What Does “Solo” Say About the Future of Star Wars?

Solo

Note: What follows is an extended and spoiler-free discussion of Solo: A Star Wars Story, followed by a spoiler-filled section where I delve into the finer details. I’ll let you know when we reach that second part.

It was perhaps with no small level of business acumen that the marketing for Solo avoided referring to the film as a Han Solo “prequel.” Just the mention of the dreaded P-word will send chills up the spine of even a casual Star Wars fan, and given the film’s troubled production history (swapping directors rather late in the game), the studio could certainly do without any more negative publicity.

As I write this, Solo has only just been released to theaters, and its financial success remains up in the air. As much as the Star Wars brand is an endless moneymaker, and while the film will likely edge out its Marvel-ous competition to win the Memorial Day weekend, early predictions suggest it won’t leave the same impact as fellow “Untold Story” Rogue One, let alone The Force Awakens or Last Jedi. If evidence holds, it will likely leave little more than the impact of a standard summer blockbuster.

But that’s not necessarily a knock against it, because Solo, more than any other recent Star Wars film, feels like a summer blockbuster. It’s light, it’s fast-paced, and it’s often quite funny, lacking the dark and moody feel of the last three franchise films. That the film has been granted a May release, as opposed to the December dates of the last few films, makes perfect sense.

But does that make it a good film? That’s… tougher to say.

Certainly, as I say, Solo is a fun film. It has a witty script (by longtime Star Wars screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan and his son Jonathan, a franchise first-timer) that offers plenty of laughs. It has a talented cast, led by Alden Ehrenreich as the young Han, with mettle-provers like Woody Harrelson, Donald Glover, Emilia Clarke, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge along for the ride. It has action, thrills, and great special effects, plus a surprise cameo that will delight fervent fans, even if it might not make sense to casual ones.

In short, it has all the workings of a fun, matinee-like film, likely to please the undemanding fan or filmgoer.

But, ever the skeptic, I can’t help feeling a bit troubled by what Solo means for the future of Star Wars – a future which seems to be growing more expansive with each passing day.

Earlier this week, Disney announced that they had tapped director James Mangold (Logan) to direct a standalone film about Boba Fett. This comes just a week after their announcement that Donald Glover would star in a standalone film about Lando Calrissian. Add this to the recent news that Last Jedi director Rian Johnson will helm a new trilogy after Episode IX, that Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and DB Weiss will produce several franchise films on their own, and that Jon Favreau will produce a slew of Star Wars TV series, and it becomes readily apparent that cinemas will be in a galaxy far, far away for a while.

All this was probably inevitable. When Disney first acquired the rights to Star Wars in 2012, many speculated that the Mouse was gearing to milk the cash cow dry. And can you blame them? The Force Awakens smashed box-office records left and right, proving that decades of dormancy and a misfired prequel trilogy had done nothing to ebb audience interest.

And it’s entirely possible that many of these proposed film and TV projects will be good. Disney may often threaten its properties with franchise fatigue, but pound-for-pound, they know how to produce entertaining films. I’ve little concern that they will “ruin” Star Wars, particularly since they helped salvage it to begin with.

But despite the talent involved in these proposed projects, and the expansive world the franchise leaves ripe for the plucking, I can’t help feeling somewhat concerned about the future of Star Wars. And it all loops back to the troubled production history of Solo.

As I mentioned at the top, Solo was originally set to be helmed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, directors of The Lego Movie and 21 Jump Street. Given their backlog, I was geared up for a truly weird and wacky Star Wars film, a funky stepchild in the series’ heavily dramatic lineage.

But in June 2017, Lucasfilm announced that Lord and Miller had been removed from the project, to be replaced by A Beautiful Mind director Ron Howard. Now, I like Howard, and his film (largely reshot from the Lord/Miller version) conveys plenty of fun and energy as well. But the “creative differences” which led to the original directors parting ways with production strike me as something of a red flag.

Apparently, Lord and Miller’s filmic vision involved multiple deviations from the script, and letting the actors ad-lib their own lines to give the feature an air of spontaneity. This was seemingly too much for the Lucasfilm heads, who asked them to dial it back and, upon reaching loggerheads, asked Richie Cunningham to take over instead. The message sent: Don’t buck the Star Wars vision.

It’s a disconcerting message, not least because it sets a troublesome precedent. Though some Star Wars purists would have doubtlessly balked at seeing the franchise take a turn toward zany comedy, many would likely have been accepting of it, in the same way that many Trek fans embraced the oddball comedy of The Voyage Home. But Disney and Lucasfilm, seemingly unwilling to deviate too far from their time-tested formula and crowd-pleasing vision, opted not to go that route.

Presumably, the Disney era of Star Wars is still relatively young, and there’s room to be made for trial and error. But I hope that, going forward, the franchise learns the virtue of loosening up.

………

Well, enough guff. Time to fanboy out. I’ll now offer some sporadic thoughts about the film itself. SPOILERS begin here:

– As stated above, I thought Alden Ehrenreich and Emilia Clarke both did fine work. Still and all, Han and Qi’ra’s relationship never really caught fire. She isn’t given much backstory, and her turns between good and evil aren’t given much weight. The film seems to be setting her up to return for a future film, or (given that cameo, about which more in a bit) a future TV series?

– Much like Rogue One, Solo adopts the policy that “anyone can die… so long as they haven’t been seen in future Episodes.” We know that Han, Lando, and Chewie are safe, but most of the other characters aren’t so lucky, be they Beckett, his original crew (including a CG Rocket Raccoon riff voiced by Jon Favreau), or Waller-Bridge’s L3-37.

– Speaking of L3, what a great character. She got the biggest laughs in the theater (“Equal rights?”), and is played with just the right amount of righteous anger and obliviousness. (Between this film and Killing Eve, Waller-Bridge is having a great month.) A shame her screentime in the film was so limited.

– Donald Glover (also having a great month, between this, Atlanta, and the “This Is America” video) was a blast as Lando, and I daresay his performance was even more electric than that of Billy Dee Williams. Count me in on that spinoff film. (Side note: Why does every galaxy seem to have its own version of poker? Interstellar gambling is out of control.)

– Of the numerous backstory-layering scenes, the explanation of how Han met Chewbacca was the highlight. I also love the irony of Han receiving his last name from an Imperial officer. (Although are other tribeless recruits also dubbed “Solo”? Seems like it could be a confusing procedure.)

– I tuned out for much of the technobabble – there seemed to be more than usual this time around – but I love the name “coaxium.”

– That’s Anthony Daniels (C-3P0) playing the Wookie who briefly partners with Han and Chewbacca, which maintains the actor’s record as the only one to appear in every Star Wars film. (RIP Kenny Baker, whose last appearance was in The Force Awakens.

– Darth Maul’s cameo threw me for a moment, since I haven’t regularly followed the franchise’s animated TV spinoffs. But it was cool to see one of the few good characters from the prequel trilogy make a return appearance, particularly since Ray Park, even in hologram, looks just as menacing as ever. Whether his cameo is designed to set up a future film or a TV tie-in remains to be seen, but it’s cool that the cartoons have been established as canonical.

That’s all for now. I’m curious to see how the audience responds to this film overall. (Fortunately, that’s what comments sections are for.)

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