So, Wait, There's Only One of You?
Solo: A Star Wars Story
Okay, so it's good to get this out of the way up front: I'm not a huge fan of Star WarsThe modern blockbuster: it's a concept so commonplace now we don't even think about the fact that before the end of the 1970s, this kind of movie -- huge spectacles, big action, massive budgets -- wasn't really made. That all changed, though, with Star Wars, a series of films that were big on spectacle (and even bigger on profits). A hero's journey set against a sci-fi backdrop, nothing like this series had ever really been done before, and then Hollywood was never the same.. Growing up I felt affection for both this series (with its space magic and laser-swords) and Star TrekOriginally conceived as "Wagon Train in Space", Star Trek was released during the height of the Hollywood Western film and TV boom. While the concept CBS originally asked for had a western vibe, it was the smart, intellectual stories set in a future utopia of science and exploration that proved vital to the series' long impact on popular culture.. That love, though, died for Star Wars when Episode I: the Phantom Menace, a movie so bad I skipped reviewing it back in the day (despite covering its two direct sequels). I went to see the sequels just so I could see if the films improved (they did, but only marginally at best), but ever since that movie I've gone to every Star Wars flick with trepidation.
And I know the moment, exactly, when I stopped feeling anything good for Star Wars: midi-chlorians. The magic of the original three movies (Star Wars, Empire, and Jedi) is the sense that the Force, the great magical space energy, was in everyone. Anyone could command it if they just devoted themselves to it. You could be a space mage if you really wanted it hard enough. But with midi-chlorians, it was revealed that the Force wasn't energy in everyone but little organisms that lived in the bloodstream. If you didn't have them you couldn't command the Force. Haves and have nots. Episode I ruined the Force and lost me in the process.
Once Disney bought the series away from George Lucas I at least felt a twinge of hope that they'd course correct the series. Sure, the Prequel Trilogy (midi-chlorians and all) were still officially part of the series, but maybe moving forward we wouldn't have to remember they existed. And sure, Episode VII: The Force Awakens is a much better movie than the dreaded Lucas prequels, but it's also a slavish recreation of the original films. It's fun but dumb and doesn't do enough to create something new for the series.
The next three movies, though, at least gave us new things to see and enjoy. Rogue One was a war story set before the original movies (with a darker sensibility to match). Episode VIII: The Last Jedi was a more focused movie that told a smaller story (and felt like the least Star Wars movie the series has yet produced). And finally we have the real subject of today's article: Solo: A Star Wars Story, a Star Wars movie filtered through the criminals and scalawags of the universe.
I saw Solo over Memorial Day weekend, and what I found interesting, aside from the movie, was how thin the crowds were. This movie didn't seem to bring asses into seats despite the fact that it was a Star Wars movie. Maybe my perception was wrong (although I'm seeing reports that the movie underperformed, so I doubt that), but it's a pity since the film was a fun little romp in the years before the formation of the Rebel Alliance of the original series.
What the movie gets right is in presenting a film as far from Star Wars as you can get. Sure Solo features the Empire, and one particular jedi, but for the most part the focus is on Han Solo, rascal smuggler and all around middling human being. We find Han (Alden Ehrenreich) on Corellia, a young guy with a love interest, Q'ira (Mother of Dragons herself, Emilia Clarke), as the two try to find a way out of the hell-hole they're living in. They go on the run, but get split up, and Han has to join the Imperial Navy just to stay alive. Three years later we find that his quick mouth and bad attitude got him kicked out of the navy and he's just another shock-trooper doing gruby battle on a nameless planet. However, a bit a quick luck, and a few friends (such as a newly-met Chewbacca) help Han forge a new life for himself out among the stars.
Solo is a fun movie when you don't think too hard about it. A fairly linear story, we see our titular character go from one scrape to another, always with the end goal of the "next big score" in mind. In the process he gets mixed up with bad guys and worse guys, but you never once get the feeling that Han is any kind of real danger. Some of that is due to the performance where Han is always played like he has another trick up his sleeve, another way out of the mess he's gotten into (which, to be fair, is how Han was in the original movies, too). The fact that the movie is a prequel that focuses on establish characters, though, does more harm to the tense moments than anything else. Han can't die here, nor Chewie, nor Lando (a superb Donald Glover) because they're all alive later in the series. You're not worried about them, so the action sequences don't have the same impact they should.
The humor is better, but at times this, too, feels a little rote. There are plenty of jokes, most of which play well, but it's hard not to imagine this movie being funnier than what we got. The original directors, Miller and Lord, were bumped off the film because their idea of the movie wasn't what the studio wanted (however right or wrong that might have been in hindsight). Miller and Lord are funny guys and their productions, like The LEGO Movie and (the criminally under-loved) Clone High show a weird, energetic sensibility that would have served to punch up Solo. It's fun, and funny, but I do wish there had been more because there are solid stretches where the movie drags. We don't get enough humor, we don't have enough going on in some scenes, and we're left just waiting, itching for something good to come on screen.
Plus, let's be honest, this movie is fan-service table dressing. Remember how Han won his ship from Lando? We'll see that. How about how Han did the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs? We'll get that sequence too (and an explanation for how he could do it when parsecs are a measure of distance, not time). Every moment you'd expect from Han's growing up is presented and it's basically what you would have come up with. They aren't surprises, just call backs.
And yet, I enjoyed the film. It's not the high-point of my movie season but it was certainly a good (sparsely-packed) crowd-pleasing experience. It's fun to see Star Wars do different things to be less Star Wars and whether or not it entirely worked this time around, it's still good for the series to experiment. It's a good movie but not a great one -- Solo hits all the beats you want, but maybe not all the ones it should have. You'll enjoy it but I was left wanting just a little more.
A Second Look:
Going back and looking at the film from the perspective of someone new to the series, I was left trying to figure out who this film was really for. While I know not everyone is going to do a project (for Sci-Fi Saga September) where they watch every Star Wars production in chonological, in-continuity order (although shouldn't we all do something like this at some point in our lives?), but if you did happen to watch the films in order, Solo is an odd duck that doesn't really fit anywhere.
Think about it: Solo is all about Han Solo, a person we haven't seen anywhere in the Saga leading up to this point -- he's not featured in Star Wars: Rebels, which takes place around the same time as this movie, and he's too young to appear in the prequel films or The Clone Wars. While we've certainly had tales following characters outside the main path of the movies (Rebels as the prime example) Solo is slavishly dedicated to giving us a tale that winks and nods at the movies to come. It's whole purpose is to give background for a character we haven't met yet, a guy that, were he not played later by Harrison Ford and given a nuanced story with a lot of growth in the later films, we wouldn't care about him here.
Honestly, that's my biggest issue with Solo: as a stand-alone entry in the Saga it's very bad at being stand-alone. It's a fun and enjoyable (if not all that thrilling) movie if you've seen the later flicks. But if you don't already know who Han Solo is, the film doesn't give you much reason to care. Sure, if you don't know Han shows up in later movies you might be more engaged with the action on screen, but you also have to invest in the character and Han, as presented by this film, is kind of an ass. Smug and dumb, he's not the charater we'll eventually know and love; he has to grow into that. THe movie doesn't present a very good Han, betraying its own intentions.
If I were a viewer of the Saga, coming into the later films after watching Solo, I'd probably be annoyed by the character. "This guy again? Ugh, he sucked in his own movie." Seems like the film would have the opposite effect on the series it was supposed to.