Would ‘Solo’ Be A Better Movie If It Wasn’t a ‘Star Wars Story’?
Most tracking estimates for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker predict the movie will gross somewhere in the neighborhood of $200 million in its first weekend in theaters. That means there’s a chance that the new Star Wars will earn more in three days than the last Star Wars earned in its entire 221-day run in theaters. That was Solo: A Star Wars Story, and whether you loved it or hated it, it holds a unique distinction in the Star Wars franchise: With only $213 million in total domestic ticket sales, it is the first Star Wars that was an unqualified disappointment at the box office.
While Solo may not have been the first Star Wars movie with a bumpy production, it was certainly the most high-profile to date. Its original directors, Phil Lord and Chris Miller, were fired after creative differences with Lucasfilm. They were replaced by Ron Howard, who by most estimates reshot about 70 percent of the movie, and even had to replace one or two of the actors when they were unavailable for the additional production time. (The character in the film played by Paul Bettany replaced one that would have been performed by Michael K. Williams as a half-man, half-lion alien.) While good movies have been made from chaotic shoots, it’s not exactly shocking that Solo felt like a bit of a mess.
Did it feel like Star Wars though? One of the things defenders of the movie — and Solo has its share of defenders — like to argue is that if the movie wasn’t part of the Star Wars galaxy, it would be much more highly regarded. If it was Solo: An Unaffiliated Sci-Fi Story, some believe, its reputation would be far better.
They might have a point. Solo definitely looks like no other Star Wars film, a fact that was jarring to a lot of viewers. Shot by cinematographer Bradford Young, the movie is heavily backlit, giving it a moody, diffuse (and, let’s be honest, occasionally abstruse) look. Even the familiar confines of the Millennium Falcon looked alien and peculiar, with an extra piece on the front of its famous prongs and blinding white panels lining its interior. Solo’s storyline feels more like a biopic set in space — where the audience learns about the backstory of a famous icon they know and love — than a traditional Star Wars saga. There are no Jedis, barely any dogfights, and no lightsabers, apart from the one Darth Maul holds in his brief cameo.
And then there’s Solo himself, as in Han Solo, played as a young man by Alden Ehrenreich. He won the coveted role over the likes of Miles Teller, Logan Lerman, Ansel Elgort, and many others. Ehrenreich is a terrific young actor, I wish him nothing but success, and if he’s Han Solo then I’m Captain Kirk. He doesn’t particularly look the part, even in a series of costumes designed to evoke Harrison Ford’s space duds from the original Star Wars trilogy. He doesn’t move or sound like a young Han Solo, either. (Even the notion of him as a “young Han Solo” doesn’t hold much water; Ehrenreich was only five years younger in Solo than Ford was in Star Wars: A New Hope.)
It’s not just that he’s a different Han Solo who eventually grows into the guy we know; if there wasn’t a scene where an Imperial recruiter gives him the name “Han Solo” because he is literally alone, it might not be entirely clear that’s who he is — even after he starts hanging out on the Millennium Falcon with Chewbacca (playing himself). Ehrenreich’s not necessarily bad in the film, he’s just not very Han Solo-y. If the movie wasn’t called Solo, and if it didn’t purport to reveal the previously hidden origin of this beloved character, this wouldn’t be an issue — perhaps another reason to put forward the Solo-is-good-just-not-a-good-Star-Wars argument.
The problem with this thought experiment is that even though Solo is different than most Star Wars movies, even though it has elements that would play well outside the franchise, it is still bound by the rules and content restrictions of Star Wars. It can hint at a romance between Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) and his droid compatriot, L3 (Fleabag’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge), but only in the vaguest and tamest of ways; Ex Machina this is not. Likewise, when L3 is wounded and her brain is uploaded into the Millennium Falcon’s navigational computer the ethical implications of that can’t even be considered, despite her character being established as a freedom fighter for droid rights. (Again, Ex Machina this is not.) And some of the stronger elements in Solo are tied up in Star Wars mythology, like the fraternal bond between Han and Chewie, which is enhanced by our knowledge of the decades the two would spend together after this particular Star Wars story.
Making a franchise movie is tricky. Audiences want a film that feels like more of the same, but they also don’t want to feel like they paid to see one movie twice. At the same time, if you stray too far from the original viewers might reject you entirely. Exorcist II: The Heretic would probably be a lot less infamous if it was just a weird horror movie called The Heretic and not a sequel to one of the most popular horror films of all time.
But no one would ever accuse Exorcist II and its director, John Boorman, of playing it safe. Quirky cinematography aside, Solo feels like the safest version of this story you could tell; one that doesn’t even attempt to dig into its weird droid politics or the events that lead Han’s lost love Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) from the mean streets of Corellia to the upper echelons of the Crimson Dawn crime syndicate. That’s why I’m ultimately unconvinced that Solo would be a “better” movie if it could somehow be extracted from Star Wars. If you took the Star Wars out of Solo what would be left? Even less than the already thin movie that became the series’ first flop.
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