(This review is spoiler-free)
“Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” the saying goes. The longer we go without something, the more our hearts and minds fantasize about finally getting our hands on it again. Sixteen years passed between 1983’s Return of the Jedi and 1999’s The Phantom Menace, and in that time the Star Wars brand had time to for us to fall in love with it from start to finish and begin clamoring for more. Even though The Phantom Menace wasn’t that great, the gap between it and Return of the Jedi was important because it allowed us time to realize that we missed Star Wars.
Since Disney has acquired Star Wars, we haven’t had that opportunity. At all. There has been a Star Wars film, for better or worse, every single year since the release of 2015’s The Force Awakens. We’ve churned through a couple main-saga films (TFA and 2017’s The Last Jedi) as well as a couple of side-adventures with 2016’s Rogue One and now our 2018 Han Solo film imaginatively titled Solo: A Star Wars Story. Disney is trying to treat Star Wars the way they’ve treated the Marvel brand, pumping out as many films as feasibly possible. And Solo is the perfect example of why this is a bad thing for Star Wars.
It’s a film that nobody asked for that exists only to make money and keep Star Wars in the public consciousness until Episode IX comes out next year. We don’t need to know everything about Han Solo’s past to find him engaging. In fact, it’s better that what we know of his past is mysterious and shrouded in uncertainty. It adds to the character’s legendary outlaw persona. We don’t need to see him conquer the Kessel Run in record time to know that it’s impressive; the context clues in the dialogue tell us that it is. It’s up to each of us to fill in the story in our heads, and us imagining Han tackling the Kessel Run is always going to be more impressive than a CGI-filled sequence showing us exactly how it all went down.
I say all of this only because it’s impossible for these biases not to impact my review of Solo: A Star Wars Story. I was not excited for this film in the slightest. Its mere existence felt like a completely unnecessary cash-grab in a franchise that was starting to betray all of the good will that it had built up many decades ago. The Force Awakens was already cashing in my Star Wars nostalgia to obscene degrees. As such, I didn’t really want to see Star Wars whore out Han Solo even more in a standalone film.
But you know what? It really wasn’t all that bad.
As far as Star Wars movies go, I liked it better than The Last Jedi. Since that movie is less than six months old, I’ll avoid spoiling it for those who haven’t seen it. But it did a lot of things with the Star Wars franchise that I wasn’t entirely on board with, but at least it tried to do new things. Solo isn’t trying to do anything new, but what it does is mostly inoffensive.
I got over Han Solo not being played by Harrison Ford much quicker than I thought I would. It’s surprising just how easy it is to forget that this is even a Han Solo origin film, and that’s because it probably could have been a solid film about some totally new character if not for the fact that things like the Millennium Falcon, Chewbacca, and the Kessel Run feature prominently in the film. Actor Alden Ehrenreich brings a sort of roguish likability to the character that is just reminiscent enough of Harrison Ford to see why Disney casted him in the first place. The stories of Disney hiring an acting coach for him after the fact tells me that they probably wanted him to be a bit more like Harrison Ford, but I think he finds a comfortable middle-ground between imitating Ford and doing his own thing.
The rest of the cast is good, but there aren’t any real standouts. Woody Harrelson seems to be playing Woody Harrelson and Emilia Clarke is less compelling here than she is in Game of Thrones. Paul Bettany is playing a pretty standard mob boss villain, but he does bring a bit of charm to a role that could have been more by-the-books evil. Most of the fun in the film comes from Donald Glover as Lando Calrissian, and his interactions with his droid L3. I kept finding myself thinking that the droid in this movie was ironically the character with the most liveliness and personality, much like how Alan Tudyk’s K-2S0 stole the show in Rogue One.
The plot of the movie takes inspiration from plenty of heist films, which is exactly what you’d hope for in a movie about one of the galaxy’s most notorious smugglers. This isn’t a science-fiction film so much as it is a heist film that relies on science-fiction elements. Much like the way a lot of the franchises in the Marvel Cinematic Universe feel different thematically and tonally, if Disney wants to keep releasing Star Wars movies so regularly they should at least feel different from one another. Nobody wants to see the same movie a hundred times, so it’s good that Solo showed the world what a heist movie in the Star Wars universe would look like instead of showing us another space opera between Jedi and Sith.
I think the saddest part of Solo is that it did manage to get me excited about Star Wars again, if only for a few minutes. The last ten minutes probably elevate the film from entertaining filler to something that I’d be excited to see a sequel for. Without spoiling exactly what happens, I found that Solo managed to fix one of my biggest disappointments about the prequel trilogy while also acknowledging the fact that George Lucas never needed to re-edit the original trilogy and change the things he did.
Of course, a sequel isn’t likely to happen. Solo more or less bombed by Star Wars standards and will be lucky to bring in a $100 million opening despite the four-day holiday weekend. It seems that audiences just weren’t as interested in this movie as they were the previous entries in the franchise. And this brings me back to my original point. Star Wars has been watered down by the yearly releases and the lack of time and care given to each installment. It’s a franchise whose best moments are in the past, with no indication that what’s coming up ahead deserves your time or money.
Solo wasn’t so bad that it left me with a bad taste in my mouth when I think of Star Wars (like The Last Jedi did) but is that really the gauge we’re using to measure the success of a Star Wars film now? That it wasn’t that bad? What happened to every Star Wars film being a masterpiece? In 1983, we were three-for-three on fantastic Star Wars films. And now? We’re barely three-for-four on good Star Wars films since Disney has taken over. Star Wars is no longer something special that makes people excited just to think about. It’s now just another yearly cinematic cash-cow pumping out sometimes-good, sometimes-bad movies that can only dream about reaching the legendary heights of the movies from it’s heyday. Solo isn’t as bad as it probably should have been, but it’s not even close to capturing the magic of the original trilogy or even the cinematic melodrama of the prequels. The real heartbreaker here is that I think there are the makings of a truly great film buried somewhere inside of Solo. But as it stands, the movie we got is just…so-so.