Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018) by Ron Howard
Review by Reid Ramsey
As everyone on the internet for the past few weeks has obviously been pointing out, we didn’t need a Han Solo origin story. We didn’t need a movie explicating several seemingly purposeless lines from the original Star Wars movies. What’s a Kessel Run? To be honest, I’m still not entirely sure. It seems to be just an arbitrary distance between two planets central to this Star Wars story. It’s clear that we didn’t need a Han Solo origin story. But we never needed a Skywalker story either. Perhaps no one wanted a Han Solo origin story. It doesn’t really matter, though, because now we have one and we have to reckon with its existence one way or another.
For me, Solo: A Star Wars Story achieved what so many of the recent Star Wars movies can’t: it pulled me at warp speed (forgive me, I don’t really know the Star Wars terms) out of my chair and into a wholly new world, one not so burdened by the weight of a 40-year-old franchise but instead a world charged with hope and creativity.
Directed by Ron Howard (sorta) and starring Alden Ehrenreich in the title role, Solo is set in the years leading up to the events introduced in Star Wars (1977). Han Solo is a mischievous thief and beggar who finally breaks free of his insufferable home planet only to join the Imperial Forces and be separated from his young love Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke). The majority of the story focuses on Han’s attempts to return to Qi’ra and rescue her à la any swashbuckling adventure story featuring a damsel-in-distress. We find out pretty early into the movie, however, that it is not so simple, but I’ll leave spoilers out of this review because as it has been continually reported, the low box-office numbers indicate that most people probably haven’t bothered to see Solo yet.
Solo had an opportunity in its setting that the other recent Star Wars films haven’t, and the creators take advantage of it. By creating an origin story, this movie unhinges from the strict confines of the sequels (much like the George Lucas’s much maligned prequels) and allows itself to be a new creation. The throwaway lines become a chance to creatively expand the universe and the movie itself forces the development of the iconically lackadaisical Han Solo first played by Harrison Ford. While much has been said about the frivolity of answering the questions no one asked about Star Wars, such as what is a Kessel Run? or how did Han get his name?, few have delved into the real question that has plagued me since first watching Star Wars: Why does Han appear to lack human empathy? The Han Solo of the first trilogy is a man who cares for no one but himself and Chewy, and sure, that has always been construed as invariably cool, but it has always struck me as insufferably detached. The Han Solo of the first trilogy is not who we meet at the beginning of Solo: A Star Wars Story.
Ehrenreich’s Han is attached and empathetic. Despite fashioning his own smugness akin to Ford’s, the young Han cares for all the people around him. His one task is to reconcile his relationship with Qi’ra and be restored to a simpler life. He is a romantic. Solo actually reminded me of Casino Royale, likely the best James Bond movie. Casino Royale works so well because it illustrates the devastating loss that can lead to the destruction of a character’s empathy. Bond and Solo are equally apathetic womanizers who seek the redemption of their broken humanity. What Solo and Casino Royale do for each character is outline the trauma that can lead to the destruction of emotion. While The goal of Han’s origin story is not to flesh out those pointless lines or to finally see the dazzling, if confusing, Kessel Run, it’s to understand the psychological turmoil undergone by the young hero at the hand of the Empire.
Bradford Young’s cinematography has been the forefront of many discussions surrounding Solo. “It’s so dark that everyone looks like silhouettes,” has been a common remark. While much of the issue has been reported as being due to poor screening conditions, I worry that this disengagement has been yet another opportunity for audiences to distance themselves from the implications of the cinematography. The movie is light-on-its-feet and fun by every measure, but the central focus of the story and the ending has darker and more difficult implications than any recent Star Wars movie. Without getting into the ending, Young’s cinematography is in many ways a personal and visual expression of Han’s psyche. Han is troubled by the darkness of the world around him, comforted by the hope of his restitution of love, and entertained often by the silliness of life.
The darkness of the frames reflect the impending world, while Howard and Young also fill the space with vibrant colors. In an era of studio comedies and superhero action movies with identical high-key lighting and a televisual loss of respect for shadows, Solo embraces the style of its main character with a bravado that few big-budget movies dare to.
Solo may not be the movie of the year. It has hardly been a movie of the moment in the midst of Avengers: Infinity War and Deadpool 2. Yet it is a Star Wars feat for the reasons stated above. It is also a feat in the amount of emotion it pulled from me in its final moments. Solo is a refreshing and insightful look into the Star Wars Universe that was really starting to feel so stale with each Disney reinvention.
While The Last Jedi and The Force Awakens are entertaining and interesting films in their own right, in travelling to the past, this movie frees itself from the overbearing expectations of the Skywalker saga and instead embraces a fresh take on an iconic character and a Star Wars world that for the first time in years is wide open instead of frustratingly limited.