We’re now four films into the new Disney-era of the Star Wars Universe. Star Wars: The Force Awakens served as a reminder of why we loved these films in the first place, the first sequel to the original films in thirty years. It gave us fresh new characters and brought old ones back into the fray. After the prequel trilogy failed to capture the spirit and adventure of Star Wars at its best, The Force Awakens showed us that, while not perfect, you still could go home again.
The first Star Wars Story anthology film, Rogue One, showed us that Star Wars could be something more than just a Skywalker adventure. Gone (for the most part) were lightsabers, the Force, chosen ones, and Jedi. Instead of generational Jedi Knights and princesses, our story was about spies, criminals, drifters, and truckers. Rather than a fun space adventure, it was a war film about little people giving their lives to fight another day — so that the heroes of the original films could actually “save” the day. The story might have been familiar, particularly the fact that it was yet another film about a Death Star, but it brought a new look, tone, and thematic weight to the series.
And, well, what can I say about The Last Jedi that hasn’t already been said? It’s a film that looked back at all eight previous Star Wars films and interrogated the series on what it could be. It sought to reinvent what is Star Wars. After The Force Awakens gave us a classic Star Wars adventure, The Last Jedi sought to burn down the temple, forget the minutiae, and turn the series tropes on its head. The two films work as both opposites of each other and yet as a solid whole. One as a reminder of what Star Wars was, the other of what Star Wars is and can be.
Which is what makes Solo, the fourth film of the new era, and the second Star Wars Story, such a bizarre film. In a vacuum it would serve as a middling, if occasionally fun, prequel to everyone’s favorite rogue in the original trilogy. It hits all of the notes we know about the character’s pre-Star Wars history, it gives us a lot of callbacks to his future journey and the journeys of Star Wars past, and it shows us how he becomes the cynical smuggler in that Cantina in Mos Eisley. What it doesn’t do, however, is give us a reason to care.
Solo kicks off with Han running scams on his home planet of Corellia in order to earn transport off world with his girlfriend Qi’ra. While attempting their escape, they become separated at an Imperial checkpoint and Han devotes himself to winning her back. He joins the Empire’s military force in order to become a pilot and eventually earn his way back to Corellia to escape with Qi’ra, but winds up in the infantry. He eventually deserts and joins up with Tobias Beckett, a small time smuggler and thief, and begins his life as an outlaw. Along the way he meets Chewbacca and Lando Calrissian,1 is first introduced to the Millenium Falcon, does the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs, and reunites with Qi’ra for one final job.
Unlike the plodding dirge of a narrative that was a mainstay in George Lucas’s prequel trilogy, Solo is a film that moves. It hits its beats efficiently, even if it probably could afford to trim some off of its 135 minute runtime. In similar fashion, it’s much more competently made in all respects than the prequel trilogy is. Bradford Young’s cinematography manages to blend the gritty aesthetic of Rogue One with a lovely color palette that gives it a distinct look. The characters (not all of which are great) at least feel alive, and the actors feel somewhat like they aren’t dying inside with each line of dialogue. Even John Powell’s score is good enough to not make you miss John Williams too much.
What it lacks that the prequels did not, is a hook. Lucas intended the prequels to be a critique of the “chosen one” narrative, dunking constantly on the idea that the smartest people in the galaxy would fall prey to a nonsensical “prophecy”, despite quite literally having mystical superpowers that can see the future and grant foresight into someone’s mind. This is executed in the most haphazard and painfully boring way possible, but there’s a clever idea there that just fails spectacularly.2
Solo, on the other hand, feels perfunctory in a way that no other Star Wars film ever has. Thematically there’s basically nothing there. The characters, with one or two exceptions, have almost no meaningful arcs. Solo genuinely feels like they wanted to make a space western and decided to say “f— it” and threw a Han Solo origin story in so that it would get a bigger budget.
Now, for what you’ve all been waiting for: yes, Alden Ehrenreich is fine. He’s not Harrison Ford and he struggles when the film tries to lean into Ford’s cynical and smug portrayal of the character, but Ehrenreich does well to emulate the goofball idiot qualities that Ford also brought to Han. Donald Glover, likewise, is extremely hit or miss. Sometimes he’s playing a straight up Billy Dee caricature and other times he’s his normal Donald Glover self. Emilia Clarke is given basically nothing to do as Han’s love interest Qi’ra, merely serving as a pretty face to inspire Han. And as for the rest of the characters that the film has been selling us? Well, they’re basically in a handful of scenes each and that’s about it. Even the new droid L3-37 is kind of just irritating and lacks the charm of BB-8, K2 or C-3PO.
The film’s two best characters are, far and away, Woody Harrelson’s Tobias Beckett and Chewbacca, the latter of which finally gets a film after six tries that gives him a full character arc. Woody leans hard on his charisma, gruffness, and his wonderful drawl and cadence to give Beckett (essentially Han’s father figure and mentor in the film) a lot of life. He’s funny, charming, and even manages to sell his character’s emotional beats that are pretty unearned. Similarly, our walking carpet companion Chewie is given the film’s, and maybe the entire series, best introduction — Han and Chewie’s meetcute is hands down the best scene in the film. In addition, we’re given a motivation and real character behind what was, essentially, Han’s cool dog-person up until this point. Chewbacca absolutely steals the show in this film.
A lot of credit should go to Ron Howard. Howard managed to turn this into a film that, while kind of empty and lazy, is at least serviceable and mostly entertaining. In less than a year, he managed to take one of the most tumultuous situations in Hollywood and turn it into a pretty-okay blockbuster. For such a quick turnaround, Solo looks incredible and manages to be the first of the Disney-era SW films that doesn’t have at least one or two scenes where the wonky special effects are noticeable. I’m not going to speculate as to whether or not Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s film would have been better, as I both don’t know and don’t care. But I will say that most of the film’s issues are pretty baked into the script, so unless L&M were going to go way off-book there probably wouldn’t have been much of a difference.
It’s a shame that I have to poop on Jonathan and Lawrence Kasdan, because Lawrence means so much to this franchise. And also, he wrote Raiders of the Lost Ark which is one of the greatest action films of all time. But when we talk about lazy prequels and origin stories, the script for Solo belongs in that pile. We get multiple refusals of Han’s eventual calling as a Rebel leader, we get to see how Han does the Kessel Run, we see Han get his dice, we get the card game where Han wins the Falcon from Lando… It just feels like a rundown of plot points they felt they needed to hit based on what we knew about the character, and then they built a heist narrative around it. It all just feels so perfunctory.
Which is really the best word to describe Solo: perfunctory. Start to finish, top to bottom — Solo feels like an obligation. Lawrence Kasdan helped write The Force Awakens, so they let him write a Han Solo prequel. Lord & Miller got fired, so they hired longtime George Lucas pal to helm and steer the ship. Disney needed a Star Wars film for their shareholders in 2018, so here we are. Solo is a decent, occasionally fun little blockbuster. It’s just that it feels exceptionally hollow in the wake of The Last Jedi and Rogue One, films that showed us that you don’t need familiar faces or repetitive minutiae in order to have a great Star Wars film.