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Why ‘Solo’ Works

A constant supply of ‘Star Wars’ requires an occasional double between dingers. Here’s how the low-stakes origin story of Han Solo makes clean contact.

Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures/Ringer illustration

I’ve seen seven Star Wars movies on opening night, and not until Solo: A Star Wars Story was I witness to a theater where silence greeted the Lucasfilm logo and the “Long, long ago.” Even the audience for Episode III, fresh off the pain of the first two prequels, mustered a stronger response, however Pavlovian. Back in 2005, that fandom felt performative, like the dutiful donning of a rally cap when one’s team is trailing by five runs, but still there were whistles, woo-hoos, and claps, which made the atmosphere feel festive. Hey, we’re seeing a Star Wars movie, the noise seemed to say. How often will we get to do that?

Very often, as it turns out: Solo is the fourth Star Wars movie in 3.5 years, a pace destined to inspire some Star Wars fatigue. With The Last Jedi only five months behind us, Episode IX scheduled for next December, a new trilogy and TV show on the horizon, and the prospect of more spinoffs confirmed hours before Solo’s first screenings, the specter of Star Wars saturation has graduated from thinkpiece material to tangible results: Solo looks destined for the lowest box office figures of Disney’s Star Wars stewardship, albeit still big enough to break records set by lower-profile franchises.

Of course, that crackle in the crowd was missing not only because the supply of Star Wars has gained ground on audience demand, but also because concerns about quality dogged the production. This was the silence of low expectations, driven by a director change, extensive reshoots, rumors of incompetence surrounding its central role, a late promotional rollout, and an early Rotten Tomatoes score that sat sub–Revenge of the Sith. Even aside from its seemingly troubled production, Solo was saddled with the millstone of a story that didn’t necessarily need to be told. Prequels tend to be plagued by predictability and a related lack of suspense, and the prospect of watching one hero’s journey to a predetermined end point was a tough sell, especially so soon after seeing the same hero die like we once thought Darth Maul did.

By the end of Solo’s lengthy run time, though, the formerly taciturn audience applauded — and, inwardly, so did I. (I always feel sort of silly making sounds at a screen.) With the caveat that I left the last Stars Wars title to feature Ray Park playing Maul thinking that the movie was better than it was — in my defense, I was 12, and that lightsaber battle was wizard — I was pleasantly surprised. Solo doesn’t soil the series’ legacy, besmirch an iconic character, or snap Disney’s undefeated streak. It’s a great time at the movies, and that it doesn’t aspire to be much more than that marks it as a letdown for the franchise only if we pretend that Star Wars stopped after Empire Strikes Back. We may not need Solo, but we should be happy to have it.

As much as Solo relies on (and delivers) staples of the saga — endearing droids, fast ships, familiar music cues, and hell, Han, Chewie, and Lando — it also strays from the formula. In Solo, the stakes are lower and the conflicts are smaller than ever before. The dominant government isn’t close to collapse, and Han spends more time fighting for the Empire than he does destabilizing it. Solo doesn’t drag us through Anakin’s ponderous descent into Darthhood, the Emperor’s undercover coup, or even the emotional agony of Jyn and Cassian’s doomed mission to Scarif. This time, we know nothing too terrible will befall the familiar faces, and no Sith Lords or mysterious Supreme Leaders will win. That might be a bug in the brooding series proper, but it’s part of the side project’s appeal. Solo is the amuse-bouche before the next Skywalker-centric meal.

Like Rogue One, Solo isn’t truly a stand-alone Star Wars film: It’s wreathed in connective tissue that ties it to three trilogies. But although it’s riddled with references to every era of Star Wars and built on the backs of borrowed characters, it’s more self-contained than any of the previous films. Rogue One was initially conceived (and sometimes described) as a heist movie, but it was also a war movie about the rebellion. Solo actually commits to the bit. Here there be heists: In one riveting sequence, Han and his crew steal a section from the Snowpiercer train; later, they sneak into (and shoot their way out of) Kessel’s famous mines. The movie has almost as much Indy DNA as it does Star Wars; it’s what Return of the Jedi would have looked like if that film were only about breaking out of Jabba’s palace (except much more exciting than that). Solo is pulse-pounding stuff: I went into the movie worn out and worried that I’d have to Clockwork Orange myself to stay conscious, and I came out wide awake. “Doesn’t cause unconsciousness” is a low bar to clear, but Solo leaps over it, consistently engrossing despite its seemingly snooze-inducing stakes.

Whether by design or as a byproduct of its patchwork past, Solo’s genre is as fluid as Lando’s libido: It’s part Western, part caper, and part comedy, featuring trench warfare one moment and a romance scene the next. There’s enough Lord and Miller left over to enliven the journey, and enough Ron Howard polish to keep the careening ride on course. Amid all the expected story beats about Han finding his ship, his blaster, and his best friend, Solo is, at times, specifically, wonderfully weird in a way that resembles a Robot Chicken parody: Han and Chewie — who, in his temporary rancor role, appears to add humans to the diet that he supplements with porgs — share a shower; L3–37, a self-actualized abolitionist droid, suffers from performance anxiety; the Empire uses the formerly non-diegetic John Williams march as a recruitment tool; Lando keeps a cape closet. With one or two exceptions — such as Jon Favreau’s Rio Durant crowing about mynock roasts on Ardennia during a tense action scene — the dialogue lands and the jokes provoke regular grins.

As with the rest of the recent Star Wars oeuvre, Solo’s stylistically and demographically diverse casting is a strength. Donald Glover’s Lando earns his own spinoff, although the best thing about Glover’s arrival midway through the film turns out to be Phoebe Waller-Bridge as his sometime-sexbot sidekick, who steals scenes like K-2SO. Emilia Clarke shows more range as triple-crossing Qi’ra than she’s ever allowed to as a conquering queen, and while Woody Harrelson’s Beckett exists almost solely to teach Han a lesson, his veteran presence rounds out the ensemble. There’s depth on the bench, from Paul Bettany’s space-Scarface to the two minutes of Thandie Newton that precede her sacrifice. And after all the hubbub — and a few hesitant, touch-and-go scenes in the slums of Corellia — Alden Ehrenreich rises to the starring role. His Han feels less like an impression of Ford than Glover’s Lando does of Billy Dee, and while the young smuggler doesn’t have the same swagger that he displays later on, we wouldn’t expect him to at 19 or 22. Ehrenreich convinces us that Beckett and Qi’ra cause Han’s hard-bitten exterior, although in light of Han’s adolescence of indentured, dirt-streaked servitude to a glorified dianoga, bereft of or estranged from his family to the point that he doesn’t have a surname, it’s hard to see him as a glass-half-full guy to begin with.

Solo is a film that probably plays differently depending on one’s familiarity with non-big-screen Star Wars, in part because it boasts a surprisingly high-level Easter egg game. Its callbacks (or callforwards) go beyond Bossk and the helmet that Lando wears in Jedi as his guise as a guard; advanced Star Wars scholars will catch shout-outs to more obscure bounty hunter Aurra Sing, early “Legends” works like Splinter of the Mind’s Eye and The Lando Calrissian Adventures, an instrument from Galaxies, and even Teräs Käsi, which once formed the basis of a bad game. On a more macro level, much of Han’s origin story, which would have been unfamiliar to movie-viewers before now — including his street-rat phase on Corellia, his military service, his rescue of his sidekick from slavery, his betrayal by an early love, and his sabacc battle with Lando — mirrors the decanonized accounts that once appeared in print. That means there’s less to learn here, but it’s satisfying for readers to see old stories onscreen.

If Solo falters, it’s in stretching too far for significance. Solo is the first Star Wars movie without C-3PO and R2-D2, and it’s almost the first one without lightsabers or the use of the force, which presumably surrounds and penetrates the scenery but otherwise keeps to itself. The film loses the latter distinction with the surprise appearance of Maul, another development whose reception depends on the audience’s point of view. For fans who watched Maul mature into a complex character on The Clone Wars and Rebels (RIP) before getting killed by Kenobi for real, the character’s reappearance isn’t unwelcome. For anyone who (reasonably) assumed that Maul’s part in the plot ended when Obi-Wan sliced him in half, though, the reveal is likely confusing.

Whatever one thinks of the “Zabrak back” cameo, the implication that Han helped fund the rebellion by giving the MacGuffin to Enfys Nest feels like fan service too far: Solo would have held up without that tenuous tie-in. Similarly, both the mentions of Jabba and Qi’ra’s “You’re the good guy” seem somewhat premature from a timeline perspective, given that Solo’s events evidently unfold a decade before Episode IV, when we’re supposed to believe that Han still sees himself as a mercenary. If Han really sets out to see the Tatooine crime lord immediately, he must have been about to qualify for a Huttese pension plan by the time Jabba put a price on his head.

These strike me as minor quibbles, but the movie’s lack of ambition will be a stumbling block for some. Last year, when I discussed Star Wars saturation with Dan Madsen, longtime leader of the Lucasfilm Fan Club, he sounded a cautionary note. “If they keep making great Star Wars movies, then things will be OK,” Madsen said. “But if they start making mediocre Star Wars movies — and god forbid, bad Star Wars movies — then I think the ‘every year’ kind of thing is going to become passé, and people will start saying, ‘Yeah, yeah, it’s another Star Wars movie.’”

This may be the movie that makes many people say that. Solo isn’t the best Star Wars movie, or even the best Disney Star Wars movie, but I’d argue that the studio didn’t design it to be. A constant supply of Star Wars requires an occasional double between dingers. At this level of lucrativeness, the key is that Disney never strike out, and although this swing wasn’t smooth, the company made contact. Solo’s blockbuster burden is heavy, but as “a Star Wars story,” it succeeds: Han shoots first, and most of us go home happy.