set in the Star Wars universe, Solo is an ensemble heist film a la The Italian Job (2005) set in the same universe as everyone’s favorite space opera. In other words, the specifics of the plot are less important than the broad strokes; the good guys are hired to steal some stuff and must find a way to get out from under the bad guys in the process. While The Last Jedi (2017) received a good heap of praise for being the first film in this franchise in some time to be about something, Solo is very much a throwback to the days when Lucas imagined a story based on the old paperback serials of his youth. It is a loose, pulpy film that plays fast and funny, and for this writer, it is refreshing because (for once) the fate of the galaxy does not hang in the balance. ****
Like nearly every film in this franchise post-Original Trilogy, Solo will likely prove no less divisive than the others. After the perceived box office failure of Solo, it begs the question as to whether we will ever see the inevitable follow-up films. Though the conclusion that Solo reaches is a narratively satisfying one, it would be a shame not to see what kind of misadventures lead the Han in Solo to becoming the one we know and love.
In the wake of this new era of films, it is difficult not to think of legacy, and what the brand (and if you truly believe it was not always a brand, get real) will mean to viewers another forty years from now. Having said that, this is a franchise that has always belonged to the young (in the opinion of this humble writer), and will in many ways continue to do so. While there are those who believe Solo is a facile attempt at a Star Wars film, there are still scores who are eager to be swept away, in much the same way many viewers were enchanted by the original run. Star Wars means many things to many people, and it would be foolish (not to mention myopic) to make any guesses at the future, much less to state decisively whether this entry deserves a spot in a viewer’s heart, or whether it deserves to exist at all. Would that it were so simple.
For the record, though, count this viewer among those who are grateful that it does. A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…a young boy was transformed by the thrill and promise of the Star Wars saga. While Solo did not reach those heights (how could it?) for a few hours, this older, more cynical man, remembered how it felt to be young, and boy, was it sweet.
*It never really went away, but audiences were not flocking to published books and The Clone Wars cartoon the way they do with the films.
** As long as you don’t think about it too long.
*** Which is particularly encouraging after the last Terminator film. Yikes.
**** Seriously, small stakes action movies are almost *always* better. See: Die Hard (1988).