Right away I almost feel that I have to dock this film half a letter grade because of its release date. We literally had May the Fourth on a Friday this year, and this movie was held for another three weeks. Yes, May 25th is the actual anniversary of the release of the original Star Wars, but if you’re going to argue that this is the more appropriate release date, then the film’s quality has to be judged against it, and that’s just not fair.
No, this is the Disney marketing machine at its finest (read: worst). Disney owns both Star Wars and Marvel, and they decided that Avengers: Infinity War was going to be their big cash cow this year, so they moved the release date up to late April (it was originally going to be May 11th), to make sure it dominated the box office for a solid month before Deadpool 2 came along (a Marvel property, yes, but owned by Fox at the moment), before going to the backup money-printing machine. Instead of giving audiences the obvious celebratory release on their holiday, they held it off so that they would, in essence, not have to compete with themselves.
Anyway, on to the actual movie. There’s been a bit of franchise fatigue lately when it comes to Star Wars. Many of us were excited for a new trilogy – especially with J.J. Abrams at the helm – to undo the bad taste in all of our mouths for the prequels. We were even on board with Disney buying the brand just so we could get a new perspective. However, after two core movies, two cartoon series (which are apparently canon thanks to this film’s major twist ending), and now two stand-alone spinoff films, it’s getting to be a bit much. It’s even worse when you consider that Disney already has plans for a FOURTH trilogy after Episode IX, and spinoff films in the works for Lando Calrissian, Boba Fett, Yoda, and Salacious Crumb (I’m only lying about one of those), plus possible sequels and a live-action series. I mean, yeesh, it’s no wonder Solo: A Star Wars Story was considered a “disappointment” from a corporate standpoint when it ONLY made $80 million while winning the holiday weekend box office. We’re just burnt out at this point.
That said, Solo is a really fun movie, with a lot of fan service, that should quell a viewer rebellion after the polarizing Last Jedi, which I loved, but many decidedly did not. Director Ron Howard does an admirable job of bringing the galaxy’s favorite scoundrel to life as the centerpiece of his own story.
Alden Ehrenreich, two years removed from his outstanding performance in Hail, Caesar!, stars as Han, who literally gets his surname after showing up alone to enlist in the Imperial Navy as a pilot after he escapes from his home planet of Corellia, where orphans are essentially enslaved smugglers and thieves under the “cruel Lady Proxima” as described in opening text. She’s so cruel, in fact, that after one scene of her grotesque worm appearance, we never hear from her again.
The reason he’s “Solo” is because his lover, Qi’ra (because we can’t just spell shit the way it sounds, like, I don’t know, “Kira”), played by Emilia Clarke (fully clothed the entire time, already a sin against nature), is captured due to taking forever to present the bribe they’re offering to an Imperial security guard. Literally, she takes like, 20 seconds, to hand over the valuable bribe after the bribe-ee has agreed to said bribe, allowing her to be snatched right before she crosses the gate to freedom.
After being expelled from the Imperial Academy and being forced to join the infantry, Han meets up with Tobias Beckett and his wife, Val (Woody Harrelson and Thandie Newton, respectively), figuring out that they’re actually smugglers, and tries to join up with them. Tobias turns the tables and reports Han for desertion, leading to him being thrown into a pit to be torn apart and eaten by a rancor, er, I mean Chewbacca. Han befriends Chewie by speaking his language (a skill never once displayed in any other movie), and figuring out a way for both of them to escape. They then join up with Beckett’s crew, who are tasked with stealing coaxium (not as absurd as unobtanium, but close), a valuable refined mineral used as hyperdrive fuel (remember how infuriating the fuel talk was in Last Jedi? Well, this is the actual fuel), the same thing Han and Qi’ra used to bribe the Imperial guard.
The first attempt to steal coaxium ends up a bust after interference from some marauders led by a masked warrior named Enfys Nest (Erin Kellyman). As such, Han and Beckett must plead for another chance from the crime boss they were working for, Dryden Vos of the Crimson Dawn crime syndicate, played by Paul Bettany, and sporting facial scars that glow red when he’s mad. There, Han reunites with Qi’ra, who has taken in with Vos in an undefined role as confidant, and likely concubine. They then head for the Kessel mines to steal unrefined coaxium, with the help of Lando Calrissian (the always wonderful Donald Glover), the Millenium Falcon, and Lando’s insufferable social justice warrior droid, L3-37, voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge of Fleabag and Killing Eve.
In order to get to Kessel, the Falcon must fly through a space maelstrom, a giant cloud and lightning storm lit by buoys that make light speed essentially impossible, and it lasts for a distance of 20 parsecs. On the way back, an injured Lando hands the controls to Han and uploads the severely damaged L3 into the ships navigational computer, allowing Han to evade an Imperial blockade and escape a giant space octopus monster, creating a short cut to make the run in a distance of just over 12 parsecs.
Think that’s a long ass way to go in order to retcon one of the biggest (and arguably most beloved) goofs in movie history? You’re not alone. There’s a lot of shoehorned fan service in the film, and most of it works to great effect. We see Beckett disassemble a blaster rifle, giving Han his trademark sidearm, continuously photographed at his side whenever he’s feeling confident. The Millennium Falcon has a different design to start out, including an escape pod at the front. It takes launching that pod to get the Falcon look we all know and love. We get Warwick effing Davis!
There’s a lot to like in the more traditional elements as well. The action sequences are pretty amazing, from the opening speeder chases to the climactic fight scenes and multiple mafia movie-esque double crosses. And with the exception of a few characters (Proxima, smuggler Rio – voiced by Jon Favreau, and the space kraken), the CGI is fairly convincing.
But the core of the film’s strengths come down to the performances of Ehrenreich and Glover. As Han Solo, Ehrenreich plays the role with the gusto of another classic Harrison Ford character, seemingly getting his inspiration from a young Indiana Jones. His rapport with Chewie is instant and believable (despite the Wookiee-talk bullshit), his charisma is undeniable, and his constant conflict between wanting to be good versus wanting to do good is a wonderful bit of characterization.
Similarly, the role of a young Lando could only be played by Childish Gambino. The swagger displayed in his introductory scene is incredibly faithful to Billy Dee Williams’ performance in The Empire Strikes Back (Glover consulted with Williams before shooting began). The balance in his desires for justice, money, and companionship is handled very well. And if nothing else, the closet full of capes is just hilarious. I can already hear the CinemaSins YouTube channel cuing up the Edna Mode sound bites for the outtakes when they tackle this one in a few months.
There are some problems, however, and they are glaring. On the whole, I think the positives far outweigh the negatives, but their presence alone is worth noting. First and foremost is the fact that this film, while eminently enjoyable, basically adds nothing to the proceedings. As much as I liked it, you’ll miss nothing if you wait for it to come out on Blu-Ray rather than rushing to the theatre. The reason Rogue One succeeded so well despite its flaws is because it helped to bridge the gap between the prequels and the original trilogy, by showing how the Death Star was flawed, how the nascent rebellion got their hands on the plans, and giving us an amazingly kick-ass (if anachronistic) look at the threat that Darth Vader truly posed at the peak of his powers.
This film, however, does none of that. It offers some fun moments, and a few, “Oh, that’s how that happened” bits, but beyond that nothing more. We knew from Expanded Universe materials and interviews that Han used to be in the Imperial Academy, so we see how he got in. We know Han won the Falcon off of Lando, so we get to see that. We know Han and Chewie are inseparable friends for life, so we get the origin of that. But really, there’s no connective tissue to the main canon of the series. As far as we know, Crimson Dawn has no place in the Empire. There’s a tossed off reference to Tattooine to give us the nodding acknowledgement of Han’s history with Jabba the Hutt, but we don’t see it, or Greedo, or anything that truly links this film to the main narrative, which makes the film fun, but inessential.
Second, I never thought a droid could be more annoying than prequel C-3PO, but then I met L3-37. Good LORD what a waste of space and dialogue! I don’t know if this is Disney pandering to millennials or social justice warriors, but whatever it was, it was just annoying and sad. You literally have a droid barking back at people for “enslaving” her people (while watching droid cage fighting – essentially BattleBots), battling the “patriarchy” of Lando being her boss/master, and in one of the most cringe worthy scenes in recent cinematic history, having “girl talk” with Qi’ra about how much Lando totally wants to fuck a robot. She leads a “slave revolt” on Kessel, freeing the droids and workers in order to cause a diversion while the crew steals the unrefined coaxium, and I’ve never come so close to cheering when a “good guy” got killed. She’s uploaded into the Falcon’s nav computer after she “dies,” and thankfully she’s never referenced outside of this movie (apart from possibly all those times Han would call the ship, “girl” or ask C-3PO to “talk” to the Falcon).
Finally, there’s the big twist. I won’t spoil anything beyond what I’ve already said, but it just didn’t sit right with me. It’s a moment for pure fan service/shock value, but on initial impact it makes no sense. There’s a major continuity element to the whole affair that only works if you’ve seen the recent cartoon series, The Clone Wars, and Rebels. I’ve only seen the former, so I at least know how the twist is possible, but still, my first reaction was, “What the hell?” and not in the good way.
Because apart from the confusion and canonizing of otherwise trifling TV series, the moment speaks to a larger problem, and that brings us back to franchise fatigue. These spinoff films are meant to be stand-alone supplements to the greater story. Instead, this shocker can only be interpreted one of two ways. Either it’s a giant middle finger to the audience who haven’t watched the cartoons, forcing you to go back and watch them to understand how it can even happen (or if you’re being more positive, a reward to the most die-hard fanatics); or it’s a hint at a Solo sequel, and seriously, enough already! I know these films make money, to the point where $80 million can be laughably dismissed as a “disappointment,” but come on, we don’t want all this. We’re fans, yes, which means we’ll watch. We sat through Attack of the Clones for God’s sake! But for the love of all things holy, be reasonable!
The excitement we had for the prequels was that we were going to get the story of how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader, arguably the greatest villain in movie history, and we had to wait 16 years after Return of the Jedi to start that payoff. As excruciating as it was (both the wait and the actual movies), the absence of Star Wars allowed our hearts to grow fonder, leading to a more positive reception to the prequels than their lack of quality deserved, because the anticipation allowed us to become more invested and engaged.
Now we’ve had our fourth movie in as many years, with at least three more still to come, and likely four more after that. It’s too much, and it’s all in the name of cynical cash grabs, not service/deference to the most beloved saga in the world. We all know at some point it has to stop, but instead we get yet another tease for more unnecessary content. Disney has no shame in basically saying, “Hey, we know you’ll pay to see it, fuck you!” In that sense it’s even more insulting to our intelligence than the Howard the Duck cameos in Guardians of the Galaxy.
So, to sum up what I believe is my longest review to date, Solo is good. It is fun. It has fan service. There are outstanding performances. But the film ultimately means nothing, has no real ties to the rest of the series, and gives us both the most annoying droid ever AND a slap-in-the-face twist to hint at even more cynical money-grubbing. I recommend seeing it, but again, save your money for the home release.
Grade: B- (I’ll upgrade it to a B+ if Disney promises there won’t be a sequel, and that this is truly a “Solo” movie)
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Which Star Wars character would you like to see get a spinoff film? What exactly is a nerf-herder? Let me know!