George Lucas’ Star Wars franchise was conjured out of the spirit of mid-century pulp and genre fiction, from Westerns to war films to noir, and it frankly remains as moored in these frameworks over 40 years later. There’s no shame in that. In spirit, pulp is as fine and potentially multiphonic a template for any modern filmmaker as any other, one with secrets left to uncover decades later. And Lucas has done as much as anyone over the ensuing forty years not only to expose the limits of his forebears but to invite their more self-conscious, inquisitive, and socially rambunctious textures, exploring their more contradictory valences and inviting us to consider what really makes ostensibly simplistic mythology tick. The fact that Solo: A Star Wars Story is so indebted to that swashbuckling mid-century spirit is merely a fact of nature, a canvas for good or ill.
That it is bound to the past, then, is not a problem so much as the fact that Solo uses that past regressively, treating it as an unquestioning moral template for a present that calls for new forms of experimentation with its various pasts. That Solo could do anything with its various influences seems off the table for the filmmakers, who (at least the credited ones) seem to have no other interests but paying homage to the original Star Wars films. And, yes, it’s a mediocre homage to Star Wars. But worse, it’s a mediocre pastiche of the classical Hollywood cinema – Westerns, in particular – which Lucas based his moral universe off of.
Certainly, the backward-looking, prequel-focused nature of Solo practically invites, even demands, the film’s simplistic qualities. But Solo is almost embarrassingly wedded to its canon, and the underlying influences it stands upon. The film wrought out of a very publically contested production cycle plays dress-up in gangster and Western attire, questioning neither. Which is fine; Star Wars films don’t have to do anything with their masters. Except Gareth Evans’ fantastically apocalyptic Rogue One from two years ago. And Rian Johnson’s diabolically self-critical one from last year. And most of the other Star Wars films, even Lucas’ much-benighted prequels and their at times laborious mythologies. In fact, one could say that Solo: A Star Wars Story is the most regressive Star Wars film in history. It seems like a retreat into the past, not a serious excavation of it, nor even a playful undertaking with it.
Perhaps that makes it more comfortable, easier to try on for size. But it implies that all we can expect from Star Wars is a movie indebted to known principles, only salvaged because credited director Ron Howard clearly isn’t pretending to buck them, and because in moments like a truly spirited snowbound train heist, he executes on those principles with surprisingly raffish elegance. But for most of its running-time, Solo is running around in circles and going nowhere. While Rian Johnson’s film, often at its own expense, was hell-bent on killing its darlings only to resurrect their self-critical textures, Howard’s film is indebted to a much cleaner, less refractory, more uncritical variation of its corporate forebears, treating Star Wars not as a canvas or toolkit but a kind of mantra, a foundational mythology to remain unquestioned.
And, seemingly, un-loved. Far be it from me to overly-criticize Solo for not questioning its own internal coherence, but the least Howard and crew could have accomplished could be to enjoy the experience. Solo, however, wears its troubled production on its sleeve. It has a clearly arbitrary, act-based narratives, a series of Young Solo adventures tenuously connected by the need to make money on a big-screen even though Steven Spielberg’s Young Indiana Jones television series would have been an obviously better template. And the only real connective tissue for this episodic experience is to see how the young adventurer Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) meets Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and Lando Calrissian (a phenomenally supercilious Donald Glover, clearly the best thing here).
And, of course, our old friends Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), space-pirate Beckett (Woody Harrelson), Val (Thandie Newton), socialist droid L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), and the vile Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany), all of whom have about as much character as I’ve explained here. If the film is self-evidently an attempt to bask in known-unknowns and see how Han became Han, everything else here, including every one of these other characters, is essentially a thin veneer of complication, a hand-wave promising that we’re watching a “real movie” with a plot, a designation meant to make us not hate ourselves for liking the film. Or perhaps from enjoying it more dishonestly.
While critically-minded viewers tired of being horse-fed previous films are keen on disowning Solo for its myriad call-backs and references, I remain unconvinced that removing those pandering attempts would in fact make Solo any less prepackaged for our amusement. If you took out all the inside baseball without questioning the film’s essentially dutiful attitude toward the franchise, what would we actually end up with? Far from an occasion for simple fan-service, you’d have proof that Solo really is a real movie, and that its problems, no less evident, are problems with cinematic storytelling, not fan-service.
To put it more succinctly, the single-scene references to Star Wars history are merely the tips of the iceberg, reminders of a broader problem: how Solo, and by proxy us, remain mostly content to consider our cherished objects as museum pieces to fastidiously dust off, their internal fibers unexposed and their textures merely re-varnished rather than dismantled and analyzed. The problem with this is that with his inaugural films, especially Empire Strikes Back, Lucas did in his own simple way dismantle and scrutinize his influences, exposing a tough-minded critique of the latent fascistic tendencies in individual protagonist worship, the kind of pulp observations on power and achievement that would do Sam Fuller proud. In doing so, Lucas exposed not only the joy of the films he grew up on, but their existential manna. In particular, his early films beg comparison to the forlorn outsider enigma of The Searchers, John Ford’s bold and provocative rustling-up against the limits of American mythology that remains entirely self-aware of the limits of its own vision and equally unsure of how to reconcile the questions it has wandered into, the lesions of American identity it has exposed.
The Searchers fails to resolve what it thinks of as the riddle of the American West, probably because it thinks of American expansion into the West only as an existential riddle in the first place, rather than a brutal and imperialist venture. It is aware only of the tragic failure of John Wayne’s outlaw to exist within society, and totally unalive to the tragedies of Native Americans beset by the system Wayne’s character purports to transcend and see beyond, but which he nonetheless embodies. But the film hesitantly gestures toward an awareness that Wayne’s ex-Confederate renegade, because he nominally refuses to play by the rules of American governance and civilizational decorum, is really nothing more than an embodiment of the mythos of individualism which justified imperialism and masculine chauvinism in the first place.
Lucas’ films, at least, have thoughts about these tensions, and about the wider contradictions in American mythologies. The classical Western protagonist (and the best of those films use the term protagonist loosely) are men without homes who, in their respective films’ more self-critical moments, are revealed to embody more foundational principles of Americana: individualism, lone-wolf achievement, problem-solving errantry. Which is to say: in holding to fantasies of escape from their worlds, these characters only reify the ideologies of individualism that actually construct those worlds. (Rick Blaine is perhaps the most famous such cinematic hero). Comparatively, Solo is vastly more Manichean and binarized; it exhibits no real sense of uncertainty, no hesitant groping for the unstable truths that characterized much of the mid-century Hollywood fiction that Lucas drew from, a fiction vastly more conflicted in its aspirations and ambivalent in its inclinations than a modern Star Wars film with this budget could ever be.
Solo, in other words, refuses the moral ambiguity of films like The Searchers (or even better, the works of Sam Fuller and Sam Peckinpah) in favor of treating the lonely wanderer, the nomad, as an axiomatic moral core, the renegade as a natural law figure who reveals truths beyond which any state or juridical decision can claim to know. This kind of figure casts off the moral architecture of governance only to blindly adhere to more insidious, ostensibly liberated ethical templates predicated on the undeniable virility of the masculine individual who stands in a posture of ironic disenchantment with society, criticizing the world around him without realizing how much a part of that world he is. Ehrenreich is terrific as Han Solo in this film, but the screenplay fails his gestures toward self-critique or toward serious interiority. The script figures the titular character not as a moral quandary (as he was in the first Star Wars) but a saint pretending to be a moral quandary. In his desire to not play by the rules of the world around him, he becomes a moral center of a higher principle that grounds American mythologies of individualism. And bcause this depiction of Han Solo is so one-note, so easily and superficially able to slide into this renegade heroism, the film ultimately ensures that, for all his desire to play by his own rules, he’s really just a footnote in America’s wider moral playbook.