Disney plays it too safe with Solo: A Star Wars Story when they should’ve been dangerous.
“Stick to the plan. Do not improvise,” veteran space thief Tobias Beckett tells young Han Solo and Chewbacca as they’re drawing out their plan for stealing what they came to steal. Beckett knows his two promising yet green recruits have a tendency to do things their own way, especially in the face of enormous odds. Carefully considered blueprints and a blind loyalty to Just-Do-What-I-Tell-You-To-Do thinking isn’t the modus operandi of Han and Chewie — they operate moment to moment with an outlook of “whatever works, works.” This doesn’t mesh well with Beckett’s bottom line. Ironically enough this contrast of styles mirrors that of Disney execs and Solo’s original directors, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller – before Lord and Miller were fired.
Kathleen Kennedy, president of Lucasfilm Ltd., a subsidiary of Disney, reportedly clashed with Lord and Miller (21 Jump Street, 22 Jump Street, and The LEGO Movie) on the set of Solo. With less than a month of shooting remaining, Kennedy replaced Lord and Miller with veteran director Ron Howard to complete the film on time. Reports from the set say the directing duo took an “experimental approach” to filming Solo, allowing improvisation, deviating away from the script. This allegedly didn’t fit in with Disney’s plan so they brought in the structure-heavy Howard to undo what Lord and Miller had done. It’s a shame too because Solo, named after a character who habitually deviates from the original plan, could’ve used some of that experimentation.
We first meet Han (played with just enough charm by Alden Ehrenreich) desperate for a way off his crime-riddled planet with his lover Qi’ra (played by the always enchanting Emilia Clarke, with less nicknames than she has on Game of Thrones.) He escapes while she’s captured by imperial guards at the last second. Typical. He vows to become a pilot and save her so they can live free and travel the galaxy. In his travels he gets kicked out of the flight academy and ends up a reluctant ground trooper for the Empire, where he meets the sly Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson, reliable as always) and his tough partner/lover Val (a short performance by Thandie Newton) doing recon for a heist that will make them rich. Enter Chewbacca (played solely by Joona Suotamo instead of the original Wookie, Peter Mayhew) and Hans convinces Tobias to let them both come along for the heist so he can make enough money to buy a ship and fly back to Qi’ra. They meet crime boss Dryden Voss (played with flare by an underutilized Paul Bettany) in his towering space yacht, who gives them another job with higher stakes. For this, they need a fast ship so they set out to find one and find the iconic and glimmering Millennium Falcon, piloted by the uber-charming, pansexual Lando Calrissian (a great Donald Glover, stealing every scene he’s in.) He joins the team for his cut and the adventure builds from there. And from there lie spoilers so we’ll say no more of the plot.
Sitting through the too darkly lit Solo, you can’t help but feel like it’s a bare minimum approach in a world that allows for maximum invention. Its script — penned by Star Wars veteran Lawrence Kasdan (The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, and The Force Awakens) and his son Jonathan — doesn’t tread any new ground, opting instead for the safe and familiar narrative beats. (They inserted “moof-milker” in Han’s dialogue again. God knows why.) This doesn’t suit the film’s reckless protagonist. Some brave and offbeat choices — similar to the re-branding of Thor in Thor: Ragnorak — could have done wonders for Solo. But for whatever reasons, Disney chose to work with the devil they knew. Perhaps the fallout from Lord and Miller was too much to overcome in such a short amount of time. We’ll never know for sure.
Regrettably the film isn’t able to do what other Star Wars movies have done which is transcend beyond the script. It doesn’t grab you or make you feel strongly for its characters. You’re not necessarily rooting for any character as much as you are watching them go from point A to point B. Therein lies the issue with a Han Solo origin story from its inception: the Star Wars franchise butters its bread with stories of selfless characters (the ensemble for Rogue One for example) sacrificing for the greater good of the galaxy, leaning heavily on the simple absolutism of good vs. evil. Han ain’t that guy. He is several shades of gray, which we already knew and is fine, but that puts extra pressure on Solo. It has to draw us in the way we were for previous installments, but somehow differently— uniquely befitting to the titular character. Unfortunately Solo falls short of that goal.
Alden Ehrenreich does a good job of playing the young scoundrel, which was immortalized by Harrison Ford in the original trilogy and The Force Awakens. His playful smirks and outgoing arrogance remind us he understands he’s filling in some gigantic shoes. Though his constant wide stances and casual leaning against door frames are pockmarked throughout the movie as if it’s an extension of his audition for the role, asking, “Do I remind you of Harrison yet?” He does well enough with what he’s given – as does Clarke, Harrelson, Newton, and Bettany – but it’d be exciting to see him explore the character more. And since he is signed on for two more movies, let’s cross our fingers he digs deeper to make the role more his own.
Solo truly takes off when the cast meets the smooth-talking Lando Calrissian, who might get his own spinoff thought it’s not confirmed. A limitlessly cool Glover is the only character in the entire film able to shine brighter than the script will allow. His Lando oozes charisma with his closet full of colorful capes and absurd recordings of his life’s exploits. He’s the most fun to watch because you see Glover is having the most fun with it. It’s a credit to his performance that has you wishing Lando could keep the Millennium Falcon, though we’ve known since 1980 he loses it to Han. Glover continues his dominant 2018 with the second season of his critically-acclaimed FX series Atlanta in the bag and his polarizing track “This Is America” — under his pseudonym Childish Gambino — reaching number one in the country. If Lucasfilm can’t guarantee Glover a Lando spinoff, they must include him in future Solo sequels with an increased role. Those capes shine too brightly for anything less.
Why you should see this movie: Though Solo is not a particularly inspiring addition to the Star Wars canon, it’s still an enjoyable one. Alden holds his own as the famous smuggler and his first encounter with Chewbacca is a captivating highlight. Solo has the traits of several film genres but it is at its most effective as a buddy comedy focusing on the relationship between Han and Chewie (the way J.J. Abrams’s Star Trek emphasizes the dynamic between Kirk and Spock.) Glover as Lando is a shot of life in the second act. And Emilia Clarke’s Qi’ra holds an enticing secret and shows us a tiny glimpse of it near the end, revealing a cameo that will stick with you as the credits roll.
With the official announcement of a spinoff starring Boba Fett — fan favorite bounty hunter and pain-in-the-ass for Han, Chewie, and Lando — there lies an opportunity for Disney to unshackle itself from settling for mere adequacy. A formidable adversary for Solo’s chief protagonists could be just what these characters need to feel a little unsafe, a little less familiar with the original plan. Something that’s scary and unpredictable hot on their heels forcing them to experiment ways in which to get out alive. Perhaps that wildcard addition will mirror a similar spark of creativity behind the scenes, lending itself to something truly exciting for fans. I’ll Wookie roar for that.