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‘Solo’: Successful Prequel or Proof that ‘Star Wars’ Spin-Offs Should Go Extinct?

IndieWire's critics try to suss out the purpose of these connect-the-dots Star Wars stories.

"Solo: A Star Wars Story"

“Solo: A Star Wars Story”

Disney/Lucasfilm

With “Solo: A Star Wars” opening theatrically this week and generating a range of reactions, several IndieWire writers traded emails to debate whether or not the movie succeeds at its aims.

DAVID EHRLICH: Solo: A Star Wars Story,” which is opening in theaters just six months after “The Last Jedi” firebombed the saga’s fandom, is the second of the interstitial spinoff movies that Disney has made as part of its plan to ensure that we never go a year without a new installment of the galaxy’s most lucrative space opera. Likewise, it’s also the second of the interstitial movies that has come out of a publicly troubled production. And troubled might be too generous a term for what happened, considering that “Rogue One” director Gareth Edwards was booted off the set for massive reshoots, while “Solo” directors Chris Miller and Phil Lord were straight-up fired in favor of Ron Howard.

But all of that hot goss is finally about to become old news, as this chimera of a new Star Wars Story warps into multiplexes across the planet and starts to speak for itself. It’s amazing how fast you forget about all of that Hollywood scuttlebutt once the Lucasfilm logo pops up on screen — those shiny letters are like some kind of Jedi mind trick, designed to make even the most jaded moviegoers live in the moment and let go of the past.

Well, not all of the past. Like “Rogue One” before it, “Solo” is totally defined by previous movies in the franchise. It exists in the gaps between them, connecting the dots that audiences used to delight in connecting themselves. Whereas “Rogue One” hinged on new characters, and was only constrained by the morbidness of its conclusion, “Solo” is completely hamstrung by the saga’s pre-existing mythos.

I had a bad feeling about this from the opening scene, when a cutaway shot of Han Solo’s lucky dice made it clear that I should brace for two hours of winking fan service — the kind of context that doesn’t enrich the Star Wars universe, but just fills all of its empty spaces with banal data.  Here’s how Han got his last name. And here’s where he got his blaster. And here’s how he met Chewbacca.

These spinoff movies seem determined to override our imaginations by taking everything that was left to them and loading it into the canon. It doesn’t really matter who is behind the camera when we’re being forced to look at things that were better left unseen.

For me, that’s a big reason why “Solo” doesn’t really get off the ground until after Han meets Lando. The swiveling Snowpiercer train makes for a strong action setpiece, but it’s hard to invest in the stakes of a scene that just kinda feels like a naked pretext for Han and Chewie’s first ride (and wow is everyone quick to forget the characters who die in the process). There’s a perfunctory vibe around even the most exciting moments in this movie, and most of the cast seems powerless to shake it.

Alden Ehrenreich is a charming Han Solo (he manages to thread the needle between imitation and reinvention), but there just isn’t anywhere to go with that character. And saddling him with such a serious love interest feels like a total waste of time, considering that we’re already so invested in the great romance of his life. On a similar note, Donald Glover is obviously a phenomenal Lando, but he can’t really do anything fun with the part until after he fulfills his macro-obligation of losing the Millennium Falcon. It was only when Phoebe Waller-Bridge showed up as the scrappy and sarcastic droid L3-37 that I felt like the bumpers had come off, and that “Solo” was finally willing to be as fun and reckless as the rogue who gives it his name.

Kate, I know you were generally more enthusiastic about the movie. Even so, do you agree that Star Wars needs to explore some new quadrants as fast as possible, or did “Solo” leave you feeling like these spinoff movies should continue to connect the dots?

Donald Glover is Lando Calrissian in SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY.

“Solo: A Star Wars Story”

Lucasfilm Ltd.

KATE ERBLAND: I’ll admit this right off the bat: I wasn’t wild about even the idea of learning about Han’s early days as a teen street rat or his misspent youth in the Imperial Navy, but found it jarring when “Solo” just…skipped right over them. The first act of “Solo” isn’t great, it’s as messy and disjointed as any “Star Wars” has ever been, a combination of rushing through important beats and jamming on the breaks as soon as get to the introductions that will help guide both the story and the eponymous character. I don’t think it gets going when Lando shows up, I think it’s Chewbacca that sets it free, if only because the big Wookiee makes off with the most unexpected entrance of the movie: He’s a monster! He’s recently killed someone! He will rip your arms off! If you’re making a Han Solo movie, you’ve got to bring in Chewie, but this was a hell of a way to do it.

Not that there aren’t rocky bits after that — as David notes, a strong action setpiece on the train gives way to a pair of upsetting deaths that are mostly ignored by the people who should care most about them — but at least it’s on track to deliver a more clear-headed story. Is it at all necessary or required? No. But that’s not a trait that’s only reserved for “Star Wars,” but any prequel. Turns out, if you build and craft a character thrilling enough to earn an early-years-throwback, you’ve likely already made a character who stands out and stands alone just fine. None of this is demanded, but money is, so it exists.

With that in mind, “Solo” gamely takes on the necessary dot-connection — the Falcon, the dice, the best pal — and also manages to build in some exciting new characters (L3-37, yes) while expanding out the galaxy. We’ve always known that this particular universe is filled with very bad people, but “Solo” is the first “Star Wars” film to dig into that without the balancing force (sorry) of a good-hearted rebellion.

For a while there, it’s thrilling. Just who has Han gotten into league with, and how deep will he go before he’s shaken loose? That’s meat enough for all kinds of explorations, a chance to get to know big new spaces in the universe. And it leaves open plenty of room for explanation, even if adds in a head-slapping cameo that begs to tie this disjointed universe together. It’s exciting to think that this galaxy can be bigger yet.

“Solo: A Star Wars Story”

Lucasfilm

MICHAEL NORDINE: I wasn’t especially excited either, as my relationship with the galaxy’s biggest franchise exists in the sweet spot between obsession and exhaustion, but David’s right: It’s hard not to get excited when you’re in a movie theater and a new “Star Wars” movie begins for the first time. It’s also precisely because I didn’t care too much that I ended up enjoying “Solo” as much as I did (especially after being one of those dreaded “Last Jedi” haters). I found “The Lego Movie” lame and didn’t care when Lord and Miller were fired; I loved Alden Ehrenreich in “Hail, Caesar!” and still quote the “would that it were so simple” line.

Part of it, too, is that these Star Wars Stories have more leeway to introduce (and, just as often, kill) new characters than their new-trilogy brethren. L3-37 is indeed great, which anyone who’s seen Waller-Bridge do literally anything could have guessed; at one point she makes a hilarious female-orgasm joke that few at my screening seemed to catch. My favorite moment of the film is a bit more spoilery, so I’ll only say this: When that character takes off that mask and we see that face, I was genuinely taken aback. Once most of the fan service and throat-clearing is out of the way, the film carves a niche for itself that I found pleasantly surprising.

“Star Wars” didn’t need “Solo,” but it’s a little better with it than it was without it.

"Solo: A Star Wars Story"

“Solo: A Star Wars Story”

Lucasfilm/Screenshot

ERIC KOHN: I find it fascinating that while we have different reactions to the movie represented on this chain, they all start with skepticism about the very existence of “Solo” in the first place. For me, this nagging problem remained in place for the duration of the movie. As David said, “Solo” has been engineered in a blatant, almost mechanical fashion to fill in gaps that didn’t need to be filled. We lived for decades with the lore about Han winning the Millennium Falcon, his friendship with Chewie, and his quirky bromance with Lando with nobody clamoring for all the details. Now we know why: Those details aren’t very compelling, at least not as they’ve been laid out here, and it’s particularly irksome because it feels like a repudiation to anyone who has relished the opportunity to fill in the gaps themselves.

I didn’t care about Han’s romance with a woman absent from the stories that solidified his appeal — she’s compelling on her own terms, so why shoehorn into Han’s timeline? — nor was I taken by the total happenstance through which he befriends Chewbacca. A lot of their interactions felt like a filmed cosplaying event with really good makeup and costume design — cute, but underdeveloped. (By the way: If the guy speaks “a little” Wookiee, how come he only does it once? Also: Ridiculous.)

The action was similarly imitative: lots of expensive CG shots of the Falcon zipping through narrow spaces you know it will barely clear, and all the sound effects arriving right on cue (it’s almost like you can hear Ron Howard and company going “pew-pew-pew” off-screen). Like a lesser version of J.J. Abrams’ “The Force Awakens,” this is essentially a pricey fan film, jazzed up with first-rate special effects but otherwise mostly forgettable. George Lucas was the original “Star Wars” auteur, but lately I’m starting to think that role has shifted to ILM.

Of course, fans have had a blast toying with “Star Wars” mythology for decades. Thinking through this new chapter in the Disneyfication of “Star Wars,” I plucked Henry Jenkins’ “Convergence Culture” off my shelf. The book finds the transmedia scholar exploring many ways in which fan culture and mainstream media interact. In a lengthy chapter titled “Quentin Tarantino’s Star Wars” (named after an amazing proto-mashup from the early viral video days), Jenkins writes about how the authorized and fan-driven aspects of “Star Wars” reflect a long-standing collision between folk culture and mass media. Amateur filmmakers often used official Star Wars “toys and trinkets” — action figures, music samples, etc. — in their playful interpretations of the “Star Wars” universe. “Solo” feels like a variation on that, with the wooden Ehrenreich being little more than a living action figure designed to realize a fan-driven fantasy of seeing young Han do his thing.

Except it’s not a form of folk culture; it’s a corporatization of fandom that flattens its appeal. I’ll admit there’s some measure of charm in the heist story lurking at the center of the movie, but would have much preferred to see it set in a galaxy far, far away that none of us have ever visited before.

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