Solo is the first Star Wars film – sorry, Star Wars Story – to feel ordinary. It’s the first in the Star Wars franchise without a sense of specialness, of significance, the notion that this is an essential film to run out and see.
This isn’t necessarily a judgement on the quality of the film. I’d rank Solo alongside Rogue One and The Last Jedi; in fact, if you scroll down the page, you’ll see that I’ve given Solo three stars, the same rating I gave to its two Star Wars predecessors initially (though, in retrospect, I’d likely bump Rogue One down a smidgeon, and The Last Jedi up a smidgeon). I’d argue – though not too vehemently – that Solo’s superior to most of Lucas’ prequels.
But those films, for all their flaws, made the Star Wars universe feel bigger. The issue with Solo is that it feels disposable; that it makes the universe feel smaller. I’m not inherently opposed to a Han Solo original story. Nor am I opposed to the idea of a lighter Star Wars film, without the weight of the Force and the fate of the universe. In fact, when Solo was first announced, I was excited! Excited about the prospect of Hail Caesar!’s breakout actor, Alden Ehrenreich, in a lead role. Excited about the idea of Phil Lord and Chris Miller helming a blockbuster with their unique, anarchic sense of humour. Excited, of course, about Donald Glover getting to do his own interpretation of intergalactic coxcomb Lando Calrissian.
Of course, we all know how that turned out. Lord and Miller were unceremoniously dumped from the project, for not staying on-brand or whatever, and replaced with reliable craftsman Ron Howard. The end result doesn’t bear any obvious signs of reshoots (unlike the occasionally awkward Rogue One), but it is unmistakably a safe, studio product as much as it is a movie.
A Lord/Miller Solo might have felt out of place in the Star Wars universe, but it would’ve been a perfect fit for Han’s wry sense of humour and anti-establishment sensibilities. Howard’s Solo is a perfectly competent movie without any kind of personality. Like the original Star Wars, it cobbles together constituent pieces from genres gone by. There are tense standoffs, intergalactic outlaws, questions of morality, a history of violence – it’s a western! No, it’s actually a heist film, defined by the infamous Kessel Run (with Lucas’ original parsec confusion given its obligatory canon explanation). Or it’s an adventure film, a gangster film, an action sci-fi.
But Solo isn’t really any of those things. It’s a product, a carefully-workshopped collection of blockbuster elements. We hop between a series of planets, not one as imaginatively rendered as anything in A New Hope. We welcome a cast filled with people of colour, but ensure that the white people get the majority of the lines. We check off all the necessary (and unnecessary) prequel questions that define Han Solo. Where did he meet Chewbacca? How did he get his gun? What was the Kessel Run, exactly? Why did he become an outlaw in the first place?
The screenplay – from Jonathan and Lawrence Kasdan – answers these questions, but pays little attention to the ‘who’ of Han Solo. Which is a shame, because Ehrenreich gives a capable, winning performance. He’s no young Harrison Ford, granted, but he’s got the right energy to shoulder a franchise like this. But the screenplaysketches him too broadly for the character to really land. Broadly-sketched characters are a-okay in the big, bombastic main thread of the Star Wars universe, where archetypes and icons are the key, but it’s not enough here.
At times, Solo feels like Star Wars filtered through the model of a middling Marvel Cinematic Universe movie. Solo is regularly described as a ‘standalone’ Star Wars movie, but there are too many seeds of future films scattered around for that to feel like an accurate description. Kathleen Kennedy wants you to leave this film wanting to see more of Ehrenreich’s Solo – he’s apparently signed on for two more films – and a couple of other supporting characters sneakily leveraged into spinoffs. Star Wars has always been a brand – Lucas got rich off merchandise, after all – but rarely has it felt so transparently like a springboard for future profit.
That feels a little futile now the box office numbers are out. While Solo’s opening weekend is hardly embarrassing, compared to prior Star Wars films – and its astronomical budget – it’s a borderline bomb. I’m no box office analyst, but it’s hard not to link the mediocre box office to the apparent ordinariness of the film. In the wake of something as epic as Infinity War, Solo feels inessential; something that you can skip and see on streaming in a year’s time. Star Wars films aren’t supposed to feel like that.
To be honest, I feel a little ashamed of talking about the film’s box office. It shouldn’t be relevant; I’m a critic, not an economist. But it is relevant because these films are as much brand extensions as they are artworks, existing to leverage Disney’s investment in Lucasfilm more than anything else. Normally, I find that adds an additional layer of interest to these films, where every unconventional choice can be examined through the light of big studio capitalism. (As an example, reflecting upon the decisions that led to a scene where Han ‘shoots first’ but is subsequently reinforced as in the right immediately afterwards, is personally fascinating.)
But when as film is as transparently a product as Solo, it’s just depressing.
It’s unfortunate because I’d prefer to be talking about Bradford Young’s rich, dark cinematography, full of deep shadows and thick smoke. How it creates a sense of gloom, a universe smothered by the Empire, but how it clashes against the colourful sensibilities of Han Solo. (The only flashes of colour on the screen here are laser blasts and Lando’s capes.) I’d prefer to talk about the generally excellent work of the cast here, or examine the uncomfortable decision to set a sequence on a planet entirely populated by black people who don’t get to speak a single word.
Instead, here am I talking about Solo as a product. Because that’s what it is. And in a world where blockbuster cinema products need to be exciting – and essential – Solo is a miss.