Whatever their respective merits, one thing has unified all the Star Wars movies: huge box office takings. All the films in the franchise have performed extraordinarily well - with one exception...
Let’s be honest: nobody needed – or particularly wanted a young Han Solo film. There are some performances so iconic that any attempt to replicate them feels like a fool’s errand – and Harrison Ford as Han Solo is right at the top of that list.
So when Solo came along and tanked, few outside of Disney were especially surprised. The whys and wherefores have been endlessly raked over, but the result was that the A Star Wars Story movie strand was binned before its time and a whole potential Solo trilogy was canned.
Which is… a shame. Because I would argue that, not only is Solo a very enjoyable Star Wars film (not the best but easily sitting somewhere in the middle), it’s also a pretty astute character study of Han himself.
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"I don't have people"
When we first meet Han (real surname unknown), he’s a teenage runaway, forced into working for big old gangster worm, Lady Proxima. He's been stealing speeders since he was 10 and we know from the opening crawl that he “yearns to fly among the stars” and escape the destitution of his homeworld, Corellia.
The Han we meet here is a far more naive figure than the man we know and love from the Original Trilogy, but some things remain the same. He’s a charming rogue, a fighter and pretty good at improvising his way out of tricky situations. Above all, he’s a romantic; this is a man who is willing to join the Galactic Empire and go to war simply so that he can eventually come back and be reunited with his girlfriend, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke).
His character arc in the movie, then, is one of becoming more worldly and realizing that pretty much everyone he meets, befriends or works with will turn out to be only in it for themselves. He's betrayed by his boss, the career criminal Beckett (Woody Harrelson), he's tricked repeatedly by Lando (more on him later) and, most heartbreakingly, discovers that even Qi'ra isn’t to be trusted.
One of the film’s big themes is the lengths people will go to to survive – and Qi’ra goes the furthest of all, becoming a lynchpin member of the Crimson Dawn crime syndicate. Han ends the film battered and emotionally wounded, about to step up into the 'big' leagues of working for the Hutts, but at the cost of knowing that while he's escaped Corellia, he'll never be out of the underworld for good. This sabacc game never ends.
And yet, as the film points out, he's still "the good guy". Even when Han tries to follow Beckett's lead, to be the charismatic-yet-cynical crook, he just can’t switch off his conscience. He has the chance to take the Coaxium haul for himself... but ends up giving it willingly to proto-rebel, Enfys Nest, just as we know that one day he will turn the Millennium Falcon around and come racing back to help Luke Skywalker destroy the Death Star – and finally change his own life for good.
Now, that’s hardly deep characterization, but it is effective. Solo finds new layers to the character without reinventing him – which leads us to the film’s most surprising quality. Alden Ehrenreich is not just good in the lead role, he’s brilliant.
When the film came out, rumors dogged his casting. Word was that an acting coach (opens in new tab) had been brought on to improve a lackluster performance – something that Ehrenreich has understandably denied. Regardless, he does an excellent job of filling out this new area of Han’s life.
Neither a slavish impersonation of Harrison Ford or an off-piste reinvention, Ehrenreich absolutely nails this more youthful, idealistic take on the character, to the point where it’s a genuine shame that we’ll likely never see him in the role again. Given how impossible it seemed that anyone could possibly live up to Ford’s performance, that’s quite the feat.
He’s not the only one breathing new life into an old character. If there’s one thing that pretty much everyone agrees on about this film it’s that Donald Glover’s casting as Lando Calrissian is – to the point where he nearly walks away with the entire movie. This Lando is as swaggering as Billy Dee Williams original performance, but with broader comedic license and a seriously impressive wardrobe.
He has the wealth and confidence that young Han aspires to but – at this point at least – he lacks the moral backbone and heroic streak that defines Han. Honestly, it's a joy watching the pair spark off each other, firm friends in the making.
Slice of life Star Wars
It's this lighter touch that makes Solo feel like Star Wars – by which we mean the Original Trilogy – in all the ways that The Rise of Skywalker, with its leaden plotting and galactic pomposity, doesn't. It's playing to both the hardcore fan crowd and general audiences who just want to be thrilled, amused and gripped by a story well told.
The plot is simple and straightforward and the script witty without crossing the line into overt comedy (one wonders how far this would have gone in that direction had original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller stayed on and completed the film).
There's some lovely world-building too, such as seeing the Empire from the point of view of the poor schlubs who make up their ground attack forces, and John Williams' "Imperial March" being used as an in-universe anthem on a propaganda holo.
Intriguingly, it's this slightly lower key approach that The Mandalorian has also taken, to great effect. The smash hit TV show tells small stories set against the vast backdrop of the Star Wars galaxy and, like Solo, it's besotted with A New Hope's space western tropes. You wonder if Solo would have fared better had it been released now, on Disney Plus, rather than just a few short months after The Last Jedi had sated audiences’ annual appetite for cinematic Star Wars.
We'll never know, of course. And sadly all of those tantalizing loose the Syndicate wars, Maul's schemes, Qi'ra's final fate and Enfys Nest's nascent rebellion – will likely remain just that outside of spin-off books and comics. But that's OK, we still have this film in all its unwanted but unexpectedly wonderful glory.
If you've only watched it the once – or not at all – then take a punt and stick it on the next time you're in the mood to visit that galaxy far, far away. I'll stake my starship (it's a VCX-100 light freighter, a quality ship) on it being better than you remember.