By all accounts, Solo: A Star Wars Story is the post-Lucas Star Wars movie that should feel most like a corporate product. In a bizarre paradox, it may actually be the one that feels most human. The other post-Lucas films have been intriguing but haphazard; that Solo possesses a simple sort of dramatic competency should not make it a rarity, but alas, here we are. At its best, this is a movie about characters who have recognizably human longings and act on them in recognizably human ways. I suppose that’s damning faint praise, but for my part, I was mostly satisfied.
You can read all about the film’s notoriously troubled production elsewhere, and I don’t feel the need to rehearse all the details again. The conclusion of the matter is that this is the first Star Wars film since the Disney acquisition to be crafted primarily by experienced workmen rather than young up-and-comers. Solo is written by Lawrence Kasdan (collaborating with son Jonathan), whose impressive resume includes The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and The Big Chill. Meanwhile, behind the camera, Ron Howard has over forty directing credits to his name. In my recent essay on The Last Jedi, I noted that each of the post-Lucas Star Wars films have been defined by the interests of their respective auteurs, but Solo has no auteur to speak of, and in many ways, the result is the least interesting of the bunch. Howard has made some fine movies over the years, but has little in the way of a distinguishable style or recurring thematic interests, and in his hands, Solo feels like a by-the-numbers biopic of Han Solo’s early years. It may be unremarkable, but it is stolid, and if its workmanlike quality is somewhat uninspiring, there’s also something appealingly old-fashioned about it. If the script feels like the construction of a screenwriting textbook, at least it shows that textbooks can work.
Howard’s matter-of-fact approach to this material lends the proceedings an enjoyable naturalism. Like any Star Wars film, Solo sees its characters gallivanting around an impressive array of alien planets, but here more than in most of its predecessors, these locations are treated as real places. The camera never goes out of its way to show off or draw attention to the impressive design work; there are no flourishes like the red dust clouds of The Last Jedi’s climax here. Yet this isn’t to downplay the imagination at work in Solo, even as Bradford Young’s washed-out cinematography mutes much of the color. The visual palette isn’t as quasi-documentarian as Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One, and Solo never rivals that film’s best and grandest moments of splendor, but there are still manifold pleasures to be found in its exhibition of spaceships, aliens, and planets. Moreover, Solo doesn’t simply settle for cannibalizing past Star Wars films. Yes, there are a plethora of callbacks and references, many of which are stale, pointless, and grating by turns – the origin of the moniker “Han Solo” is painfully ill-conceived – but its genre pastiche ranges from the poverty and criminality of Oliver Twist to the muddy trench warfare of World War I to a wild west-style great train robbery, and so on and so forth. (A reference to Once Upon A Time In The West goes a long way towards earning my goodwill.) All this feels true to Lucas’ vision for Star Wars, which was always keen on assimilating a diverse range of popular culture into one big melting pot of a galaxy. With its relatively low stakes – there is no planet-destroying superweapon in play here – Solo harkens back to the pulp serial roots of the franchise more than many of its peers, but its sense of propulsive fun is leavened by some wistfulness.
Star Wars films have always been ensemble pieces; Solo is the first to center on the journey of an individual protagonist. To call it a character study would perhaps be overreaching, but at its best, there is a refreshing immediacy and intimacy to its close focus on Han (Alden Ehrenreich) and the beginnings of his journey towards maturity. We first meet him running from an unseen altercation by hotwiring a speeder car: from the film’s first moments, he is defined by restless forward momentum. This version of Han is cemented firmly enough as a young protagonist in the traditional Lucas mold – a connection reinforced by the hot-rod-esque design of the speeder and the ensuing adolescent automotive antics, which recall Lucas’ American Graffiti (in which, ironically, Howard starred with Harrison Ford). Han’s separation from the world of childhood and entrance into the world of maturity is much more violent than Luke’s, and much more active. Howard and the Kasdans do not strike me as sharing Lucas’ conscientious interest in mythmaking, but Han’s emergence from the unconscious demonstrates a keen – perhaps intuitive – grasp on Star Wars symbolism. Corellia, his home world, is an urban, industrialized dystopia, the kind of technologically inhuman society that Lucas feared. He grows up in a Dickensian underworld of child criminals, presided over by a malevolent maternal creature who lives in a pool of water. Fired by youthful idealism, Han escapes this environment by a rite of vehicular passage, like Anakin winning his freedom by podracing. However, not all goes as planned. At the spaceport, Han is separated from his young lover Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) and caught up in servitude to the Empire.
One of the wisest choices of the Kasdans’ script is to ground Han’s journey in his relationships with other characters. Qi’ra embodies Han’s childlike romanticism, which he both loves and is desperate to escape. If the Han Solo we meet in A New Hope is Rick from Casablanca, sticking his neck out for nobody, it makes sense that we should here meet his Ilsa – and if Clarke is no Ingrid Bergman, at least her role here hums with dramatic clarity. It has been almost fifteen years since a man and a woman kissed onscreen in a Star Wars film (that business with Finn and Rose doesn’t… doesn’t count). Perhaps I am a simple man whose standards have been beaten down by a steady diet of mediocrity, but I was inordinately pleased to see normal, human displays of romantic affection here, and found it easy to emotionally invest in the doomed relationship between the young lovers as a result. Indeed, the Han we meet in Solo is less jaded and more emotionally open than one might expect, considering his later appearances. When he is forced to leave Qi’ra behind on Corellia, he promises to return for her and remains true to that promise. After three years in the Imperial military, Han is more of a cynic, questioning the righteousness of his superiors’ cause, but he is still surprisingly vulnerable, animated by a thinly veiled loneliness and an almost childish longing for companionship. He is quick to latch onto a pair of surrogate parents, Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and Val (Thandie Newton), even though they want nothing to do with him. Because we intuit that Han is a desperately lonely soul, his swift attachment to Beckett and Val is more emotionally convincing than, say, the vague relations that hastily spring up between Finn, Rey, and Poe in the sequel trilogy.
In Star Wars films, Chewbacca often acts as Han Solo’s conscience – an embodiment of the good impulses he would rather suppress. The first meeting between the two neatly uses the symbolic language established in Lucas’ films. Han, arrested for attempting desertion, is thrown down into a muddy pit – a classical descent, a common motif in these films. Mud, of course, is a mixture of water with solidity, and in this subterranean realm he meets the primitive Chewbacca, a representative of the unconscious who is nevertheless possessed of a firm moral compass. By working together, the two are able to ascend not only from the pit but from the clouded battleground with Beckett and his crew of outlaws. Beckett becomes a mentor of sorts to Han, and in his carefree, amoral demeanor, it is easy to see a reflection of the younger scoundrel’s possible future self. Like DJ trying to corrupt Finn, Beckett inspires the well-intentioned Han with bad ideals, impressing upon him the danger of relationship with another person and trying to disabuse him of his youthful love for Qi’ra – a love mirrored in Beckett’s own doomed relationship with Val (also depicted with refreshing frankness.) “Assume that everyone will betray you,” Beckett says, “And you will never be disappointed.” Han objects: “Sounds like a lonely way to live.” Beckett counters: “It’s the only way.”
This central tension largely ties together the film’s rather motley assortment of plotlines. In this criminal underbelly of the galaxy, everyone longs for companionship, but vulnerability is inherently dangerous. “Everybody needs somebody,” says Val, but another outlaw (an annoying four-armed creature voiced by Jon Favreau) boasts about his lack of attachments – only to realize the limits of his life in his dying moments. “It’s no good to die alone, kid,” he confides to Han as he shuffles off this mortal coil. Per C.S. Lewis, “To love at all is to be vulnerable,” and the characters of Solo are constantly torn between competing impulses to self-preservation and affection for others. The seemingly cavalier Lando (Donald Glover) is so devastated by the loss of his droid, L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), that he cannot fly the Millennium Falcon. The villainous Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany) is undone by his misplaced trust in Qi’ra, whose love for Han, in turn, conflicts with her desire for survival. Incidentally, Dryden is the name of Claude Rains’ character in Lawrence of Arabia – a key influence on Star Wars, which the elder Kasdan has cited as his favorite screenplay, and another film about a cocky young idealist who pulls off seemingly impossible feats, but loses his idealism along the way.
While its characters mostly exist under the thumb of oppressive regimes, on the other side of the coin, the film gestures towards rebellions and revolutions seeking to overthrow tyrannies for the sake of freedom. These underdeveloped forays into more conventional Star Wars territory mostly feel like digressions that dilute Solo’s focus, but they are thematically pertinent. Those who advocate for rebellion – Chewie and L3-37, who seek to free their respective kinds (Wookiees and droids) from servitude in a spice mining colony – are the more conscientious counterparts to Han and Lando, two scoundrels attempting to suppress their human decency to better survive their dangerous lives. Just as Chewie is Han’s conscience, L3-37 is Lando’s, and her loss foreshadows his loss of the Millennium Falcon to Han. In contrast, by the conclusion of the film, Han has been divested of most of his attachments, but Chewie remains. “I may be the only person in the galaxy who knows what you really are,” Qi’ra tells him. “You’re the good guy.” Han scoffs at the notion, but we know it’s true – not just because we know where he’ll fall at the end of his life, but because his actions here cement his underlying decency.
Unfortunately, the film falters in its third act. It’s not all bad – after these movies have been so defined by prolonged, large-scale action climaxes with multiple threads progressing in parallel, it’s refreshing to have things conclude with nothing more extravagant than a close-quarters scuffle between three characters and a gunfight with personal stakes. Insofar as the final developments are rooted in Han’s continued development, they’re effective, even moving; the Solo family, it seems, is as prone to the killing of mentors and father figures as the Skywalker family, and Han’s final moments with other key characters are quiet but weighty. However, blockbusters nowadays are constantly hampered by their need to tie in to larger franchises. This is particularly evident in the recent efforts of Marvel Studios, which are often too concerned with tying their “cinematic universe” together to craft stories that are satisfying as individual units. Sadly, Solo falls prey to this tendency near the end, and loses sight of precisely what made it special: the focus on developing Han’s character. A subplot involving the beginnings of a rebellion is superfluous and uninteresting, tying a story that stood best on its own two feet into a larger narrative that feels tiresome and familiar. The plot stalls for one profoundly weird cameo that I can only imagine baffling viewers who haven’t brushed up on their supplementary Star Wars cartoons. (Even I, who have, was more confused than anything.) Worse still, important plot threads involving key characters are left dangling, leaving the whole endeavor feeling naggingly incomplete. By the end of Solo, our hero has hardened, but he still isn’t the cynical mercenary we met in 1977, because it’s clear that Lucasfilm wants to make more films about the adventures of the young scoundrel. If they’re as enjoyable and grounded in human emotion as this one, I don’t object in principle – but for goodness’ sake, wouldn’t it be more satisfying to tell a complete story for once?