2018 Film Essays

Scrappily-Assembled Star Wars: ‘Solo’ Is Safe Galactic Fun

Solo: A Star Wars Story is a safe bet for Lucasfilm’s profit. As the second Star Wars standalone spin-off outside the principal streamline of trilogies following the war-grimed Rogue One, I walked into Solo expecting the romp from the marketing campaign. After all, in the galaxy far, far away of aliens, lightsaber-wielding mystic Jedi and disenfranchised heroes seeking justice, there are more promising mythologies than an origin story about the iconic white rogue Han Solo, introduced in 1977 and embodied by Harrison Ford in George Lucas’s original trilogy. I did not expect major revelations or narrative gambles like in Rian Johnson’s Episode VIII:The Last Jedi, which interrogated the ideals of mythical grandiosity in its fan base. On the other hand, Solo has its origin story built upon the fan service-y list of “Han Solo’s Exploits Alluded To in the Movie Canon.

As per ritual of Star Wars films, Solo opens with a bang as its titular Han (Alden Ehrenreich) and his girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) flee the servitude of their corrupted home planet. Though after a traumatic separation, Han devises a way to get his hands on a spaceship to retrieve Qi’ra. Eventually, with a Wookiee ally Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo in the suit) at his side, the wannabe rogue joins the mercenary crew of Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) to break into a life of crime.

Wrought with production complications after the firing of directors Chris Miller and Phil Lord, the replacement director Ron Howard stages a competent piece operating on a jumbled plot that flings Han and the gang from action set piece to set piece. Screenwriting team Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan work with passable quips and exposition, and it’s a relief that the situational humor and character interplays sustain the adventure.

Ehrenreich has to shoulder a cumbersome legacy of Ford’s previous embodiment of the classic icon. I’m glad to report that the former’s optimistic presentation of Han is at ease in Solo, thanks to his winning smile and cocky spirit as he masquerades as an amoralist cut out for crime. Even though I question how this Han Solo grew into the gruff and cynical visage of Ford, Ehrenreich’s heart-of-gold rogue endeared me enough that I’m willing to overlook this quibble (though mileage will vary with others).

The supporting players find ways to pop. Beckett dispenses Han gruffly paternal advice while also grooming him into cautious cynicism. Donald Glover comes and goes as the iconic Lando Calrrissan, stealing the scenes with suaveness like a youthful Billy Dee Williams, especially through a snark-charged sabbac — i.e. space poker — sequence with Han. Lando is also accompanied by his assistant: a likable smart-mouth droid L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) with a pendant for anti-servitude activism. Paul Bettany as a crime boss chews up his scenes with his otherwise one-note villainy, and Clarke doesn’t have much to do with her underwritten love interest status and subordination to the villain — though she experiences heartbreak in her eyes as she passes Han’s foreboding of her ulterior motives. Han and Chewbacca’s first meeting kicks off with buddy-buddy charm, with the former communicating in the Wookiee growlish tongue to concoct their collaborative escape from prison. In my theater experience on opening night, people applauded once Chewbacca joined Han in the pilot seat of the Millennium Falcon. Any scenes of Han and Chewbacca’s burgeoning partnership radiate such warm fuzzies that I’m disappointed the movie barely banks on their dynamic to anchor its cluttered story. Even Ehrenreich seems like a supporting player to the commotion of the plot.

The cast have draw but their characters’ turning points don’t quite have the thematic tug. Solo’s well-rounded female characters are shelled into love interest roles existing to wrench angst out of the male characters, which isn’t a new problem for the franchise (the prequel trilogy especially) and Hollywood, but Solo sets an exasperating precedence for its neglect of women. The film pretends to give disposable women proper send-offs to their graves. Thandie Newton’s Val — Beckett’s partner and Bonnie to his Clyde — has a senseless sacrifice she accepts with an inexplicable unearned totally-worth-it attitude, and even the feminine-coded L3-37, who insists she shouldn’t be the literal object of Lando’s eye, is not immune to an absurd fate.

The battle of good and evil is more or less a backdrop, though some of its factors bleed into Han’s escapades. For starters, young Han falls for Imperial propaganda recruitment in hopes of attaining status only to be reduced to a battlefield military tool — he escapes from military drudgery unscathed by PTSD symptoms (as far as the movie’s war commentary is concerned). I admire Solo’s relaxation in low-stakes goals, though in a vast movie-verse so inherently defined by its Rebellion versus Empire narrative, I wished these players felt more snagged in the middle of the galactic-scale tensions rather than Empire and Rebellion popping up as arbitrary obstructions — the intent is there, though.

By the third act, at least I was soaking up the fun — through fire-blasting wrangles with staff-wielding pirates atop tilting trains and a space maelstroms chase with beasts peering from the galactic mists — even if it’s all part of a grand checklist of canon alluded to in the original trilogy (Han accomplishing the Kessel Run, check). Without giving away the twists, I will say that I found some inspired glee in the hinted corners of lore and wished that the first act devoted more breathing space for the wideness of the galaxy. I suspect that Solo was a stealth vehicle for more interesting spin-off films beyond a smirking rogue.

I find that I like spending time with the youthful chipper Han and his compatriot Chewbacca, though I received no revelational idiosyncrasies about their counterparts. If I were to bother with the idea, the hypothetical masterpiece Solo would execute a memorable legend, though the movie is as pulpy as it gets. The film is not without heart, though its heart exists in scattered fragments without assimilating into a cohesive whole. When Han and Chewbacca fly off into light-speed in their infamous Millennium Falcon ship (they got the Falcon, check), like a cowboy riding off into the sunset, the result is obligatory rather than legendary. So, white guy gets what he wants — getting what he needs has to be saved for the original trilogy timeline. Solo isn’t the Star Wars film I wanted or needed — but as a long supplementary picture, it satiates the Star Wars fan in me, though I can’t say the same for non-fan viewers locked out of the galactic storyline and Solo’s gratuitous winks to other canons. Long after Lucasfilm stretches out their standalone films, I’m not sure how much of the ride I can remember. But I had fun.

Caroline Cao (@Maximinalist) is a queer Vietnamese-Houstonian Earthling surviving under the fickle weather of New York. When not angsting over her first poetry manuscript or a pilot screenplay about space samurais, she is cooking her own Chinese food instead of buying take-out and dreaming of winning Hamilton lotto tickets. Carol has lent her wit and pop culture love to Birth Movies DeathThe Mary SueFilm School Rejects and The Script Lab. She also runs a New York living blog and writing services.