In Star Wars: The Last Jedi, released only five months ago, one of the central themes was that we need to let the past die.
It’s an interesting premise for a multi-million dollar franchise to espouse under the new leadership of one of the biggest corporations on Earth. Here we are now, reviving a franchise its creator was content with letting die, now with a new film being released once a year every year for the rest of eternity. And this franchise is saying that we need to let the past die. It was a bold premise that invoked divisive feelings on the internet, to say the least. Rather than a fun romp through space with our old pals Han and Chewie, the audience received a heaping dose of cynicism toward the very idea of the saga continuing: if the stories of Rey, Finn, Poe, and the other new characters are to matter within the context of this saga, the past needs to die. Luke Skywalker needs to die. Fan service and coddling the expectations of an audience need to die. Han Solo’s death in the film before this one needs to matter. Han Solo needs to stay dead.
Which makes it a curious prospect that not even five months after challenging its audience to change their expectations of this universe comes one of the safest bets to date in the Star Wars universe. More of an expansion of throw away dialogue than an organic or even necessary story in its own right, Solo: A Star Wars Story provides audiences with the exact opposite kind of Star Wars story The Last Jedi gave them.
There isn’t any heavy subtext here, just fun escapist adventure. Gone is the message of looking forward; here, we get to hang out with our old pals Han and Chewie, AND we get to see how they met. The famed Kessel run? Han does it. Interested in seeing how Han Solo LITERALLY got his name? This is the film for you.
Your place in the Star Wars fandom can be measured very precisely by which approach you preferred of the two films. The Last Jedi is in no way a perfect film, with ample amounts of time devoted to strange tangents, further shackled by a fundamental misunderstanding of some of its core characters, but it was a forward thinking film proposing that this universe can and should exist without pandering to the lowest common denominator.
In contrast, Solo wants to have a good time without really thinking too much about new places the franchise can explore. It stars Alden Ehrenreich as the best possible approximation of Han Solo in 2018, all swagger, no uncertainty. His performance was something of a hard sell for audiences prior; rumors of a troubled set and the necessity of an acting coach only seemed to confirm fans’ worst fears that this was not the man for the job. Those fans’ fears can definitely be put at rest, however; not only is Ehrenreich more than up to the task of tackling the iconic anti-hero, he gives the character new emotional depths only previously hinted at in Ford’s installments.
His depths are matched by the company he keeps; Donald Glover co-stars here as the legendary Lando Calrissian, and his performance, like the original set’s Billy Dee Williams, is all sultry swagger, with some minor pathos hinted at in his relationship with droid L3-37. L3, voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, is Twitter: the Droid. Designed to be a shoutout to the franchise’s more progressive fans, L3 makes empty calls for droid liberation that paint the universe’s treatment of droids up till now in perhaps unexpectedly sinister undertones. If droids need liberation, does that mean that central characters C3PO and R2-D2 have been personified slaves?
Even if Solo isn’t clear about how it feels about the agency of droids, it is overtly clear in its disdain for its female characters, all of whom serve the story of Han Solo with no real agency of their own. Emilia Clarke is fine, if underdeveloped, as Qi’ra, who is treated more as a trophy for Han’s eventual awakening as himself than as an original character. Still: at least she isn’t given the treatment Thandie Newton is given as Val. Val blows herself up to give male characters a reason to grieve briefly then is never again mentioned, but the bomb she blows herself up with is one she did not need to be present for. Coupled with what the narrative only hints at for L3, it’s clear that Solo isn’t concerned with doing right by its women.
Without diving into the now-well known drama surrounding Solo’s production, it must be seen as a relief that Ron Howard has not only done a remarkable job with the material, but is a natural fit for a film requiring an experienced yet non-objecting hand. Solo’s action set pieces are without a doubt some of the best of the franchise; a train heist early on draws to mind westerns even from the dawn of cinema like The Great Train Robbery or The General by way of an untarnished, unsentimental sci-fi look akin to Blade Runner. It is in scenes like these that a critical viewer can forget about the surrounding narrative laziness and enjoy the film’s greater strengths.
Solo: A Star Wars Story is fun and inventive while being unnecessary and pandering. Ron Howard and his cast delight while a truly egregious script from Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan gives fans all the sweet, sweet candy coated fan service available. On a fundamental level, this is what Star Wars is for many people: empty nostalgia with no greater message wrapped up in fun set pieces, great sets, and outstanding performances. Nobody wants Star Wars to grow, because that would mean they too might have to grow. And that’s okay; when Solo’s “soft opening” this past weekend was still over $100 million, there are decades of films like these surely to come from Disney and Lucasfilm. The past needs to die, but when the past brings a corporation a lofty nine figures or more, that promise is as empty as the thrills Solo has to offer.
Solo: A Star Wars Story is in theaters now.