The first hour of “Solo” is pretty damn bleak. The latest salvo in Disney’s ongoing campaign to canonize every interstitial plot detail that George Lucas’ original trilogy left to the imagination (and convert them all into cold hard cash), this new “Star Wars Story” is hamstrung by the saga’s pre-existing mythos from the moment it starts. Whereas “Rogue One” at least had the courtesy to wait a little while before preying on the past — zombie Peter Cushing was literally a dead giveaway of the film’s true intentions — “Solo” leaps towards fan service at light speed. One cutaway shot of Han’s lucky dice is all it takes to give you a bad feeling about this, and it’s almost impressive how consistently the film validates that premonition.
There’s the scene where Han gets his last name. There’s the extended sequence where he meets Chewbacca for the first time (and we learn how a human can talk to a Wookiee, even though the explanation leaves us with more questions than answers). There’s the bit where Han gets his blaster. And of course we see the moment when our hero sits across from Lando Calrissian for a fateful game of Sabacc.
It’s one thing to wink at the fans, but “Solo” twitches at them uncontrollably. The plot doesn’t make room for the fan service, so much as the fan service makes room for the plot. It’s the kind of connect-the-dots storytelling that makes each moment feel like it’s being crossed off a checklist — the kind of context that doesn’t enrich the Star Wars universe so much as it paves over the empty spaces that people once filled with their daydreams. Every scene makes the galaxy a little smaller.
And then we meet L3-37.
The first ostensibly female droid to have a featured role in a Star Wars movie (“like you’d be able to find it!,” she wisecracks to someone looking for her off switch), and easily the most exciting droid to be introduced to the franchise since BB-8, L3 shows up and blows things wide open, like a blast from the Death Star detonating inside Alderaan’s core. The whole vibe changes from the moment she saunters onto screen, a silver giant walking on a pair of stilts that seem way too long for the rest of her makeshift body — it’s like the entire movie is suddenly jolted alive by the idea that it doesn’t have to limit itself to the job that it was designed to do.
A hodgepodge droid who pieced herself together from spare parts she took from other robots, L3 may have been assembled in a factory and programmed for a certain task, but this metal being has a plastic soul. Even in the (too) brief time that we spend with her in her capacity as Lando’s navigator, we see that she’s affected by the world around her in a way that none of the films other characters even can be, as they’re all frozen in the carbonite of the Star Wars canon (“Solo” is the first movie ever made where the robot is the only who isn’t stuck at the bottom of the uncanny valley).
While Han, Lando, and even Chewie are being forced towards their destinies in a fatalistic tractor beam of nostalgia, L3 is charting a different course. And that’s not just because she doesn’t appear in the original trilogy, it’s also because the droid’s identity is defined by her ability and eagerness to decide it for herself. As L3 says in “Last Shot,” an official “Solo” tie-in novel written by Daniel José Older: “[We] become something new with each changing moment of our lives — yes, lives — and look at me: these parts. I did this. So maybe when we say the Maker we’re referring to the whole galaxy, or maybe we just mean ourselves. Maybe we’re our own makers, no matter who put the parts together.”
Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s brilliant performance is crucial to why the character works so well (more on that in a minute), but L3’s nature is also evident in her design. The first thing we notice is her height, which she wears kind of unnaturally — like a low-rider that’s been jacked up on a massive set of rims. Those legs are a clear boost to her capabilities, as well as a nice upgrade to her confidence. As Waller-Bridge explained at the “Solo” press conference: “L3 has turned herself into a unique creature that’s kind of taller, stronger, more independent than she originally was.”
It’s also possible that she’s purposefully made herself more, um, appealing to Lando (not that everyone’s favorite pansexual spaceman appears to be all that picky). In L3’s more vulnerable moments, her hunched T-Rex posture makes her look like a gawky kid who’s wedged her feet into a pair of high heels that have an arch she isn’t ready to handle.
While the exposed metal character is the furthest thing from a Fembot, her weirdly supermodel proportions suggest a buried desire to fit conventional beauty standards. Without becoming an empty lust object for viewers — it’s hard to even understand how she and Lando exercise their very special relationship — L3 emits a conscious sexuality that’s rare in the Star Wars universe, among robots or people (the powerfully virile Watto, of course, being the exception that proves the rule). From dropping double entendres about female genitalia to genuflecting about her love life like she’s at Sunday brunch with the “Sex & the City” crowd (L3 is a total Samantha), the droid feels like a red-blooded human who refuses to be limited by her blueprints.
Of course, L3 wants other robots to share her sense of freedom. “She’s a revolutionary,” Waller-Bridge says of the character, “and she’s completely fearless about that.” It’s all right there in the best line of the movie, when Lando asks L3 if he can get her anything, and the droid pointedly shoots back: “equal rights.” And that retort feeds right into the film’s best scene, as she sprints around the generic mining planet where the MacGuffin has taken the plot, liberating all of the mechanical creatures she can find.
This is where the stone-cold genius of Waller-Bridge’s casting and performance is most undeniable. The “Fleabag” creator (whose adaptation of “Killing Eve” is about to wrap up its phenomenal first season on BBC America) has always relied on the strength of her voice, and she doesn’t slink away from it just because she’s doing a Star Wars movie.
The multi-talented Brit supposedly didn’t even know what a droid was when she auditioned for the part, and that might be a big part of what makes her turn in “Solo” such a breath of fresh air. Alden Ehrenreich and Donald Glover do a fine job of threading the needle between imitation and self-possession (Glover in particular leaves room for his role to grow), but Waller-Bridge is the only member of the cast who isn’t reverent of the material, who isn’t on some perceptible level handcuffed by the knowledge of who these characters were, or will one day become.
In a movie where everything is a bit too familiar, Waller-Bridge’s casual, living-in-the-moment air of whatever stands out like a Jedi in a pod race. It’s not that L3 doesn’t care, just that she doesn’t feel trapped beneath 40 years of cultural baggage. It’s something Waller-Bridge conveys in her unaffected delivery of each line, and in the relaxed, decidedly non-robotic movements of her motion-capture performance. There’s a moment where L3 crosses her legs in the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon and it might be the most natural thing that’s ever happened in one of these wild space cartoons.
A true original in a film full of echoes and reverb, L3-37 isn’t only the most interesting character in “Solo,” she makes everyone around her more interesting by virtue of her presence. The latest Star Wars Story might suggests these spinoffs are a total dead end, but Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s navigator droid provides a perfect template for how to guide them out of trouble: Complicate the characters we already love by introducing new ones who are strong enough to stand alongside them, and maybe even strong enough to guide the saga towards uncharted space.