Let’s get the burning question out of the way: Solo is fine. It’s fine.
This latest Star Wars prequel gives us the backstory of Han Solo in perhaps the bluntest way possible. It is frustratingly straightforward, hitting on the beats you’ve seen in the trailers — the origin of his blaster, his first flight on the Falcon, the legendary Kessel Run — and a few you haven’t, like how he got his name and the first love of his life.
Every character in the A-list cast is present to serve his story, from his former flame Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) to his smuggler counterpart Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) to his mentor figure Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson). Only Qi’ra has a small arc of her own, set up for a possible sequel, but otherwise they’re here to service Han’s development. Don’t get your hopes up that this is an ensemble story. As the name implies, this is a one-man show.
Thank goodness for Alden Ehrenreich, then, who steals it. His version of Han Solo is a babyfaced young version of the character, not the one we know from the original movie. That’s a good thing: for a character whose 40-year existence has been defined by the rugged cynicism of Harrison Ford, Ehrenreich manages to step in and make it his own. This isn’t Ford’s version of Han Solo; this is a softer, more optimistic, more openly emotional version. His mask hasn’t hardened with time and experience. Ehrenreich’s version of Solo is not one Ford would’ve played, just as any attempt at matching Ford’s character would have doomed this project from the start. But the character through-line is there. It would be fun to follow this version of the character on further adventures, slowly growing into the man who shoots Greedo in Mos Eisley an in-universe decade down the line.
Lucasfilm bet on Han Solo being a bigger character than one actor. They were right to.
The rest of the movie? Much more of a mixed bag.
There are western elements to the story, as well as some noir beats, but the movie moves too fast to let any aesthetic besides “gritty Star Wars” take hold. A great train robbery sequence in the first act is the movie’s action high point, and the planet at the end — all sand and cliffs — is staged with great beauty. In fact, like its prequel predecessor Rogue One, Solo is gorgeously designed and filmed. These are, after all, Star Wars movies.
Solo orients itself in an area of the Star Wars universe less familiar to fans of the movies: the criminal underworld. George Lucas famously wrote 100 hours of a never produced TV show set amongst the crime syndicates of his universe, and that endless source of social conflict has long been a well tapped by other “expanded universe” stories, particularly the butt-ugly Clone Wars and Rebels animated series. It’s a great direction to take spinoff films, opening doors to all sorts of colorful heroism and villainy without repeating the Empire v. Rebels conflict. Solo is a neat introduction to that realm. And yet … something is still missing from Solo, despite Ehrenreich’s performance and the fun world-building. On the surface it has everything you could want from a movie subtitled A Star Wars Story. But it’s a Star Wars story, not “Star Wars,” and what it lacks is so key that it brings the movie down a peg.
There are many reasons why Star Wars: The Last Jedi is the best Star Wars movie we’ll ever get. It has everything a Star Wars movie needs structurally, emotionally, philosophically. The key scene isn’t Luke Skywalker’s sacrifice or the Throne Room fight or Finn learning to believe in something larger than himself. The definitive sequence in The Last Jedi is Canto Bight, the casino world, where Rose and Finn free the Fathier creatures and wreak havoc on the rich and indifferent in the galaxy.
That sequence, more than any other, speaks to the heart of the Star Wars universe — not just little boys and girls learning how to be space wizards, but regular kids battling oppressive systems against unimaginable odds.
Not just armadas of spacecraft locked in desperate battle, but rather the importance of small acts of rebellion, of recognizing when your past actions and blindness to plight mean you have a responsibility to work extra hard to make it right.
Most of all, not just the lone hero striding out to take on the First Order all by himself, but the power of shared stories to make the galaxy a better place.
These are foundational ideas at the heart of the eight Star Wars saga films and, despite its flaws, Rogue One.
Solo references the Rebellion on a plot level. It features acts of great kindness. It highlights growth and realization of past wrongs – to a point, because it introduces a new wrinkle in the overall societal makeup of the Star Wars universe in the form of L3-37 (voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge), Lando’s co-pilot droid who believes in equal rights for droids. Without diving too deep into spoilers, the movie completely fucks it up — so much so that it breaks any sense that this movie belongs alongside the other Star Wars films at their best.
Droids are, after all, sentient. As other movies have established, parts of the galaxy don’t serve their kind, an implied prejudice that has previously been swept into the background. We meet L3-37 at a battle-bot arena as she tries to convince a droid not to fight and to be free. At one point, Lando asks if he can get her anything, to which she glibly replies “equal rights.” He scoffs. Without spoiling where the story goes, the movie really steps in it here. It’s a Star Wars movie that presents an inequality that the heroes not only take for granted but laugh off and, later, exploit in a truly grotesque fashion.
It’s kind of an unbelievable unforced error on the parts of writers Jonathan Kasdan and Lawrence Kasdan — particularly in today’s Star Wars franchise, which has had three films in a row that genuinely emphasize diversity and social themes both on the screen and within the stories. Not necessarily the script’s fault, but equally confusing, is that there is a planet of the poor that has the most people of color seen in one place in the entire film. What happened?
The Droid subplot is the nadir of Solo, the only false note but one so huge that it blows a hole in the story as a whole. The criminal element of the Star Wars galaxy is ripe with possible stories and keeps the rest of this movie chugging along (although the cameo from the next movie’s presumed big bad is mind-numbingly stupid and worrisome, on the level of Johnny Depp’s appearance at the end of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them). This version of Han Solo, with a better script, would provide an excellent perspective to follow into the darker side of the galaxy.
Forget a Lando movie, though. Give us Qi’ra: A Star Wars Story. Clarke could carry it, and her story has a lot more going on than his.
Contrary to many reviews, the directorial change is not as particularly apparent in Solo as it has been in past public behind-the-scenes disasters. (Original directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller were replaced by Ron Howard 75% of the way through principal photography.) Perhaps thanks to Ehrenreich’s performance, and the fact that the movie isn’t really about anything, the movie moves at a brisk pace and keeps a firm tone. The fundamental problem is with its script. It has all the ingredients but never settles on what this story is supposed to mean. Sometimes it feels like a Wikipedia summary of Solo’s life — albeit particularly fun and at times thrilling one. There are innumerable easter eggs and fun fan-service moments.
Solo is better than you expect – but not quite as good as it could or maybe should be. In the end, its disengagement with anything deeper is its greatest flaw, a gaping hole at the heart of this Star Wars Story.