Director: Ron Howard
Screenwriters: Jonathan Kasdan, Lawrence Kasdan
By Roderick Heath
From the moment it was announced, Solo: A Star Wars Story was dogged by ill omens, and the feeling it would prove the runt of the revived Star Wars litter. The troubled production, which saw initially commissioned directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller sacked and Ron Howard hired in their place, seemed to confirm it. Lord and Miller had proven their way with zesty, rapid-fire action comedy on the surprisingly good animated hit The Lego Movie (2016), and were undoubtedly hired to give the franchise a jolt of unruly humour and scruffiness in comparison with the core new trilogy, which has been unfolding with a stately gravitas that feels increasingly strained and lacking a real storytelling compass. The fact that Solo: A Star Wars Story signed up Lawrence Kasdan, who worked on series classics Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983) as well as helping out with the first of the new films, Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015), was at least a promising move, for Kasdan, as well as being a fine screenwriter, is a talent who knows the full lexicon of classic movie references that form the series template, and like the property’s creator George Lucas, made films like Body Heat (1981) and Silverado (1985) that paid tribute to such classics but also reflected an independent, modernising spirit. Kasdan was joined in writing duties by his son Jon, a move that only fleshed out a feeling of continuity.
There was also a certain sense of aptness in Howard stepping up to the plate, as he had starred in Lucas’s American Graffiti (1973) long before he started directing in his own right, and directed the Lucas-conceived and produced fantasy epic Willow (1987). Nonetheless, the fact that Lucasfilm turned to Howard to save their film excited few. Where Lord and Miller had the aura of fresh, exciting talent, Howard has proved one of Hollywood’s true survivors, one who every now and then makes a strikingly good movie like Apollo 13 (1995), but more often turns out bland and indifferent fare. His tepid Oscar winner A Beautiful Mind (2002) made him a prestige filmmaker, and the price everyone paid for that was a string of clumsy movies like The Missing (2003) and Cinderella Man (2004). His 2013 racing biopic Rush was a surprise that confirmed Howard still had some verve and, moreover, authentic visual flair, but his In the Heart of the Sea (2016) was a clumpy melange that betrayed Howard’s tremendous technical craft remained in thrall to wayward scripting and ill-focused impulses. The sense of sustained legacy evinced in teaming up Howard and Kasdan was fitting at least for a project that, like Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One (2016), casts its mind back to the epoch in this legendarium between the end of Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005) and the start of Episode IV – A New Hope (1977), the high-water time of the evil Galactic Empire, and the early days of a beloved figure.
Han Solo, as a character, was always the figure that kept the first Star Wars trilogy anchored in both a more recognisable sense of reality and also in a slightly different fantastical universe to the high fantasy and space opera realm the rest of it belonged to. The figuration of Luke Skywalker and Han was a little reminiscent of Raphael’s depiction of Plato and Aristotle, with budding Jedi and dreamer Luke cast as Plato with finger pointed to the heavens, and Han as Aristotle, pointing to the ground and the way things actually are. Luke was cast in the mould of classical knights errant and saga heroes; Han was the more quintessentially American and modern figure, sly, worldly, cynical, sceptical, a creation in the mould of hardboiled figures from the pen of writers like Hammett and Hemingway and splitting the difference between the urban warriors of Humphrey Bogart and frontier sentinels of Gary Cooper. Han brought to Star Wars a quality of contrast, in his values and outlook, that sharply reflected not just a sensibility within the series, as the living by-product of the Empire’s diminution of wonder and hope following the extermination of the Jedi and the old Republic, but also offering the more sceptical audience members their surrogate, and their gateway, through which they could enter this realm without feeling twee. In this regard, Han remains a figure somewhat without parallel in the saga, with some troubling impact upon subsequent films, where everyone is expected to be a true believer.
Recounting the adventures of young Han was, then, a good idea, but also one that posits its own specific challenges, not least of which was finding a star who could match Harrison Ford’s blend of flinty attitude and supine cool in the role. Ford was 35 years old when the first film was released, and had already in his life veered from early promise to dismissal and resignation. He had been tested like his character, and found ways to survive under a hard shell. Lucas had first cast Ford as the cowboy hat-wearing-dude who arrives in town to challenge his rivals to a drag race in American Graffiti. Casting Alden Ehrenreich, a discovery of Francis Coppola who cast him in his little-seen but impressive personal drama Tetro (2009) and since gained notice in films like the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar! (2016), was one of those moves that felt remarkably right. He’s certainly no lookalike for Ford, but he held the promise of bringing something like Ford’s cocksure sturdiness and bruised joviality to the part, and whereas many actors today specialise in seeming boyish into middle age, Ehrenreich suggested remarkable maturity even as a teen. Solo: A Star Wars Story initially quotes both of Lucas’ first two features, THX 1138 (1971) and American Graffiti, in synthesising a suitable biography for Han.
Han is introduced as a youth leading a hardscrabble life on a kind of space Detroit, the spaceship-building planet Corellia, a world of grand, grey metal monstrosities, labyrinthine in both geography and systems of oppressions. Here Han both subsists through and finds self-realisation in his gift for speed, jacking speeders and valuables under the nominal patronage of the grotesque alien crime queen Lady Proxima (Linda Hunt). Han however is dreaming of escape, and during a scam enacted on Proxima’s behalf has obtained a vial of refined hyperfuel, the hugely valuable, potent stuff that drives the engines of the Empire’s fleet. Han plans to flee along with Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), a fellow street criminal and his first love. First the duo have to slip Proxima’s clutches, when they’re caught by her goons and accused of hiding her share of their loot, and then the Imperial functionaries who check all people leaving the planet. Han’s deft exploitation of Proxima’s dislike of sunlight and his great, if slightly overconfident, ability behind the wheel get them to the brink of triumph. But Qi’ra is snatched back by Proxima’s heavies just after Han has passed through a security barrier, and her screamed demands for him to keep going are matched by Han’s resolve to return and fetch her once he’s hit the big time.
Han signs up to the Imperial military, hoping to become a famed pilot, but three years later he’s found serving as a foot soldier in a grim and incoherent campaign on a planet called Mimban, a giant ball of mud. Han encounters a team of criminals, led by Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and his partners Val (Thandie Newton) and Rio Durant (Jon Favreau), posing as soldiers, and begs to be included in their plans and help him get off the planet. When he goes a step too far in threatening to blow their cover, Beckett has him arrested: Han is sentenced as a deserter to be thrown into a pit with “the beast,” a hulking, bedraggled monstrosity that we all recognise as, of course, Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo). Han wins over the mistreated and enraged Wookie by proving he knows a little of his language, and they break out, chained together Defiant Ones style. Rio talks Beckett and Val into delaying their departure with their loot long enough to pick them up, more for the potential muscle a Wookie can bring to their team.
The gang’s raid on the Imperial arsenal proves to have been a stepping stone in their efforts to steal a big load of coaxium on the behalf of Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany) from a moving train shipment on the planet Vandor, but the mission goes awry as the gang is attacked mid-mission by a team of rivals, led by the masked and menacing Enfys Nest, a foe who constantly harries Beckett. Rio is killed and Val blows herself up in her determination to see the plan through. Han is pressed into saving Beckett and Chewbacca’s lives with his piloting skills even as he earns Beckett’s enmity by dumping the coaxium load to avoid hitting a mountain. Han agrees to help Beckett ward off Dryden’s wrath, and they improvise a new scheme the gangster approves: they plan to head to the planet of Kessel, where unrefined coaxium is mined, steal a quantity, and transport it as quickly as possible to a friendly refining concern before it degrades and explodes. Because they need a ship capable of making the dash, they approach charismatic corsair Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), and Han attempts to beat him in a card game to obtain his ship, the Millennium Falcon. After Han fails thanks to Lando’s gifts at cheating, Beckett agrees to cut Lando in on the profits, so Lando and his droid co-pilot L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) join them on their mission.
I’ve been intensely frustrated by the revived Star Wars franchise. J.J. Abrams’ energetic but enervatingly slavish series opener and Rian Johnson’s perversely glum, twitchy Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (2017) were lovingly produced, highly watchable films, but seemed determined to strip out all remnants of colour and originality from the series and replace them with dull technocracy, televisual dramatic precepts, and ever-narrowing horizons of imagination. Rogue One wielded some tremendous imagery but floundered with a lukewarm script and forgettable protagonists. Here, something of Lord and Miller’s pointillist sense of detail and lampooning sensibility are still apparent in touches like Lando narrating self-mythologising memoirs, and Han’s attempt to fool Lady Proxima with a thermal detonator, only for her to announce he’s actually holding a rock and making clicking sounds with his mouth. Solo: A Star Wars Story has fun remixing and calling back to vital, previously glimpsed junctures in Han’s life, like a moment of passion inside the Falcon, interrupted in a manner recalling Han’s first kiss with Leia in The Empire Strikes Back. Early in the film, Han glimpses an animated recruiting poster for the Imperial services which blares out a version of John Williams’ immortal Imperial March reconfigured as a heroic anthem. There’s a quality implicit in this flourish that struck me as more genuinely understanding and simultaneously witty yet reverential in its intrinsic delight in the Star Wars universe than anything that’s appeared in the series since Disney took it over.
Solo: A Star Wars Story also makes some real effort to try and bring back some ingenuity of spectacle and background liveliness to the franchise. Where Abrams’ regulation cantina scene in The Force Awakens was remarkably flavourless, Howard and the production team here locate Lando in a frontier saloon festooned with the bones of massive animals, drenched in shadow and smoke with polymorphous aliens hovering the margins, a bustling, genuine dive that recalls the kind found in 1970s western films but revised into something stranger for a film that mediates science fiction with the western just like Lucas’s long-ago opener. The environs of Corellia and Mimban, which resembles a World War I battlefield, are grimly beautiful and feel right as forges for Han’s dexterity as a survivor, negotiating a criminal overlord deliberately reminiscent of Jabba the Hutt and contending with Imperial officers who direct him on to attack trivial and obscure targets, a notion that unexpectedly also nudges Han into territory shared with literary figures like Yossarian and Gunner Asche. Whilst Rogue One strained to offer a novel perspective on the Empire, this manages the trick much better, perceiving the age of the Empire and its labours as an absurdist enterprise based on propaganda and degradation, its fringes devolving into fiefdoms controlled by organised crime and fractious rebel organisations.
The film manages a feat Rogue One here didn’t quite pull off, which is to entertainingly illustrate the start of the decline and fall of the Galactic Empire, envisioned at first as a set of robotic tantrums from droids, and gaining dizzy fervour as Chewbacca is reunited with fellow Wookies, enslaved in the Kessel mines; revolt and collapse are incipient, old crimes set to be repaid, renegades forged by a once-mighty society’s breaking down into corrupt fascism now defining their own realities. Long before this film came out, jokey memes were circulating online about the compulsory points the film would have to touch upon in regards to the dribs and drabs of backstory known about Han from before his fateful encounter with Luke and Obi-Kenobi. Sure enough, we get all of them: here’s Han’s first meetings with Chewbacca and Lando, here’s his first sight of the Falcon, here’s the Kessel Run and why doing it in “twelve parsecs” was a big deal (explaining along the way what this means as it refers to units of distance rather than time). Han’s connection with the Falcon is revealed to be based in personal nostalgia and class pride, as he mentions his father used to build this model of spacecraft “before he was laid off.” We get an aside explaining just how our hero earned his peculiarly descriptive surname, given to him by a patronising Imperial recruiter who notes the young recruit’s lack of family or identity.
Solo: A Star Wars Story moves at such a rocketing pace that some of these episodes inevitably seem a little compressed and robbed of the titanic stature they seem to have when wielded as suggestive history, which is a problem backtracking preludes often face. Compared to the leisurely evocations of masculine interaction and ratcheting tension Howard Hawks and screenwriter Leigh Brackett could evoke on the likes of El Dorado (1967), what we get here is so rapid-fire there’s little chance for a real sense of solidarity and frenemy intensity to grow between the characters. Glover’s Lando in particular seems ill-served by this, reducing Billy Dee Williams’ great portrayal of a slick, shifty, but hearty and ultimately decent rascal to a rather thin foil. Although Glover is one of the most engaging and multifaceted presences on the contemporary scene, and he masters Williams’ dazzling bullshitter’s smile, he eventually feels more than mildly miscast. On the other hand, Han’s fractured relationship with Qi’ra, who he finds to his surprise is now one of Dryden’s associates as members of the crime family called the Crimson Dawn, plucked from the dregs on Corellia, is the most interesting Star Wars has offered since Anakin and Padmé, particularly as it faces the thorny problem as to how it relates to Han’s growth.
The flourish of killing off a female true love as a defining moment in a male hero’s life has become a noxious cliché, although it can be hard to separate from the traditions and demands of basic storytelling precepts of emotional involvement, and realistic and urgent motivation. I’ve seen that done well before, particularly in Barry Levinson’s Young Sherlock Holmes (1986) (a film that’s feeling increasingly like a template for the whole of current pop culture), but Howard and the Kasdans manage to sidestep this trope whilst still adding the finishing touches to Han’s sourly expectant worldview and eventual comfort with separateness. They do it not by killing Qi’ra off but revealing her as finally choosing another destiny for herself as Dryden’s successor, a criminal queen who makes her play to rise to the top of her chosen heap rather than subsist on the margins like Han. There’s a smart echo here of another retro template, films like Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) where the two kids from the wrong side of the tracks choose their mutual paths, given a modern tweak where the love interest is the femme fatale and the friend to whom bonds linger across vast gulfs of morality and expectation.
It helps that Ehrenreich and Clarke have something like the bodied allure of proper movie stars. Han and Qi’ra’s kiss isn’t the only romantic moment the franchise has seen since its revival, after whatsit and whosis were at the end of Rogue One and Finn and Rose in The Last Jedi. But it is the first to make a real impression, even if the romance is necessarily defined and retarded by inevitable transience. Howard has sometimes been a little too eager to pick up modish directing habits, like the irritating action scenes in The Missing, and Solo: A Star Wars Story is replete with some excessively fast editing that feels alien to the Star Wars style guide. One would expect that Howard would wield little grasp on the faintly poetic, dreamlike edge that defines the series at its best. He evinces a real eye, however, for serving up the sorts of landscapes that evoke Lucas’s creation in its scenes of civilisations clinging onto the edge of vast abysses and hewn out the matter of a harsh universe, littered with traces of vanished forebears in signs like unknowably old standing stones, and the detritus of a vast galactic network of industry, war, and crime. Best of all, Howard restores some authentic Saturday matinee energy to the brand, and builds sequences with classical rigour. The train heist is the best action set-piece this series has seen since the finale of Revenge of the Sith, a tremendously well-sustained and visualised episode blending frantic swashbuckling and vast landscapes as the conveyance rockets along mountain flanks, pivoting on its axis in a way no familiar train does, constantly threatening to hurl our heroes to their doom even as Stormtroopers rain blaster bolts on their heads, with Nest’s band of aerial pirates in pursuit.
Compared to the flatness of Abrams’ thin, hurried recreations of Lucas’ situations and Johnson’s tony approach, Howard proves himself, for all his air of practiced and familiar competence, simply better at this sort of thing. Likewise the extended movement in which the gang wreak havoc on Kessel and then make their flight to immortality of a kind offers real delight in pure movement and exponential absurdity. Helping give this great movement thrust is the inspired character of L3, a droid who’s passionately involved in preaching rights for robot kind and in love with her charming boss despite her protestations. Unleashed upon the unsuspecting Empire, she inspires all the droids on Kessel to rebel, in the sort of sequence, rowdy and crowd-pleasing and child-like, Star Wars was built on. L3 is shot down in battle and Lando uploads her memory into the Millennium Falcon’s shipboard computer to make use of her navigational knowledge, offering an ever so slight wisp of strange spirituality and sexuality to both Lando’s and Han’s relationship with the ship, and contextualising the Falcon’s virtual personality and spasmodic quirks. The Kessel run is a loopy episode that pays overt tribute to the asteroid field chase in The Empire Strikes Back, with snatches of Williams’ score heard on the soundtrack, but complicates it as a charge into murk and chaos where colossal tentacled monstrosities hide and holes in the fabric in reality wait for spaceships lurk in wait.
The Kasdans’ feel for the root genres at play here is genuine, transmuting regulation scenes from westerns, including a confrontational card game and a train robbery, into the fuel of fantastical imagery. The elder Kasdan was credited as co-screenwriter on The Empire Strikes Back with Brackett, a writer who made her start penning pulp sci-fi and noir tales in magazines and then became a noted screenwriter for the likes of Howard Hawks. Brackett helped impose upon Lucas’s evolving property some authentic old-school flavour and sense of legacy. Kasdan repays the favour here as he works in an elaborate tribute to Brackett’s most famous sci-fi story, Black Amazon of Mars, as Solo: A Star Wars Story works up to a revelation Nest is actually a woman. Han forging a rough alliance with her offers another echo of an influence, positing Solo: A Star Wars Story as the outer space equivalent of Rick’s history of gunrunning for the good guys mentioned in Casablanca (1942), an act of nobility evinced even in an officially cynical resume. The gang’s encounters with Dryden in his roving nightclub-cum-spaceship belong more properly to noir films where the nefarious kingpin lurks behind a classy front. Han’s fractious relationship with Beckett and Lando exacerbate the resemblance to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) as a seriocomic riff on genre clichés, and the final confrontation between Han and Beckett as friends who nonetheless must face each-other’s guns recalls the climax of Vera Cruz (1954).
Arch deployment of referential touchstones are of course not new to Star Wars, but what’s particularly interesting here is that whilst Johnson’s nods to Kurosawa and film noir undoubtedly reflected personal interest, they sat hovering in quotation marks whilst refusing to click into gear with an overall story thrust that didn’t have much to do with them. Howard and the Kasdans actually make their fetish points operate in coherent genre narrative terms, making Han not merely a dramatis persona and archetype but a knowing condensation of multiple strands of pop culture history, a creature who breathes the atmosphere of a certain danker, darker fictional sensibility, whilst still making them all serve a hard-charging storyline. Bettany offers an elegant performance as the smooth, gentlemanly, yet utterly ruthless criminal overlord, another nexus of sci-fi and noir: the final battle that defines the film unfolds not on a grand landscape but in the confines of his office, played out in terms of intimate violence in a manner that remains very true to this inspiration.
This finish helps lay down a blueprint for a new wing of the franchise that presents a peculiar new bridging point between the underworld and the metaphysical power of the Force. It’s revealed the mysterious chieftain of the Crimson Dawn is Darth Maul, the bifurcated henchman last seen plunging into a shaft at the end of Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999), now a part-android crime boss. This twist makes for gratuitous fan service, of course, granting new life to a spikily memorable villain who many felt never got to strut his stuff as much as he deserved. By the time Han confronts Beckett, who betrays him and still intends to kill him and yet still represents the closest thing to a family he has left, the man Han becomes is clearly nearly complete, with a tense smirk and poised readiness. A shoot-out is imminent, except that Han shoots Beckett before the older man can do it to him. The gag here is obvious as a play on the infamy resulting from Lucas’s revision of his original film from 1997, which altered Han’s confrontation with Greedo, where he shot the bounty hunter from under a table. Lucas’ change was in line with his increasingly strong intent to remake the series in a more responsible, family-friendly mould, but it offended fans who felt the whole point of Han as a character was his canny, unsentimental toughness.
Solo: A Star Wars Story restores the roguish side to Han’s character, but the script doesn’t simply play this pivot for a nasty joke. It is rather the moment in a tale that’s as much the tragedy of a valiant young man’s education in the cruel necessities of surviving a corrupt universe as it is the origin story of a hero: Han holds the hand of his dying father-enemy and Han watches Qi’ra fly away to her own chosen fate, as he faces a future of improvised exile. The film ticks off the last two necessary stages in Han’s journey as he journeys to lay claim to the Falcon for keeps and plans taking up a job offer from Jabba. It’s telling that in contemporary screenwriting patterns the shyster side of Han’s character, glimpsed fleetingly in the original character, is now very much a cosmic state of being in contemporary pop culture, and his cool, insouciant aspect, the aspect of Han that was most in touch with the older models, now feels so alien even Kasdan can’t quite bring it to bear. So, does Ehrenreich succeed as a Ford stand-in? Not really. But what’s important is that Ehrenreich is entirely persuasive and potent in his own right. It does seem unlikely given all the stumbling blocks it faced, but to my mind Solo: A Star Wars Story proves easily the best film yet from the Disney-managed franchise, the first to feel at all authentically grounded in Lucas’s sensibility and also to really enjoy itself as a pure, unselfconscious piece of pulp moviemaking. Not every choice and flourish is an act of genius or great creative originality. Like the Millennium Falcon herself, it’s a hunk of junk, cobbled together through expedience and flashes of inspiration, and somehow all fits together in a way that’s a total blast.