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Sell Your ‘Solo’: What Happens When a ‘Star Wars’ Story Isn’t Special?

Ron Howard’s ‘Star Wars Story’ is far from the worst movie in the series. But it’s the first without a true wow factor.

Lucasfilm/Ringer illustration
Spoiler alert

“Assume everyone will betray you, and you will never be disappointed.”

Those are the words spoken by the weathered scoundrel Tobias Beckett to a gullible young criminal-in-training named Han in Solo: A Star Wars Story. They’re also a mantra for movie franchises in 2018. No series has been as unsinkable, as irretrievably dominant as the relaunched Star Wars universe. From the new trilogy launched by Disney and J.J. Abrams with The Force Awakens to Rogue One, the prequel side story in late 2016, all the way to last winter’s The Last Jedi, the extension of the Star Wars story has been the biggest global movie phenomenon since Avatar, outpacing Marvel, Harry Potter, Batman, X-Men, James Bond, the Fast & Furious films, and all things Pixar. It is a leviathan, totaling nearly $4.5 billion in global ticket sales and an entire subcultural media industry. The standard floor of performance for these movies is $1 billion worldwide, every time out. It became chic to declare the death of the monoculture earlier this century, but nothing has ever been as big—as consumed—in American popular entertainment as Star Wars is right now. This is a staggering achievement. It’s also a trap.

Solo is a completely fine movie. By no means bad, nor without its charms. The rocky production history—in which original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (The Lego Movie, 21 Jump Street) were fired and replaced by steady hand Ron Howard—has infused it with an awkward kind of anticipation. Will this derail the Star Wars hype train? No. I can assure you that there is no calamity in sight, nor even any rough edges. It is competent, sincere, occasionally winning. In other words, a Ron Howard movie. But it is not one very particular thing that virtually all Star Wars movies are, even at their worst: special. What Solo lacks, that Rogue One or even the turgid, misbegotten The Phantom Menace delivers is the feeling of elevation, as if what you’re watching is sacred and capable of transitioning to greatness at any moment. It’s an ineffable quality that the movies hold, a religiosity. Solo is a movie about a kid who grows up to be a guy. Along the way, there are some high jinks. He learns to fly. He makes some friends. He tricks the bad man. He nabs the MacGuffin. But there is nothing like this.

Or this:

Or certainly not this:

Solo is an origin story, the first genuine attempt at a spinoff story in this galaxy of characters and story lines. Its one trick is also its weakness: the confirmation of things we’d heard about before. Here’s how Han met Chewbacca. Here’s how Han got his last name. Here’s Lando Calrissian. Here’s the Millennium Falcon. Here’s the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs. (Sort of.) Here’s that fateful game of Sabacc. Here’s a swell of John Williams. Here’s a one-liner.

So there is an inherent quagmire in staying true to the text and finding something new. Beyond the details of the story—how Han transformed from a hustling street urchin on his home planet of Corellia to a galactically known super-smuggler—there are familiar landmarks, metronomic tokens of sameness that situate the viewer: the speeder chase, the desert showdown, the cabaret act, the shocking reveal. Beat. Beat. Beat. Beat. These moves are what make a Star Wars movie, though this one is notably bereft of spirituality or grandeur. It’s an adventure that has more in common with Indiana Jones than A New Hope. That doesn’t have to be a demerit. But it is a change. I spotted flashes of Once Upon a Time in the West and Heat and even Michael Bay’s The Rock—operatic, grounded hokum. But Solo is also without genre: one part Western, one part teen rebellion, one part war movie, one part heist flick, all pulp, no parts Star Wars. That isn’t entirely fair—at nearly every spare moment, the father-son screenwriting team Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan give us a nod to a future turn of events in this galaxy far, far away. It is connected to the universe of stories in the way a surfer is connected to a surfboard; when it’s upright, it’s riding a wave. When it slips, it tumbles in the riptide. Whether it gets back up again is the question.

Who is Han Solo to us, anyway? Why all this anxiety attached to this scruffy-looking nerf herder? As embodied by Harrison Ford in the original trilogy, Solo was a vanishing archetype of masculinity—the dashing but viciously jealous and wisecracking rogue. Overconfident and underprepared, he belonged to a lineage that included actors like Clark Gable, Cary Grant, and Robert Mitchum more than Marlon Brando or Al Pacino. Solo was tall, with a middle-parted bushel of ’70s dad hair and a flair for henleys and light jackets. Ford had the untrustworthy What, me worry? insouciance of a Tom Wolfe protagonist. His Solo got the job done, but maybe he wrecked your mom’s car in the process.

In Solo, we see a boy interrupted—simpler and less cynical than the one we first met in a cantina on Tatooine, but still eager to break free. As he conspires to escape Corellia with his young girlfriend, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke, at home with preposterous dialogue), the actor Alden Ehrenreich imbues teenage Han with the wide-eyed, optimistic dreamer quality that defines so many pop songs of the mid-to-late 20th century. He’s not a space outlaw; he’s an orphan “scum rat” who’ll do anything to see the cosmos. He’d dig Tom Petty’s tunes.

But Ehrenreich is a tricky case: Neither resembling nor sounding much like Ford, one of the most effortless and memorable actors of the past 50 years, his job is doubly difficult. It’s easy to imagine what Lord and Miller saw in him. He’s puckish, cheery, game for anything. He seems a bit like Chris Pratt in The Lego Movie, or Channing Tatum in 21 Jump Street—a scarecrow with a brain. In a different movie—one where kitsch and winking metacommentary might have played a prominent part—he’d have been perfect. We can see how prepared he is for that in Hail, Caesar! But Ron Howard’s Solo is inevitably darker and works to create emotional shading in its stars’ backstory—Han Solo’s absentee father, we learn, built the ships that resembled the Millennium Falcon and wanted to be a pilot. It’s a deft touch given what we know about the broken relationship between Solo and his son, Kylo Ren. But Ehrenreich isn’t the actor to lift an emotional barbell. The first time I saw the movie, that scene’s importance grazed past me. On second viewing, I found myself wondering more about his scene partner’s backstory—Lando Calrissian, and the sly but important reference to his mother.

One of the great joys of all Star Wars movies is the elegant ways they get gifted actors to say ridiculous stuff. “Use the Force, Luke,” from the great Alec Guinness. “Being ready is your choice, my Padawan,” for Liam Neeson. In Solo, Donald Glover gets to luxuriously chew scenery, inflecting “Everything you’ve heard about me … is true,” with the all the glamour and wide-grinned smarm that is absent from his role as Earn on Atlanta. He is relishing this moment, slurping it up as he overwhelms Ehrenreich in the scenes they share. He deserves a movie to call his own. This is more true of the ancillary figures in Solo than any Star Wars movie ever before. Woody Harrelson in a Tobias Beckett backstory? Sure! Paul Bettany and Emilia Clarke exploring the dark history of the Crimson Dawn crime syndicate? Yes. Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s L3-37 leading a droid revolution across the star system? Of course. Solo is so overpacked with slick and entertaining supporting figures that it ceases to be Solo and transforms into Ensemble. (Did you spot Jon Favreau? What about Linda Hunt? Ron’s brother, Clint Howard? Warwick Davis?) By slicing a sliver of Han Solo off the pie and serving it up in this form, we can’t help but think of every story, every character as an atomized piece of content ready to be parceled into a package of its own somewhere down the line. Viewers are watching to spot the spinoff. Boba Fett is next—is that why he wasn’t in Solo?

Last year my colleague Ben Lindbergh wrote about the threat of Star Wars oversaturation, a genuine anxiety among some superfans. Just five months after The Last Jedi, a movie with some controversy of its own but an undeniable success, Solo arrives with the least fanfare, the smallest projected opening box office, and the lowest stakes in the series’ history. But that isn’t really the issue with Solo. It’s the way it trains our brains to hunt for the turn, the Easter egg, the clue to the future. It’s a clever strategy, this moving sidewalk of deliverable content on a course to a terminal that doesn’t exist. There’s no getting off. We just keep watching. Han said it best 40 years ago: “I expect to be well paid. I’m in it for the money.”