Walking out of Solo I had a few things on my mind. Firstly, I was reminded that nerd culture, as ambiguous as that term has become, now wholly dominates popular culture. After seeing Avengers: Infinity War, Deadpool 2 and this film all within the span of a month, that much was certain. Secondly, I had confirmed my suspicion that this film should have released in December like the trio of Star Wars films that came before it. Not because it wasn’t ready for its release, but because I wasn’t. Lastly, it showed me that if those responsible for the Star Wars films don’t seriously consider why each film is being made, then they’re in serious danger of losing a large part of their audience. Solo suffers from fatigue, but it’s not just summer blockbuster overload. While I enjoyed the film, the pervasive emotion I had upon its completion was complacency. I wouldn’t have missed much had I not seen it, and for a Star Wars film, that’s a first.
Solo: A Star Wars Story is the second Star Wars anthology film to be released in the past four years, the first being 2016’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. The film tells the story of Han Solo and his exploits before the events of the original trilogy and, subsequently, the modern films. The film follows Han from his days as a street rat to his time in the Imperial army, reaching all the way to his first encounters with characters like Chewbacca and Lando, and eventually telling the story of how the young pilot made the legendary Kessel Run (in less than 12 parsecs, of course).
Perhaps the most contentious point of this film’s well-publicized pre-production was the casting process of the young Han Solo. Harrison Ford, as he has with so many other roles throughout his career, defined the character in the 70s and 80s. Say the name “Han Solo” to anyone with their finger even remotely on the pulse of American pop culture, and a very specific face and voice will come to mind. And while Alden Ehrenreich, the young actor who was eventually cast in the role, may not be that face, he’s certainly still Han Solo.
Not once does Ehrenreich attempt to perform a Harrison Ford impression. He doesn’t try to match Ford’s voice and the makeup and special effects department don’t attempt anything too drastic in making him look like Ford either. Instead, Ehrenreich masters the mannerisms and the tone of the character, bringing him to life by making it his own. He’s aided tremendously by the script as well; there’s more than enough material in it that just oozes Han Solo, to the point where in some scenes it wouldn’t even matter who’s reading the lines. If anything, Ehrenreich’s performance proves that the Han Solo character is, in fact, more than just Harrison Ford. He shows that there’s still interesting stories and places for the character to go without the power of the original performance there to anchor it.
The supporting cast also carry their weight. Donald Glover’s interpretation of Lando Calrissian is nothing short of perfect, and both Woody Harrelson and Paul Bettany add top notch blockbuster performances to their respective careers. Emilia Clarke, while not as exciting or as interesting as one might wish the talented young actress to be, gives a passable yet stunted performance as Han’s love interest from his youth, Qi’ra.
Another area in which the film truly excels is in its direction. Ron Howard, who took over as director in June of last year after Christopher Miller and Phillip Lord were ousted from the job amidst talks of clashes on the script, delivers a compact and engrossing film. Solo jumps from sequence to sequence in a way that could only have been managed by a veteran director. Both the train sequence and the Kessel Run itself are fantastic examples of how to manage tension amidst enormous setpieces. Howard and his cinematographer Bradford Young (Arrival, Selma) largely keep their hands out of the film too, choosing not to employ anything too eccentric as far as it pertains to the cinematography and camera work in the film. The film is excellently paced and switches between both its visual and thematic tones, limited as those may be, in a very fluid manner.
Too often, though, it feels as if the film is answering questions that no one was really asking, something that’s been a critique of the movie since the moment it was announced. When plans for the film were revealed, a significant contingent of fans cried out, arguing that a large part of what made Han Solo so enticing and interesting was the mystique regarding his past. And while that outrage may have been a bit premature, it seems that it wasn’t entirely unfounded. In a number of places, the film tries just a bit too hard, opting to shove another cheeky easter egg down its audience’s throat rather than leaving any morsel of information to the imagination. In some cases this is, of course, unavoidable. Han’s first meeting with Chewbacca, for example, is a moment that would’ve raised some eyebrows if left out of the film. That sequence tells an interesting story and had to be included. However, the scene where Han is “assigned” his last name, for example, is entirely unneeded. It’s a unsatisfactory answer to a question that no one was asking in the first place.
It’s a problem that permeates the rest of this film, as well as one that’s making its way into the Star Wars universe at large. There’s an apparent requirement for everything to be connected, and sooner or later it’s going to bog the franchise down. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Disney’s other powerhouse property, it works, primarily because of the manner in which comic books themselves are structured. In comics, what happens in one book will almost certainly affect the events in another, so it makes perfect sense that the Marvel films reflect this. With Star Wars, however, the fatigue is setting in much, much faster. The Skywalker story is growing old fast, and nostalgia for the original trilogy, while one of the largest pop culture phenomenons on Earth, can only be tapped so many times. One need only look at Solo’s performance at the box office to see that. But seemingly for Disney and the crews behind these movies, it’s not enough that the new episodic Star Wars films continue to tell a story that started nearly fifty years ago, the anthology films must as well.
Perhaps the most glaring example of this in Solo: A Star Wars Story is the inclusion of the thought-to-be-dead Darth Maul in the film. While his inclusion in the television series Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Star Wars: Rebels confirms the character is alive in the canon post-The Phantom Menace, audiences at large were likely shocked when the Sith Lord’s horned face appeared on screen. However, Darth Maul’s inclusion generates a reaction only because he’s a familiar face, perhaps one of the most-agreed upon high points of the prequels. And while he may not be an obvious choice, he’s the easy one. And that’s the problem at the core of this film, and perhaps at the core of the franchise as it currently stands. Rather than creating an original story in this universe brimming with opportunity, a prequel story was delivered. The film isn’t challenging in any way, and yes, this is part of what makes it so fun to watch in the moment, but it’s also what makes it tremendously forgettable upon walking out of the cinema. Solo will almost certainly not be the film one picks off the shelf when looking for a Star Wars fix at home, and, if that’s the case, where the film ranks among the others, or even its overall quality, is hardly relevant.
Solo is actually quite similar to Rogue One. It’s a film made to be enjoyed. At their core, the Star Wars anthology films are nothing more than fan service performed on a massive scale. While it may indeed be a bit heavy-handed in its execution, Solo does in fact deliver on that. Despite wearing the issues of the franchise on its sleeve more prominently than any movie before it, Solo is still a good time for fans, and at the end of the day, it’s more Star Wars, something that in itself is still truly exciting. Four well-made and engaging Star Wars films have now been made in as many years, and that’s no small feat. None of them, including Solo, have been worse than the prequels, but none have quite been better than the original trilogy. And that’s okay. Solo is still enjoyable. The bigger question is whether or not the Star Wars films after it will be.