In the 40-plus years since Star Wars took the box office and pop culture by storm, no plot point or line of dialogue, however essential or trivial, has avoided endless scrutiny and second-guessing from fans and skeptics alike. How could the Death Star’s catastrophic vulnerability, so obvious that Rebel analysts spotted it immediately, have been overlooked by Imperial engineers? How could Han Solo boast that the Millennium Falcon “made the Kessel Run in under 12 parsecs” when a parsec is a unit of distance, not time?
Watching Disney’s Rogue One and Solo, the two stand-alone “Star Wars Story” movies that come without episode numbers and opening crawls, is a little like watching the legendary Dutch boy trying to plug the leaks in the dike with his fingers … as new leaks burst all around him.
Rogue One proposed that the Death Star’s weakness was secretly intentionally engineered by an Imperial saboteur. Yet, when the saboteur contacted the Rebels, he inexplicably didn’t simply tell them the vulnerability, potentially pre-empting the horrific battle for the plans and the whole plot of Star Wars. (That’s before we get to Darth Vader in Star Wars arguing, “If this is a consular ship, where is the ambassador?” when, following Rogue One, he should be saying “LOL, I literally chased you here from the scene of the crime.”) Now, thanks to Solo, “making the Kessel Run in under 12 parsecs” finally makes sense. It’s just that, also thanks to Solo, it makes no sense for Han to cite this as evidence that the Falcon is a fast ship. Given Solo’s version of the Kessel Run affair, the Falcon could be the slowest hunk of junk in the galaxy and still do it in under 12 parsecs. Speed is literally irrelevant. Han’s curious boast is emptier than ever.
If it seems disproportionate to spend four or five paragraphs in this review basically addressing one line in another movie, consider that Solo spends possibly 45 minutes basically addressing the same line — and still makes a hash of it. I will write this review in less than a day, for a paycheck that is less than 1/100th the cost of a single second of Solo’s running time. (With a reported $250 million budget, Solo is the most expensive Star Wars movie ever made. The average cost of each second of its 135-minute screen time is more than $38,000.) More people will watch Solo on opening day than will ever read this review. So, really, what’s disproportionate?
Co-written by veteran Lawrence Kasdan and his son Jonathan, directed with unswerving vanilla competence by Ron Howard (taking the reins after Lego Movie maestros Phil Lord and Christopher Miller lost a no-confidence vote with Disney brass), Solo isn’t terrible by any means. We meet young Han (Alden Ehrenreich) as an orphaned delinquent surviving the mean streets of Corellia with his girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke). In the course of time, each of them winds up in the company of interplanetary criminals. Han joins a gang of outlaws led by a cantankerous desperado named Beckett (Woody Harrelson), while Qi’ra becomes right-hand girl to the silky-voiced crime lord Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany).
Fans will be rewarded with decent accounts of how Han and Chewbacca first met and how Han won the Falcon fair and square from the flamboyant gambler Lando Calrissian, played with wit and charisma by a terrific Donald Glover. There are also answers to questions no one was asking, like where the surname “Solo” came from. (Turns out it’s not just an on-the-nose character name.) If that last is a bit of a groaner, there’s nothing here like the wince-inducing dialogue or wooden acting of George Lucas’s prequel trilogy. On the other hand, there’s nothing like their visionary quality either.
It may be hard to recall, but there was a time when one of the main pleasures of a Star Wars movie, including the prequels, was being taken to places the likes of which no movie had ever taken us and seeing things we had never seen before. From the seemingly endless underbelly of the Imperial Star Destroyer in Star Wars’ opening shot to The Empire Strikes Back’s chaotic 3-D obstacle-course chase sequence through an asteroid field, from the groundbreaking puppet work of Yoda and Jabba the Hutt to the unprecedented cityscapes of the Naboo capital and Courscant, Star Wars was always dazzling us with unprecedented visions and vistas. Technological innovation was responsible for a lot of that visual novelty, of course, but poetic imagination was also part of the equation.
J.J. Abrams in The Force Awakens at least offered a few memorably evocative images, like the immense hulk of a long-ruined Star Destroyer on the surface of Rey’s home planet. Rian Johnson in The Last Jedi had, among other things, that haunting silent sequence in which Laura Dern’s character singlehandedly took out the enemy flagship by ramming it at light speed.
Is there a single novel visual in Solo that lingers in the imagination? Perhaps the sinuous, spine-like articulated monorail train wending its way around snowcapped mountains in the train robbery set piece — a Western-inspired sequence honoring Han’s gunslinger vibe — expands our visual horizons a bit. I’m at a loss to think of much else. And even that train robbery sequence doesn’t have the visual impact it could have, partly because, like so much of the movie, it’s bleakly underlit and has a flat, washed-out look. Where Revenge of the Sith was full of (what looked like) spectacular golden-hour late-afternoon cinematography, a lot of Solo is set in dull, hazy landscapes bereft of sunlight or shadows. For a film that’s supposed to be a sort of space Western, that’s an odd choice.
Solo is the first film in the new Disney franchise with a white male lead. Besides Qi’ra, there are two notable female characters: Beckett’s partner and significant other Val, played by Thandie Newton, and Lando’s robotic companion L3-37 (voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge), a woke navigator droid whose bitterly sarcastic commentary on the subjugation of droids is an explicit extension of the implicit feminism and racial diversity of earlier installments. Despite this lip service to diversity, Solo’s female characters fare poorly. Vague spoiler warning: One of them chooses a stupid, pointless fate in the service of an unnecessary plot point, accomplishing nothing in the process. Another is scarcely better served, while the third makes a crucial choice that might be called empowering, but doesn’t seem to fit the character or to have the emotional impact it ought to have, especially in a film that wants to be a Han Solo origin story. The thing is, Ehrenreich’s young Han is a far cry — too far — from the aloof Bogartesque cynic indelibly embodied by Harrison Ford through two of the first three Star Wars films. I can imagine young Han becoming colder and harder, but not becoming less empathic. Our hero might be a slick operator and an outlaw, but he’s also a sensitive, compassionate guy. Per the astute observation of my friend Emily Snyder (of Patheos’ “Pop Feminist” blog), with whom I saw the film, it’s hard to imagine the Han whose only answer to Leia’s declaration of love was “I know” having a history of such emotional availability as we see in his relationship with Qi’ra.
On the other end of the spectrum (or at least another end) is Lando’s relationship with L3-37. L3 bluntly remarks that Lando has an unrequited romantic attraction to her; there’s even a vague exchange about how such a pairing would “work” (L3 indicates that it’s possible). It would be one thing if it were an open question whether Lando’s feelings were real or a figment of L3’s overheated cybernetic imagination. But no, clearly his “love” is true. This is how Disney says “Love is love” in a Star Wars movie in 2018. “Everybody needs someone,” says Val. Her interracial relationship with Beckett is a welcome Star Wars first, I think, given that Billy Dee Williams’ Lando got nowhere with Leia. If Leia were at all flattered by Lando’s admiration, she might have felt differently had she known just how undiscriminating his tastes could be.
It’s not a total waste of time. There’s a clever plot twist or two and some worthwhile creature design. Ehrenreich’s performance is engaging on its own terms, and the film takes a big leap forward when Glover shows up. Is that enough? For a certain type of Star Wars fan, it may be. It has to be. This is what Star Wars is now — and what it will be for the foreseeable future.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.