The past four years has brought us more major release Star Wars films than any similar period since A New Hope‘s debut in 1977 (back it was called just Star Wars). At this rate there will actually be more “new” Star Wars movies by the end of the decade than there were in the entire pre-Disney series. This is all well and good so long as the films being produced, ubiquity aside, maintain a certain high level of quality, and continue to push the Star Wars universe forward. The new films may have begun with the heavy nostalgia trip of The Force Awakens yet both 2016’s Rogue One and 2017’s The Last Jedi veered the mythos in new and interesting directions. Polarizing as they may have been, especially the latter, one can’t argue that the two most recent entries in the Star Wars saga have been afraid of taking risks with the property. So it would only make sense that a film focusing entirely on the series most renowned (and beloved) scoundrel would similarly storm off boldly into the heretofore untold history of its subject. However, unlike Rogue One, Last Jedi, to some extent Force Awakens, or even its titular character, Solo – A Star Wars Story is timid, playing to established series tropes, clichés and limits. Maybe this is the result of the backlash against the filmmaking of Rian Johnson, Gareth Edwards, and others in a generation of filmmakers raised on the original Star Wars films, or maybe this is simply what happens when franchise demands meet a historically risk-averse director, a member of the generation which could have starred in the original Star Wars films. Either way, the result is equally fun as it is forgettable, or to put it another way, the exact opposite of Han Solo.
Maybe the most surprising element of Solo comes in its opening seconds where plain title cards lay the background rather than traditional scrolling text under John Williams’s iconic fanfare. For a film which so blatantly attempts to echo the original series, it’s odd that Ron Howard, a solid but never stylish filmmaker, would choose this point to deviate from the franchise formula. It could be argued that this was done to separate Solo from others in the series except that none of the actual material in the film – from the developments of its story to the way its shot – vary in any way from the excepted Star Wars boundaries. Solo, even without a single light saber or reference to Jedi, adheres to every other Star Wars limitation and requirement without ever capturing what has made Star Wars work. If each film in the main series is a chapter in a grander text, and Rogue One is a one-off short story, Solo feels either like the author’s fleshed out character sketch or a spin-off that the publisher commissioned a different author to write.
Further, Solo has the same problem ever prequel has: there is no danger. No matter how dire the situation may become for young Han, Chewie, and Lando, we know they’ll come out just fine. Meanwhile, our foresight into their lives keeps us from investing in new characters like Becket, Val, and even Qi’ra, whose relationship with Han is doomed before the film begins. Even the movie’s own marketing, focusing on the main characters speeding about in the Millennium Falcon, works against the sense of consequence and tension the film attempts to create, leaving the audience simply waiting for the scenes from every poster and trailer rather than investing in any of these other people. Whereas Infinity War and Deadpool 2 have used marketing to subvert expectation, Solo leans into the worst practices of film advertising by telegraphing character importance. It’s even worse when characters are immediately forgotten by those close to them. How is the audience supposed to care about the character when even their fictional friends forget about them by the next scene? Solo does flesh out certain elements of Star Wars history such as Han and Chewbacca’s first meeting, Han and Lando’s first meeting, and how Chewie and Han acquired the Falcon. But while the origin of Han’s blaster and Chewbacca’s bandolier are given screen time, the most important element of Han’s initial character – his piloting skills – are passed over as “training.” More time is spent explaining why Han calls his best friend “Chewie” than is spent showing us how Han came to call himself the best pilot in the galaxy. He talks about it a lot, but when we actually see these skills they come off as less as a satisfying achievement than yet another Star Wars dues ex machina.
As with the Falcon itself, what keeps this particular ship flying is its competent crew. Although he can’t nearly match Harrison Ford’s legendary performance Alden Ehrenreich does as well as can be expected with the material he’s given (there were at least a dozen times when I personally improvised a more Han-like line than those spoken in the film, at least Han-like in my opinion), working best when he’s given someone else to bounce off of, be it Chewie, Emilia Clarke’s Qi’ra or Woody Harrelson (the character’s name is Becket but he’s The Woody Harrelson Character). Yet the absolute scene-stealer is easily Donald Glover as Lando Calrissian, in every way embodying the character, even down to how his delivery mirrors – not mimics or imitates – that of Billy Dee Williams. As a longtime follow of his work, beginning with his breakout role on Community, reaching back to his days with Derrick Comedy, and now his musical endeavors, viral YouTube videos, and his current role as creator, writer, and “star” of Atlanta, one of the best shows currently on television (he was even the model for the protagonist of my first YA series The One), Glover’s performance here is startling. His role perfectly builds Lando’s legacy. He’s as smooth and confident as Han wishes he could be and their banter is one of the few times the film’s humor comes off as genuine. It’s no wonder that the back half of the film, following Lando’s introduction and finally catching up to where the pre-release marketing led, is much better than the first half. Sadly, not long into the much better material, Solo starts to wear out its welcome.
Fun as Solo‘s second hour may be it can’t shake off the dull, slog of the first, meaning by the time the ultimate climax occurs, with all its intended emotional heft, it’s less of a raising climax than a dull trudge toward an underwhelming end filled with muddled alliances, messy politics, and several last second twists that we already know lead nowhere, at least up to now. If anything, the conclusion makes it clear that this Star Wars Story would be much better if it followed a character other than Solo, perhaps Lando, or better yet Qi’ra, as her story has a chance to have actual stakes and investment by – as with Rogue One – not knowing specifically where its lead may go. As is, Solo, for all its talk about freedom and breaking of rules, is the safest, most limited film of the new Star Wars canon. It fills in a couple of holes, most of them barely big enough to notice, but it’s ultimately unnecessary.
But hey, at least it didn’t ruin the character.
Nooooo it didn’t do that.