Retrospective | ‘Solo’ Was Too Small to Withstand the Big-Screen Heat
Last year, I watched all 33-and-counting Godzilla feature films ahead of the release of Godzilla: King of the Monsters. This year, I’ve undertaken a programming schedule that is much more manageable in scope, but even closer to my heart. This is The Road to ‘Rise of Skywalker’ Rewatch!
I’m four weeks into this retrospective now. With each of the preceding installments, spilling my thoughts onto the page was effortless. There’s a lot to talk about with the prequels — the good, the bad, and the downright strange. With Solo: A Star Wars Story, I find myself fumbling. At first, I attributed that to its recency — the movie only came out last year, which makes doing a retrospective on it feel a bit silly. But sixteen months is surely enough time for me to have sorted my thoughts. Rather, I suspect the difficulty I’m having comes down to Solo’s gossamer nature.
Whereas Lucas’ prequel trilogy was a dense, unwieldy and unusual thing that can be picked apart and examined by media critics seemingly without end, Solo is no more and no less than the sum of its parts. It’s a straightforward adventure that, in many ways, is more airtight than the Star Wars movies which chronologically precede it. Yet it feels so much shallower. Sometimes I almost forget it exists. I had hoped that Solo’s release would finally put an end to six months of exhausting online discourse about The Last Jedi, but while Solo came and went in a blip, people are still debating Rian Johnson’s penultimate Saga entry two years later. Solo is the only Star Wars movie to have been anything less than a megaton blockbuster at the box office, and its disappointing haul was made worse by expensive reshoots that resulted in this lightweight story becoming the most expensive picture in the series’ history. But I’d still sooner show it to the uninitiated than I would any of the prequels. The bottom line is that Solo could never quite compare favorably to the other movies in the series, not because of how it’s put together but because it’s just too small to live up to the weight and expectation that comes with the descriptor of “Star Wars feature film.” Solo does feel like a very familiar part of the Star Wars experience— just not the big-screen part.
You see, when I was growing up during Star Wars’ 1990s renaissance, the original trilogy movies were the bedrock foundation of a much larger corpus of fiction. Comics like Tales of the Jedi and the graphic novel Dark Empire expanded the Star Wars universe both forward and backwards in time. Video games like LucasArt’s clever TIE Fighter and Dark Forces gave us a look at what life was like not for the mythic heroes of the films, but for the grunts who had to do the dirty work on both sides of galactic conflict. Dozens of licensed novels penned by popular SF authors of the day explored the trials of a fledgling New Republic after the fall of the Empire, and gave names and intricate backstories to some of the characters we might’ve only seen for a few seconds in places like the cantina in A New Hope, or Jabba’s palace in Return of the Jedi. I tore through all of this Expanded Universe fiction with aplomb. I lived it and breathed it when I was a kid. An important part of my conception of Star Wars has always been those smaller stories tucked into the corners of its settings. And Solo is just that — one of those paperback Del Rey licensed novels, in big-budget movie form.
There are some important stylistic distinctions in Solo that follow suit. From the point of view of our chronological rewatch, we’ve just finished Episodes I-III. What began as a lighthearted, if bizarre, children’s space fantasy in The Phantom Menace took a late hard turn into tragic space opera with Revenge of the Sith. But throughout the first three installments of the series, there’s a consistent vernacular of old-fashioned stylization — retro scene wipes, the romantic John Williams score, the injection of vaudevillian slapstick. Everything is blocked and filmed in a stagey, theatrical way, lots of locked-off wide shots, as if everything is unfolding on a proscenium before the audience. The plots revolve around powerful people in high places, the movers and shakers of the universe — queens, senators, Jedi. Much of our time is spent in the galactic capital, Coruscant. We are left on an uncertain note at the end of Sith, with Anakin trapped within the durasteel visage of Darth Vader, and Obi-Wan hiding on Tatooine while he watches young Luke grow up from a distance. What could possibly happen next? Where is this grand saga going?
Enter Solo. Our first indication that this is heading in a completely different direction is that there is no opening scroll, no Star Wars main theme. The familiar blue text that opens every installment with “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” instead continues, to inform us of the thriving state of the criminal underworld during the Empire’s reign. Our first image is an abstract one, a few frames of flickering light and an electric crackle.
This first shot is quite telling. In media theory, there’s two ways to build an audience’s understanding of spacial relations in a sequence: Deductive and inductive sequencing. “Deductive” editing flow is the consistent purview of the enumerated Star Wars “Skywalker Saga” entries. Owing to their consciously retrograde style, these films will begin a new scene with a wipe to a wide establishing shot, of an exotic locale or an imposing, enormous vessel. They will then cut to an interior wide, then to a shot of our principal actors in the scene, who will begin to deliver their dialog. In other words, the Saga films begin almost every scene from the widest possible vantage and track inwards, which has a straightforward grounding logic to it in that it’s always clear where you are before the narrative begins to move forward. This is how classical Hollywood told its stories, and it is particularly associated with grand epics where you want to show off your expansive sets and casts of thousands.
But with the rising popularity of television, which was stuck with the technical limitations of tiny screens and fuzzy, indistinct analog transmissions — not to mention increasing interest in a postmodern aesthetic that reflected a less hierarchical view of the world — another form of scene-stitching became popular in the latter half of the twentieth century. Inductive editing, as opposed to the deductive editorial approach, might start a scene with one curious, attention-grabbing image. A scene might, for example, open on a broken watch in a pool of blood. We then cut to another shot, of a limp hand with a gun in it. Then a security camera in the corner of the room, buzzing quietly. Then we hear a scream, offscreen. Finally we cut to the wide shot bringing all these disparate elements into relational view: the body of an apparent suicide victim on the ground, the security camera panopticon watching overhead, and the cleaning woman who’s just had the fright of her life. Implicit to the viewer is a sense that something’s amiss, that there’s more to this story than what we’ve been shown. This style of scene structuring is more sensual, lingering over specific evocative images and inviting the audience to have to work, like a detective, to put the story logic together in their head. It’s livelier, a little less controlled, and certainly more contemporary-feeling than the nostalgic film grammar George Lucas limited himself to with his six Star Wars films.
I have no idea if Solo director Ron Howard¹, who has a reputation as a genial if unartful journeyman, was thinking about any of this. But there’s an aesthetic of differentiation with this film (as well as with Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One) which operates as a kind of revisionist take on the Galaxy Far, Far Away. Gone are the strange men in robes delivering stilted dialog. Gone, for the most part, are lightsabers, or the Force, or any sense of mysticism. Gone are the lush vistas and exotic locales, replaced with claustrophobic fog-filled valleys and corridors. In Solo, our characters speak with the loose swagger of cowboys. We’re no longer in the gentrified halls of Coruscanti power: we’re in the frontier beyond the reaches of Imperial law, a world of battered machines and morally ambiguous players. To paraphrase Jango Fett in Attack of the Clones, we’re in the domain of simple men just trying to make their way through the universe.
Solo’s nature as a piece of Expanded Universe literature blown up for the big screen is manifest throughout. There’s a million little Easter eggs and lore droplets in throwaway lines, everything from Beckett’s admission of having killed Aurra Sing, a bounty hunter visible in a single shot of The Phantom Menace, to Emilia Clarke’s Qi’ra having been trained in the martial arts of Teräs Käsi.
Even its inclusion of Mimban, the foggy, muddy world where Han first meets Chewbacca during an Imperial invasion, is steeped in old-school Star Wars lore. Mimban was the primary setting of the very first Star Wars spin-off book, Alan Dean Foster’s Splinter of the Mind’s Eye. Lucas had tasked Foster with coming up with a story that could be adapted into a low-budget sequel film in the event the first movie was only a moderate success. Hence, Mimban became a planet of pea-soup fog, all the better to cheaply realize on a soundstage. I have to admit, it tickles the nerd in me to see Mimban recanonized here in such accurate fashion.
Most notably, the movie’s denoument includes a setup involving Maul — a character last seen in the feature films being bisected, and apparently killed, by Obi-Wan Kenobi twenty years before the events of Solo. Viewers of “The Clone Wars” and “Rebels” had long known by 2018 that The Phantom Menace was only the beginning rather than the end of Maul’s story, but it was still a shock to see Lucasfilm going all-in on that kind of ancillary storyline stuff without explanation in one of the main movies, which have to play to such a broad audience of non-diehard fans.
With Solo’s box office dissapointment, it’s unlikely we’ll get a resolution to the Maul/Qi’ra storyline in a motion picture sequel. Instead, I suspect we’ll almost certainly see that storyline resolve in one form or another on Disney+, the upcoming streaming service which is launching in November with the much-anticipated Mandalorian series, set six years after Return of the Jedi.
Frankly, Disney+ is exactly where the Solo story should’ve began. With “The Mandalorian,” a Rogue One prequel series, and a Ewan McGregor-starring Obi-Wan series all in the works for the platform, there’s understandable interest on the part of Lucasfilm in exploring the scrubbier corners of the Star Wars universe in a context that can deliver the deep-lore goods for dedicated fans, without the immense pressure of having to do boffo business in global markets that accompanies any major motion picture. Han Solo never wanted to be the biggest hero in the universe, anyway. He just wanted to collect his reward and get on with living.
And if you liked this, check out my video essay on the Galaxy Far, Far Away, Let’s Get Drunk and Talk About ‘Star Wars’:
 Howard famously took over directing duties from the original Solo directorial team of Chris Miller and Phil Lord after their working style clashed with producer Kathleen Kennedy’s wishes for the production and the film. It’s hard to say with any certainty what of the finished product is Howard’s and what is the original team’s, but enough of the movie was reshot that Miller and Lord did not lobby for co-director credit.