Solo: A Star Wars Story has the unenviable task of telling the backstory of one of cinema’s most beloved characters. As demonstrated by the prequels, this is dangerous territory to wander into – but the signs up to now have been promising (if you can gloss over the firing of its two directors just under a year ago).
In an era filled with prequels, franchises and origin stories, it’s easy to overlook Solo as just another Star Wars story – there’s one every year now, after all. But does this space Western promise something more?
When Disney first announced their colossal financial takeover of Lucasfilm, the most anticipated of the news to come from this was, incredibly, not the sequel trilogy. This isn’t to say fans weren’t licking their lips at the prospect of revisiting their favourite heroes from the original trilogy of ’77-83 (they were). Yet, after the bad taste left by the divisive prequels, it was a different announcement that really caught everyone’s attention.
This was the news that, in between releases of episodes VII-IX, Disney would release stand-alone films – anthology films, that would explore different aspects of the Star Wars universe. Predictably, this led to a myriad of speculation, wishes and expectations from the Star Wars faithful. Which stories would these new films tell? Would there really be more prequels?
Released back in December 2016, the first anthology film – Rogue One – was largely well-received. The subject matter was perhaps a little safe, given the significance of the Death Star to the Skywalker saga, but the film still managed to carve out its own standing in the franchise – due to its adoption of the war genre.
The Solo Story
If Rogue One at times veered a little too close to home, a Han Solo origin story is already sat on your couch with its feet up. This is Han Solo, after all – one of the most iconic and beloved figures of not only Star Wars, but popular culture entirely. Yet, most of his success is largely down to Harrison Ford – an actor who, despite making a resurgence of late with reprisals in both Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Blade Runner 2049 (with Indiana Jones 5 to arrive in 2019), will not be returning in this particular outing. Instead, the mantle falls to 28-year-old Alden Ehrenreich – an indie-darling turned breakout star, after his show-stealing turn in the Coen brothers’ otherwise muddled satire Hail, Caesar!.
Replacing Harrison Ford is perhaps the most unenviable task in all of cinema, and Ehrenreich knows he’s got his plate full. Relievedly, he’s openly discussed the challenge he faced, and the overarching message seems to be that Ehrenreich isn’t emulating Ford – rather, attempting his own spin on a character vastly different from the finished product we saw in ’77. Indeed, Solo takes place years before the events of Star Wars – a Han that isn’t quite the hardened cynic that we know so well. This is a younger Han, one that Ehrenreich has described as an “idealist” – though you can be certain he’s still got the charming bravura and suavity of Ford’s older incarnation.
Joining Ehrenreich’s Solo is probably the film’s most exciting component – Donald Glover’s take on Lando Calrissian. Glover is not one to hide his zeal for pop culture, and his affinity for Star Wars has been long known – evidenced through his acting/writing for the TV sitcom Community, but also the ‘geek rap’ released under his musical alter-ego, Childish Gambino. A jack of all trades, certainly, but perhaps even a master of them too.
Still, portraying Lando could be seen as his biggest challenge yet. Due to the somewhat unpredictability of Glover’s creative output, we’ve always been very much playing his game – not knowing what to expect (or when to expect it). With Solo, however, Glover perhaps faces, for the first time, a pre-existing set of constraints. Not rules, as such, given this Lando will be as similarly nascent as Ehrenreich’s Han – and so is afforded at least some artistic distinction. Still, the early signs are extremely promising – Glover certainly looks the part, and he’s got the necessary charisma and presence to rival Billy Dee Williams’ original Lando. Based on excitement alone, Solo owes a lot to the involvement of Glover.
Much like Rogue One, the development of Solo was plagued with rumours over suspected reshoots – with the head honchos over at Lucasfilm apparently not pleased with their respective directors’ creative visions. With Rogue One, Gareth Edwards still ended up with a directing credit – but speculation still rages over the level of involvement of screenwriter Tony Gilroy. Solo took it one further, with the firing of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (the comedy pair behind 21 Jump Street and The LEGO Movie) over “creative differences” – instead hiring Lucasfilm veteran Ron Howard. After making his name in the George Lucas hit American Graffiti, Howard continued his relationship with Lucasfilm by directing the Warwick Davis-led fantasy, Willow – and has since been seen as a skilled pair of hands behind the camera (if a little on the safe side). A self-confessed Star Wars enthusiast, Howard seems an appropriate choice to helm a Han Solo film in his own right. The issue is, however, that this isn’t quite his own right – indeed, reports suggest the Solo script remained unaltered during the directorial change, and so the questions remains as to how much of an influence Howard has even been allowed to exert here.
Besides the two directors, one of the other major casualties of the decision is that of the principal villain. Michael K. Williams (The Wire) was originally slated to play the crime lord (and quintessentially Star Wars-titled) Dryden Vos. Due to scheduling conflicts, Williams had to be replaced by Paul Bettany (Avengers: Infinity War) – with crime lord Vos in the process transforming from a half-mountain lion to a mere scarred human. Upsetting, without doubt, but if Bettany’s Vision is any indication, you can be sure Solo’s villain will be one to remember.
Never tell him the odds
It’s extremely rare for a Star Wars film to have such an underwhelming marketing run, with anticipation for Solo arguably the lowest it’s been since Revenge of the Sith.
Faced with warning signs like these, it’s easy to overlook all the promising work that’s already been done on Solo. Despite the host of changes ushered in by the reshoots, screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan was among those to remain on-board. Co-writer of both The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi back in the ‘80s, Kasdan returned to the franchise in 2015 for The Force Awakens. As critically acclaimed and record-breaking at the box-office as it was, J.J. Abrams’ episode VII was levelled with being too derivative of the original film. And while this criticism has some merits and some flaws (most of its detractors seem to forget that it’s a Star Wars film, after all) the film’s writing is definitely one of its strengths. Like Abrams’ direction, Kasdan’s history and affinity for the franchise just bleeds onto the screen – you feel like these guys were there watching the VHS boxset in your living room with you.
In addition to the aforementioned casting of Ehrenreich, Glover and Bettany, Solo also treats us to the introduction of Woody Harrelson and Daenerys herself, Emilia Clarke, to the Star Wars universe. Clarke plays one of Han’s oldest friends (and probable love interest, sorry Leia) while Harrelson is his pirate-inspired mentor.
There’s undoubtedly a lot to look forward to that will excite fans, with Glover’s Lando certain to make instant waves. Ultimately, we’re still dealing with an origin story, which history tells us never quite work. Disney’s sequel trilogy has excelled thus far in winning back those let down by Episodes I-III, but it’s in their spin-off entries that the franchise is in serious danger of appearing jet-lagged. Given the staggeringly rich potential presented by the Star Wars universe, is another prequel really what we need? It seems a waste, and an unnecessary risk to take. One thing’s for sure: the odds are well and truly stacked against Han for this one – just make sure you don’t tell him.
Solo: A Star Wars Story is in cinemas now.