In a move that unnerved a lot of people at the time, the original directors of Solo: A Star Wars Story — Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the pair of low-key comic geniuses behind the Jump Street series and The Lego Movie — were punted from the project halfway through production, with Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy citing “different creative visions.”
To which one might reply: What exactly did Lucasfilm expect? Wasn’t this the point of hiring Lord and Miller in the first place?
When it was announced that the Star Wars cinematic universe would expand to include movies with storylines beyond the main narrative, it was exciting news, even for those who aren’t Star Wars superfans. Now the universe George Lucas created could spin out in new and interesting ways that wouldn’t have to hew to the space opera conventions of the main Stat Wars series. Godzilla director Gareth Edwards was hired to make Rogue One; Lord and Miller were brought on for Solo, promising the entry of some new genres and voices into the galaxy.
But Edwards was kicked off Rogue One near the end of production, with Tony Gilroy hired for extensive, story-reshaping reshoots. And Lord and Miller were removed partway through their shoot, replaced by Ron Howard, whose track record as a broadly appealing and studiously vanilla Hollywood director made clear what the studio was after.
The result is a bland heist movie in space that does nothing unexpected and never justifies its existence. Han Solo is a hero and a roguish figure in the original trilogy, and Solo is here to explain all the things you never really wondered about him, such as why is his last name Solo, and how do you do the Kessel run in 12 parsecs?
That isn’t to say Solo is a bad movie. But it’s not a particularly good one either. It slots neatly into the time-honored summer blockbuster category of “aggressively fine”: competent, lightly funny, ably performed by a handsome cast, and unlikely to inspire anything more than a “well, that was fun!” on the way out of the theater.
Solo is Han’s story, without any insight into his character
Chronologically, Solo must take place not very long before A New Hope (though a character cameo may throw you off if you’re not also familiar with several of the animated TV series). Young Han (Alden Ehrenreich, doing a passable Harrison Ford impression) is a roguish but starry-eyed young derelict who fancies himself an outlaw, living on the dingy planet of Corellia with his girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), with whom he plans to escape their state of servitude to a giant slug-like queen and head for the great wide galaxy.
It’s kind of an intriguing setup. Are we finally going to get an insight into Han’s development into the cynical, lovable jackass pilot of the Millennium Falcon?
Kind of. Han’s character never changes, but he does at least get to be a pilot. During their big escape attempt, Han and Qi’ra get separated, foiled by both the Empire and Crimson Dawn, a powerful criminal syndicate. Han enlists in the military to learn to fly (but not after a forehead-smacking scene in which he acquires his last name).
And then suddenly we’re three years in the future and Han has deserted the military. He winds up in league with a pair of professional mercenary outlaws, Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and Val (Thandie Newton). He runs back into Qi’ra, who now works for Crimson Dawn bigwig Dryden (Paul Bettany).
The plot continues to trot dutifully through the dots that must be connected, the best of which introduces Han to card-playing Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) and his beloved spaceship. Han meets Chewbacca in a mud pit. There are a number of shots designed to make sure you don’t miss the hanging pair of gold dice that will appear in later installments of the films. There’s some stealing and double-crossing and whiffs of a fomenting Rebellion, but for the most part, this is a movie about stealing some stuff.
It’s totally fine. There’s some humor, and some cool monsters, and a seductive droid named L3 (voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge) whom Lando seems to pine for. By the end, the film has set itself up for a sequel to bridge the gap to A New Hope. It is, in other words, a crowd-pleasing summer blockbuster designed to fill in some gaps in the franchise’s timeline and occupy a few hours but not much brain space.
Solo could have been so, so much better
I want more from even my blockbusters, but that’s not really what frustrated me about Solo. Though it doesn’t serve up anything terribly revealing or mind-blowing for fans, it’s not really trying to. It’s a passably fun time at the movies and a giant ATM in the sky for Lucasfilm and Disney.
But while watching it at its Cannes premiere, I wistfully thought of the movie that could have been.
When The Lego Movie was announced for 2014, many people (myself included) rolled their eyes hard. The idea of spinning off a toy, first created in 1949, into a movie (and vice versa) isn’t new, of course. But would it just be a naked cash grab? Did we really need another corporate synergy attempt, intended to wring money from the pockets of parents desperate for something to do with their kids before landing on the heap of movie history?
To everyone’s shock and delight, The Lego Movie (and its successors) turned out to be a capricious, self-aware caper with the sort of fast-paced wit and winking humor rarely seen in big-scale studio projects aimed at kids. Lord and Miller had figured out how to acknowledge that they were making a movie tied to a big consumer product and make something genuinely original out of it.
That’s the pair’s signature, something they’ve done with other established pop culture products including the 1978 children’s book Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and the earnest procedural TV drama 21 Jump Street, which ran from 1987 to 1991. In both cases, they spun old and beloved products into something new and fresh and surprising that nod to the originals but are their own thing too.
Solo was a perfect match for their talent. Star Wars is an enormous commercial machine with a long history, and Han Solo made his debut on the world stage in 1977, inspiring the devotion of fans for decades. He’s one of pop culture’s most recognizable characters.
But though I’ll get hate mail for saying this, it needs to be said: He’s also just not that interesting or complex (though The Force Awakens went a long way toward rounding out his character). What’s great about Han is that he’s cool and cocksure and a dispenser of great one-liners, he can fly his ship, and his best friend is a Wookiee.
Lord and Miller’s proven knack for injecting new life into some decades-old, beloved pop cultural artifact could have made Han into someone fascinating, or at least shed some new light on the broader universe. But Solo’s box-ticking approach to filling out the character’s backstory is distinctly unimaginative, and little in the film expands the universe in any way. And its winks to the main series of films lack even the excitement of the fan service in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, which at least feel like they were made by people who grew up inventing new Star Wars stories in the backyard with action figures.
Of course, this all might just be wishful thinking on my part. Much of what’s in the final version of the film may have been in the screenplay Lord and Miller were originally working with. Maybe Disney and Lucasfilm never intended to let Solo get as weird and funny as it could have been. Maybe what the pair was making was a disaster, and this version is better.
But the end product doesn’t have much to offer to the world of Star Wars. It is, on the whole, thoroughly forgettable, and its setup for a future sequel feels vaguely cynical. By the time the credits roll, the Star Wars universe isn’t any bigger or more magical; you just have some more information. Now you know how Chewie got his nickname. Just what you never thought to ask for.
Solo: A Star Wars Story premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May and opens in theaters on May 25.
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