Making a Star Wars movie in 2018 is fraught with dangers. Lurking within the dangerous fog that surrounds the only safe path are fans who have invested in personal visions of the universe based on recently de-canonized stories, critics eager to espouse opinions about franchise fatigue, and just when you think you’ve made it out with your precious cargo, here come journalists ready to pounce upon any reports of troubles on the set or changes in filmmakers. It’s almost impossible to avoid all of these traps and hungry monsters, and the worst thing is that there’s really no way of knowing when one will pop up. Did you hire directors whose trademark is their sense of spontaneity to make your movie that has to slot precisely into a rigid canon, then fire them when you realized that they weren’t going to button up and act right? Oops, there’s 6 months of bad news stories. Did you think it would be a good idea to focus a little on a prop that had accidentally become important after previous filmmakers cut the justifying scene from three movies ago? Well, now you’re scrambling to make up for a horrible movie that everybody hated (one that’s actually the best in the franchise), so now they’re going to hate your movie too. Is your film in part a prequel and in part a set-up for further untold stories? That’s not good storytelling, it’s just an excuse to be money-grubbing hacks. What’s a moviegoer to do?
My suggestion is that people should probably go see Solo (I refuse to give the full subtitle, I think you all can follow along). Yes, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller probably would have made an even better Star Wars movie than Ron Howard did, but we sometimes forget that Howard is one of the best crowd-pleasing directors working today. He’s good at adapting his directorial choices to suit the story he’s telling and wringing human emotions out of whatever conflicts he is working with. Solo gives him plenty of conflict to have fun with, as it is full of scoundrels whose only preference over a double-cross is a triple one. Working with a script written by Jonathan and Lawrence Kasdan, Howard uses the Marvel-ian origin story that forms the backbone of the film to also expand the Star Wars universe in new (to the cinema, at least) directions. Here a fun heist story gets a little flavor from droid uprisings and further journeys into the underworld glimpsed in stuff like Jabba’s yacht from Return of the Jedi. I understand that the movie papers over some of the semi-established backstory from the de-canonized Extended Universe novels, but most audience members don’t even know that there are EU novels, so the changes are probably understandable.
Any prequel has a tough job ahead of itself. Some audiences are desperate to know how the character they love came to be. Where did Han get his blaster from? How did he get to be clearly the most interesting character in the Original Trilogy? Others have no interest in filling in those gaps, and instead just want to see a character they liked on screen again. I fall into the latter category, so I was glad to see that when Solo does do the filling in that the first audiences want to see it does so quickly and usually without much comment. Only the explanation of his last name–which I didn’t think even needed any further consideration–was so on the nose that I gave it a little derisive chuckle. Mostly the character stuff works, though, and even the filling in sometimes serves not just to tick a box but also to give the character some depth. Lando Calrissian’s capes, for example, have their own closet in the Millennium Falcon and therefore tell us a little more about what Lando’s priorities are. So yes, there is a lot of fan service in Solo, but Howard and company twist most of it to positive ends.
None of this would matter much if Solo didn’t feel like, well, Han Solo. Alden Ehrenreich was an interesting choice to play such an iconic character. He benefits from being relatively-little-seen yet proven to have comedic chops in the likes of the Coen Bros.’ Hail, Caesar! so audiences can look at him and not have too many preconceptions about him outside of his name being Han Solo. He also benefits from the decision to not do too much of a Harrison Ford impression throughout the movie. Some of his movements and facial expressions match Ford’s iconic performance, but he doesn’t do too much to copy his voice. This allows for some separation from the Han we know and love that gives Ehrenreich space to create his own version of the character. The same can’t be said for Donald Glover, who plays Lando, the other returning character. Glover speaks and moves quite like Billy Dee Williams did in Empire, and its so delightful that it works too. His suave swagger and easy lies fit right in with the rest of the cast. Woody Harrelson was the guy I was most afraid of not working in a Star Wars movie but he’s surprisingly good here, even though he’s kind of just being Woody. Emilia Clarke gives Qi’ra a lot of pathos while also infusing her with a sense of fun and excitement that her character desperately needs to fulfill the needs of the arc she follows. The non-humans are great too, especially Phoebe Waller-Bridge who gives the best droid performance yet and Paul Bettany embracing his villainous side. The cast really needs to work well both independently and as a team in an ensemble heist movie and Solo pulls it off with high marks.
The movie looks great too. It spends most of its time away from the Empire/Rebellion dichotomy that we’ve come to expect from all the previous movies and in so doing it allows itself space to invent some new creatures and environments that are especially compelling. Early in the film there’s a minor villain character that was surprising and fun in the short time she’s on screen. Later, there’s a Lovecraftian space monster that looks like nothing we’ve seen before in a Star Wars movie and is very menacing. Shot by Bradford Young, who previously worked on Selma and Arrival, the movie uses deep darks and almost monochromatic yet colorful lights to give each new area a distinct feel while still keeping a unity of vision. I know there was some set troubles and that Ron Howard was a replacement director, but the movie feels unified and everything points to the kind of singular vision that made Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther such exciting franchise installments.
In Rogue One and now Solo, Star Wars has proven to be open to small steps outside the Skywalker Saga that drives the main films. I can only hope that the artistic success of these films emboldens Disney to take the kind of risks that the Marvel universe has started taking in the past few years. As much as I like the newer trilogy, these offshoots give me hope that we’ll one day see cosmic horror stories, prison-break films, even just straight dramas or comedies within the Star Wars universe. Maybe dip into an even longer time ago to touch on stories in and around the Knights of the Old Republic videogames, still the best Star Wars stories I have experienced. Cinematic universes are here to stay, it’s time to expand what that means. Solo is a step in the right direction.