Star Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Remember when Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi came out and fans young and old were split in two over whether the film was good or not? I think it’s clear a lot of backlash came from the two years worth of expectations fans had built up leading to the release of that film. In the same way that expectations lead to a disappointing experience for some viewers of The Last Jedi, I think Solo: A Star Wars Story is a boring, and disappointing film because the blanks we fill in for Han Solo’s backstory are infinitely more exciting than the film we were given. All of the elements appeared to be in place for Solo to be another exciting installment of the Star Wars universe, a good director (Ron Howard), great screenplay writers (Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan), and an impressive cast, but what ultimate came to fruition is a boring mess of information we already knew.
Solo starts out with young Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) as a young thief living on the planet Corellia with his girlfriend, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), in a pseudo-Oliver Twist situation where orphans are offered shelter and food in exchange for stealing. Han and Qi’ra escape from their life of servitude with plans to travel the galaxy in a ship that they buy, but Qi’ra gets grabbed by Imperial troopers before she can make it to the gate leading to their transport off the planet. With nowhere else to go Han joins the Imperial army with dreams of one day becoming a pilot and coming back to Corellia to save Qi’ra. Three years later Han is fighting on some mudball of a planet where he runs into Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), and his group of criminals Val (Thandie Newton), and Rio (Jon Favreau). When one of the Lieutenants receives word (from Beckett) that Han is planning to desert the army, Han is thrown into a pit where he is going to be a ferocious beast. This beast turns out to be none other than Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo). Thanks to Han, the two escape the pit and manage to convince Beckett to join his group of criminals. From there the film follows Han and Chewie as they travel with Becket and learn the how to survive in the seedier parts of the galaxy as they are pulled into one job after another.
Solo, at its core, is a fun film. From start to finish there isn’t a single dull moment, nor does the plot ever drag. The big action set pieces are a spectacle to see, and the various character introductions are interesting. Everything looks, feels, and sounds like Star Wars. Therein lies the major problem with the film; it doesn’t provide anything else to the viewer except being fun because after a certain amount of time the fun loses its appeal and you realize that underneath there is absolutely no substance to the story. Unlike The Last Jedi in which Rian Johnson attempted (successfully, I’ll add) to take the main Star Wars saga in a new direction, Solo feels like a return to form for Disney. Because not only is it fun, but it’s safe. It’s safe because we’ve reached the point where plot points and story beats aren’t just echoes of Star Wars films that have come before like Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, Solo is full of self-referential moments which only push the franchise into a deeper loop of self-love. Solo is filled with moments that are blatant winks and nudges to moments that have happened in previous films. For example, in previous Star Wars films, there are plenty of moments when a character might say, “I have a bad feeling about this.” But in Solo, Han says on several occasions, “I have a good feeling about this.” It’s hard to hear that and not cringe because of how self-referential it is. It’s an unoriginal callback to a moment that occurs several times throughout the main Star Wars saga. There is even a moment in the film when Han shoots first. It’s a little nod to all of the fans who have been arguing about George Lucas’s Special Edition of the original trilogy. The problem with Han shooting first in this film is it completely goes against the character established in this film.
In the original Star Wars trilogy, there was a sense of mystery to Harrison Ford’s Han Solo. He was a rogue who cared only about money and looked out for himself (and Chewbacca). As the trilogy progressed he became more and more aware of the Rebellion and what they stood for, and eventually, Han buys into the cause. But, even that seems selfish because there are plenty of moments when it seems like Han is staying for Leia or because he thinks staying with the Rebellion might save him from the bounty on his head or might alleviate any Imperial squeeze he might feel while smuggling. Even in The Force Awakens, Han has gone back to a life of smuggling and double-crossing people before being dragged into the fight again. In Solo, Han is a different person. The Han Solo we see in this film wants to be a bad guy. He wants to be the smuggler, rogue-type; he tries to be but can’t. The only way the film communicates this to the audience is when Han says, “I’m a smuggler,” or “I’m a pilot.” Those are all somewhat true things, but his actions reveal a completely different Han Solo than what was portrayed in the original trilogy. In this story, he is motivated by an idealistic love. When that turns sour at the end of the film, we aren’t left looking at a Han Solo that we meet in Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, we’re looking at a Han solo who has a far way to go before being the roguish smuggler Harrison Ford played. That journey between the end of this film and before A New Hope is probably a more interesting story than what was given in this film. Now, the end of the film may indicate the end of an arc in which a still-decent Han learns the true ways of the Star Wars underworld, but watching Han turn “bad” at the end of this film is a lot like Anakin acting good in the prequel trilogy. You never really once believe that Anakin was or is a somewhat decent person.
Despite how different the characterization of Han Solo is in this film, Alden Ehrenreich kills it as young Han Solo. He isn’t trying to recreate a younger Harrison Ford, instead, he takes Han Solo and makes him his own character. It’s not significantly different like comparing Heath Ledger’s and Jack Nicholson’s Joker, but it is different enough to notice. It’s not a bad thing either. One of the worst parts of watching the characters in this film is watching Donald Glover do his best Billy Dee Williams impersonation. If I wanted to see Billy Dee Williams play Lando Calrissian I would’ve popped Star Wars: Episode V – Empire Strikes Back into my Blu-ray player and watched that instead. The rest of the characters in the film are generic archetypes used to propel Han on his journey. You have the femme fatale Qi’ra, the mentor smuggler type Beckett, the bad guy Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany), and the leader of some generic cause Enfys Nest (Erin Kellyman). There isn’t anything remotely interesting about these characters. For the bad guy and the mentor character, this is fine, because their function is to teach Han something along the way. Where this doesn’t work is Qi’ra. Qi’ra is supposed to be a childhood friend and romantic interest for Han, but by the end of the film, we know nothing about her. The film continues to dance around the idea that she had some sort of terrible past, which is never addressed. It is not surprising that by the end of the film she betrays him. There is no attempt to get the audience to sympathize with her. Her actions just feel like another box being checked off on the list of things that have to happen in this film.
I use the metaphor of a checkbox to describe this film because that is exactly how it feels. Han gets the last name solo. Check. Han meets Chewbacca. Check. Han meets Lando Calrissian. Check. Han gets the Millennium Falcon. Check. Han flies the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs. Check. These are all elements of Han’s story we were already aware of and the subtle hints towards what they might mean in the original trilogy gave us the freedom to explore what they meant in our imagination. Did Han and Lando run a job together? Did they grow up together? Is the Kessel Run a race? I’ll admit, I am not a huge Star Wars fan outside of the films so I have no clue if any of these things were addressed in the extended universe found in the thousands of books written. But for a casual viewer like me, it opens a plethora of mental doors to what the Star Wars universe is like and what happens when Luke isn’t training with Yoda or fighting with Darth Vader. I went into Solo with low expectations. We saw how the prequel trilogy turned out, why do we need more prequels? Why do we need stories to explain away the mystery of these characters that we know and love?