Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)

The original Star Wars trilogy is in many ways the textbook example of the hero’s journey, the battle between good and evil where the hero overcomes challenges and sets things right. And while there are certainly merits to this structure, there’s something else that made Star Wars interesting, it wasn’t simply the structure, it was a sense of world in place where everything was run down and falling apart and the glory days were long gone.

This lead to Han, a cynical, wordly man who acted as a kind of foil to the hero in terms of challenging him and his optimism about the world, but would come into his own as the criminal with a heart of gold who was always scraping together a plan in the heat of the moment. He had a bravado to him, leading to the kind of risk-taking most people found foolish, but he never seemed afraid to roll the dice.

So much of Star Wars gets caught up in the trappings more associated by a generation of fans raised by the prequels: Jedi and Sith dueling in insanely choreographed sequences, big CGI power fantasies, and spinoffs into an expanded world of mass media. This gets away from the fact that in its best moments Star Wars worked best as a place that somehow felt both far ahead of our time and yet in its own warped dark age.

Instead of the tales of Jedi Knights with supernatural powers and epic conflicts, Solo focuses on a seedy criminal underbelly in a worn out world where most people are scraping together a living through any means necessary while being under the thumb of the rich and powerful Empire. It’s a world before the Rebellion, before hope, one in which The Force and Jedi return to whispered myths told in the shadow of a world of corruption where only a handful of people might dream of actually being heroes.

A young Han (Alden Ehrenreich) and Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) are a couple of crazy young kids in love trying to escape the literal shadow of the Empire as they live on the ship-building planet of Corellia where Star Destroyers cast darkness upon the city. During a daring theft, Han is able to escape but only after abandoning Qi’ra. Han joins the Empire but quickly finds that war is not for him and throws in his lot with a group of bandits led by Beckett (Woody Harrelson). Han finds himself drawn deeper into the criminal world when their first job goes bad and Beckett now finds himself in a bind with crime boss Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany), a powerful man who also happens to be entangled with Qi’ra, who he sends as an insider on Beckett’s second chance mission.

What’s endearing about this film is how well Alden Ehrenreich pulls off the lead. It’s hard for him to take in the full, smouldering charisma of Harrison Ford at his best, but he plays this eager bravado that comes across as the way Han would be before he got as knocked around by the world. He somehow thinks things as adventurous and exciting when he should realize how great the stakes are and how overeager he is when it comes to taking action instead of assessing situation.

It’s also fun because so much of the film is about things falling apart and the crew trying to pull everything back together. The film starts as a simple heist job but quickly falls apart and as the film develops there’s a constant sense of improvisation and barely making it by. It’s reminiscent of Han’s best moments from the original trilogy where he tries something brash and dumb in the face of overwhelming failure, but his success rate here isn’t as high as the original trilogy.

It returns to one of the core ideas of the Star Wars universe: the sense that the world is falling apart. The sense of degradation of material things or even the volatile nature of the fuel that the crew is stealing gives an ever growing sense that everything is held together by twine. There’s that rustic sci-fi feel that made Star Wars such a fascinating play to inhabit.

Even more than the material fragility of the world, Solo is built around fragile relationships. Beckett’s mentor role is about teaching Han to not trust people, to seek his own self-interest, and realize that the universe isn’t out to do him any favors. By the end, Han is now more than just that roguish man we meet in the original trilogy, but a man shaped and formed by key relationships that enhance him as a character. It’s a rare case where learning more of the character’s history adds to the story.

In many ways, Solo does for Han Solo what Casino Royale did for Bond. It takes a character who existed more as this cool anti-hero and turns him into someone human and relatable because what he experiences here are human experiences of betrayal, loss, frustration and failure that he internalizes in a way that shapes him slowly into the man he will become.

Solo has its flaws. Lando’s (Donald Glover) inclusion falls a bit too hard on the fanservice side and Donald Glover’s performance feels like it belongs in a more self-aware, comedic film. The cinematography is far too dim and gringy and somehow makes this film feel even more tonally at odds with itself. Also, the inclusion of Lando’s robot sidekick L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) results in some horribly miscalculated jokes and brings up some hard sci-fi questions that Star Wars isn’t ready to answer. One has to wonder if these elements would have been lightened or redeemed by the original directors–Lord and Miller–who got ousted for the more conservative filmmaker Ron Howard.

Solo: A Star Wars Story is the closest modern Star Wars has come to a swashbuckling tale that the original trilogy was going for, a heist romp through a world not quite like any other. When it hits those beats, the film works fantastically, but the moment it strays into the bad humor or hard sci-fi elements, the whole film begins to wobble. And, of course, the film has to tease another potential spin-off film which can help but leave the bitter aftertaste of consumerism. It might be entertainment but dammit if Disney isn’t also going to use it as a chance to sell you on another Star Wars story.

© James Blake Ewing 2018