Roundtable: Solo (2018)

The First Star Wars Flop

Aren: Is this the first Star Wars flop? After all the hype and hoopla surrounding The Force Awakens, Rogue One, and The Last Jedi, Solo has come out of the gates at half-speed. Through a week and a half of release, the film has underperformed expectations by about 50 percent and will likely end up as the only Disney Star Wars film to make under $300 million at the domestic box office. Add that up to the fan backlash after the controversy of The Last Jedi and we have reached the inevitable point where a Star Wars film is no longer guaranteed to be a blockbuster.

Anders: Simply on the level of box office and fan reaction, Solo will definitely change the way Star Wars is perceived as on ongoing series by the general public and large swathes of fandom. I think it’s definitely a part of the backlash to The Last Jedi, as misguided as I may find the reactions to that film; but it’s also a function of a number of other factors, including the release so soon after the previous film (five months) and the highly publicized production problems the film faced.

But I do think it was inevitable that one of these films would flop. Even if Solo came out at Christmas, even if it had no production problems and were universally acclaimed, at some point in the future one of the Star Wars films would underperform. Disney’s decision to spin Star Wars on forever and ever has lead to viewer fatigue. Star Wars, despite my own personal feelings and general enjoyment of all the films so far, is now no different from any other series. So, basically, I think it was inevitable that we’d come to this; Solo has perhaps just brought the fatigue earlier than Disney would have liked.

Anton: So, are you guys saying it’s a flop, or that people will perceive it as one? Let’s get your straight answers.

Aren: From a pure economics take, it’s a flop. It will not make the money to justify its production costs and the audience is lukewarm on it, at best.

However, I think it’s a fun film. I wish more people were excited about it because it’s the sort of light Hollywood entertainment that I’d like to see more of, even if it’s easily the weakest Star Wars film. It has little-to-no substance, but a substantial amount of charm.

Anders: Yes, you can spin this, but it’s a major financial underperformer, even if I think it’s a more enjoyable film than some do.

Anton: Solo dropped a lot at the box office this past weekend (it’s second in release), so I’d peg it at coming in around $200–250 million, domestically, which is very bad for a Star Wars movie and not nearly enough to cover the costs for a huge studio tentpole these days (with the insane marketing costs on top of huge budgets).  

As with The Last Jedi, the responses of viewers seem pretty mixed, but they don’t seem to be as extreme either way. Some people hate Solo, but perusing online comments suggest the feelings are less that it’s blasphemy, and more that it’s simply unwanted. Others seem to like it fine, but I also don’t seen any impassioned defenders (The Last Jedi had a lot of woke-love and critical admirers, after all).

My take on Solo: it was enjoyable, I’d watch it at least a few more times, but I’d also be fine if it never existed. In no way does it feel canonical, but I’m happy to enjoy it as a sort of Extended Universe episode.

All in all, I have to concede that it looks like Solo, as a Star Wars movie, is going to be both a box office and audience flop. For all the strong detractors of both the prequels and The Last Jedi, all those movies made good coin, so you could never honestly label them as flops. Worst of all, Solo is the first Star Wars movie to invite a shrug from the general public. I think it’s an indictment of Mouse House Star Wars on a lot of levels.

Does Han Solo Work without Harrison Ford? And How About the Rest of the Cast?

Anton: Alden Ehrenreich does probably as good a job as one could trying to be Harrison Ford.

Anders: I like Alden Ehrenreich. He’s a good actor, with charm and charisma aplenty. I loved him in the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar! And he’s very good in Francis Ford Coppola’s underrated and underseen Tetro. And, no surprise, he’s very good here, bringing swagger and a winking charm to the role.

Anton: Maybe a little more wink and charm than badass swagger.

Anders: He plays Han Solo as we’ve all come to know him: the rogue with a heart of gold. But, I have to say that part of the reservations I have about this film come down to the character of Han as conceived here and as written in the screenplay.

First, there’s the fact that he’s the first actor stepping into Harrison Ford’s shoes, and he inevitably is going to be measured against that giant of late-20th century cinema. It’s an impossible task for even the most talented of young actors. Part of this is that Ford’s own stardom is so tied to the role of Han Solo (and also Indiana Jones, which should give pause to anyone at Disney tasked with the inevitable recasting and rebooting of that series). The closest analogue is Sean Connery as James Bond. Connery was Bond to a great number of people, and like George Lazenby, poor Ehrenreich faces following in the footsteps of an icon. But here even more so: Bond had an established character in the Fleming 007 novels before the film series. Han Solo was formed out of the original Star Wars. The character is as much Ford’s creation as Lucas’s.

I like that they didn’t go with a look-a-like. I honestly don’t care if they had gotten the greatest actor of our generation (Leonardo DiCaprio) or resurrected River Pheonix (there are hints of his young Indiana Jones in Ehrenreich’s performance): it was a doomed proposition, so I don't fault the young actor.

Aren: There’s a definite Leo DiCaprio edge to Ehrenreich’s performance. I can sense it in his voice, especially in the early scenes.

Anton: Hm, I don’t get the Leo comparison, but I really like the River Pheonix connection, since the prologue to The Last Crusade really is our best dress rehearsal for a new young actor playing Han.

I think the Bond comparison is also interesting. I think after Connery, it was similarly hard for people to separate the actor from the character, but since then we have since then, we know it can work for an iconic character. I think it’s more difficult to recast Han Solo, since so much of his character is created by Ford’s performance, and not just how it’s written.

Aren: In general, I like Alden Ehrenreich’s take, although it’s hardly iconic like Harrison Ford’s. That being said, I don’t find Han Solo such a sacred figure that a slightly-different take on the character is aggravating. Ehrenreich’s Han Solo is different in several keys ways and I don’t think that’s a dealbreaker.

Han Solo has never been my favourite Star Wars character (I’d probably go with Obi-Wan Kenobi), nor has he been my favourite Harrison Ford character (which is Indiana Jones), so watching a Han Solo who does not act entirely the same as he does in A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back—and let’s be honest, Han in Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens is very different than the early roguish Han—doesn’t bother me.

Anton: Overall, Ehrenreich did a fine job of the Han Solo, and what I dislike about the film’s version of Han is more a matter of writing. We could have used a bit more of Han’s darkside, since we want him to become the hero later on. But it also presents an interesting dynamic.

Anders: I’m basically with you here. Ehrenreich is not the problem, more the story’s conception of Han.

Anton: In terms of the other characters, I like Woody Harrelson’s Beckett (I pretty much always like Harrelson these days). Thandie Newton was also good, although her character is sadly cut out abruptly. Westworld and Solo have given her a nice career resurrection. I also thought Emilia Clarke was good, and I’d be happy if she found more roles in other worlds of fandom.

Anders: Yes. Harrelson’s Beckett is exactly the kind of character that we all wanted to see in a movie about smugglers and rogues. Harrelson has an uncanny ability to both totally be himself, but also feel at home in the universe here.

As for Clarke, she branches out from being pigeonholed as the “Khaleesi” from Game of Thrones, but, as those who have seen Solo will know, her casting relies on our understanding that for all her beauty and grace, she’s a tough customer. Don’t cross her!

Anton: In general, Donald Glover nails Lando, although it’d be nice to see him as more than a punchline in the movie. Can we get a Lando movie? After all, he’s a hell of a pilot in Jedi and more than just a cool dude. Lando is sadly too one-dimensional as written in the film.

Aren: I think Donald Glover is the best at copying the performance of his predecessor, in this case, the distinct swagger and charm of Billy Dee Williams’ Lando Calrissian. That being said, I agree with you that I’d like a Lando movie as he’s restrained here to being merely a supporting character who mostly pops in for jokes. I don’t mind that. This is a Han Solo movie after all, and not a Lando movie, but I would love to see a standalone film for Glover’s rendition of the character.

Anders: Yes, Glover is no surprise as Lando, but I also share the wish that he’d be given a bit more to do. Lando was always a more interesting and complex character than the pop-culture memory of him as a "Blacksploitation" caricature. Glover does try to give him some complexity, but sadly it’s mostly in relation to the bit that to my mind is the film’s weakest aspect: L3-37.

Aren: L3 is bad. I take back my comments about Rose Tico being woke-bait in The Last Jedi. At least she has some motivation for her actions. L3 is a cynical construction to play for progressive audiences, which isn’t funny at all. When she dies, I was pretty relieved, especially as she can’t appear in any standalone Lando film that might come about after this one. However, I will say that I don’t mind her becoming a part of the Falcon. It might explain some of the weird comments in other Star Wars movies about the Falcon almost being a character with a prickly personality.

Anders: L3 is bad precisely because she comes across as a cynical construction, which I don’t believe Rose was (she’s so damn earnest, I kinda believe there would be people like her in the Resistance and I like her fine). But, not only is L3’s conception cynical, but if one accepts L3 as a kind of representation of the oppressed, her fate is horrific and it raises all kinds of disturbing notions about the droids in the other films that basically makes all of our favourite characters slave-owners. I think the question of droid consciousness and personhood is interesting and can be explored, but this is not the way to do it.

Anton: Oddly, I didn’t hate L3 as much as you guys. I thought she was funny sometimes, annoying other times, but I really didn’t like her relationship with Lando, and Lando’s sorrow for her was the worst part of Glover’s performance.

The droid rebellion reminded me of the Droid comics that I used to read, which often did raise up some questions about droid personhood and enslavement. And in even the original Star Wars has the line about the Mos Eisley Cantina not serving “their kind,” which would have played with a very definite connotation in 1977. I always got the sense that the droids with more advanced personalities could develop personhood if they were allowed to build memories, which is why most droids are routinely memory wiped. And restraining bolts to prevent them from running away.

But, as you both point out, the worst part of L3 is that it telegraphs its progressive politics in big, obvious signs.

Genre: What Kind of (Star Wars) Movie is This?

Aren: After my first viewing of Solo, I had a lingering feeling that I’d just seen a classic Hollywood blockbuster in the style of Humphrey Bogart vehicles in the 1940s like Sahara or even Casablanca. Like those films, Solo doesn’t take itself too seriously. Characters have heart-to-heart conversations, but there is never a world-weariness, nor a self-serious reflectiveness in the conversations. The film is more interested in having entertaining, funny characters inhabit cool-looking locales than in making some grand statement about sacrifice like Rogue One or tradition like The Last Jedi.

After my second viewing, I’m more convinced than before that Solo is deliberately fashioned after Casablanca. When Star Wars initially came out in 1977, critics were quick to compare Harrison Ford’s Han Solo to roguish heroes of the past, especially the kind played by Humphrey Bogart in films like Casablanca and To Have and Have Not. In those two films, Bogie is the hero, but he works hard to bury his moral impulses and pretends not to care about the good fight against fascism. In Star Wars, Han Solo similarly works hard to bury his impulses for heroism and only embraces them in the final moments in order to save Luke from Darth Vader.

In criticism of Solo, such as David Edelstein’s review in New York Magazine, critics have pointed out that Alden Ehrenreich’s Solo doesn’t have the hard edge roguishness of Harrison Ford’s. They have criticized the movie for making Han be too plainly the good guy. I acknowledge that he lacks some of the disaffected wiseassery that Harrison Ford has, but I think this is deliberate. I think the film’s approach to the character makes more sense if you look back to Casablanca and view Solo as essentially a feature-length version of Rick Blaine and Ilsa Lazlo’s time in Paris in that movie, when Rick was uncomplicatedly the good guy.

In the Paris flashback, Rick is a good guy who has dreams of fighting fascism. It’s only after he is betrayed by Isla when she leaves him at the train station that he becomes disaffected, linking her abandonment with resistance. In Solo, Han thinks he’s “a terrible person,” but as his actions regarding Emphet Nest and Dryden Vos show, he actually wants to do the right thing. However, Beckett betrays him and he has to kill him, murdering the man who saved him from the Imperial Military and trained him to be a smuggler. As well, Qi’ra, who’s the film’s version of Ilsa, abandons him to become the head of the Crimson Dawn, showing Han that he can no longer trust his emotional impulses.

It’s also important to note that we have Han shoot Beckett without Beckett even drawing, as it recreates the sacred (and canonically-slippery) moment from the Original Trilogy where Han shoots Greedo in the cantina. Han in the early moments of Solo could not have done this, but after being betrayed, he has transitioned to becoming the man who can kill Greedo and walk away nonchalantly.

Anton: For the record, that’s also the most badass moment for Han in the movies, the way he so slowly and stiffly walks away from the table and Greedo’s charred body.

Aren: Exactly. It’s basically all of people’s conceptions of Han Solo as roguish badass in one moment. In essence, Solo truly is an origin story about how a well-meaning scumrat on the streets of Corellia becomes a roguish smuggler. By the end of Solo, Alden Ehrenreich essentially is Harrison Ford.

Anders: Agreed, I think you’re spot on in your analysis, Aren.

Anton: The only thing I’ll criticize, Aren, is your suggestion that Casablanca lacks genuine world-weariness. But that’s an argument for another time.

Aren: It doesn’t lack it, but it doesn’t belabour it in a way that modern films do. It’s still entertainment at its heart.

Anders: That said, as you also note, the original film already has that kind of Casablanca aspect to it (something noted by Umberto Eco in his writings). I’d have been just as happy with a film that was more of a spin-off, less an origin story. After a bit, the connections to throw-away lines in the original films, for instance, what Han’s dice mean, what making the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs means, why C-3PO says “I don’t know where your ship learned to communicate, but it has the most peculiar dialect…” in Empire, etc, become a bit much. It’s even more guilty of the “connect the dots” plotting that people (mostly wrongly) accused the prequels of.

Anton: For the most part, I agree, Anders. Connecting one or two dots would have been tolerable. But did we need everything suggested at in the Original Trilogy?

I think its origin story generic aspects are important. Disney is trying to build and extend the Star Wars franchise, and so they are duplicating one of the main forms in superhero movies. As an origin story, it makes a bit more sense to connect all the dots in Solo, the way a Batman or Superman or Spider-Man origin story will cover certain main beats. And like those origin movies, it has the same limitation of the audience knowing where things will end up.

Speaking of origin stories, we could also compare it to Casino Royale, particularly for its ending, which is similar in that it is the explanation of why the character is the way he is later on. As Casino Royale explains why Bond distrusts women, we can only assume that this movie’s betrayal explains in part Han’s future reluctance to be a hero.

Connections to Other Films (Star Wars and Otherwise)

Anton: One thing I do like about Solo is all the nods to other, non-Star Wars films. Lucas’s movies are rife with allusions, and the new Star Wars movies have followed suit to different degrees.

I enjoyed how the young Han and Qi’ra are basically street urchins working for a big boss, Lady Proxima, like the Artful Dodger and the boss Fagin in Dickens’ Oliver Twist. I actually would have liked a bit more of the story on Corellia, since it was intriguing with its shipbuilding. A nod to Dickens seems particularly apt since many of the aliens of Star Wars have always struck me as being rather Dickensian in how their appearances and personalities often reflect each other and exhibit a few pronounced markers.

In terms of allusions to other Star Wars movies, I like Han and Chewbacca’s meeting. It didn’t dawn on me while watching, but it wonderfully anticipates Han and Chewie’s reunion in Jabba’s palace in Return of the Jedi.

Aren: There are a lot of movie references here, as well as references to esoteric bits of the Expanded Universe and Star Wars merchandising. The trench warfare scene recalls 1930s movies about World War I, with wisecracking people in the trenches and various exploits happening in the midst of war. The tracking shot where Han is trying to get Beckett’s attention is deliberately referencing the tracking shot in the trenches in Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory.

Anders: This is the first Star Wars film that, for all its connections to the original films in the presence of Han and Chewie and origins for every little thing I complained about above, feels like one of the old Expanded Universe (EU) stories. I enjoyed that aspect of it, because it showed us new planets that are mentioned in books and stuff, like Corellia and the spice mines of Kessel. I liked that stuff.

This is perhaps my strangest compliment to the film: I liked it for the way it had the disposability of the EU novels and other spin-offs. For all its origin story work, it’s easily the least essential Star Wars film so far. It’s a romp and that’s all it needed to be. I think the marketing and expectations were too much, but it served what I was looking for, which was the filmic equivalent of one of those old anthology story collections like Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina.

Anton: Or the early novels, The Adventures of Han Solo, or some of the comics from the 70s and 80s. I like that framing of the film, Anders, and it certainly helps me to enjoy it. The film’s disposability is both a knock, meaning it’s not an event or canonically important, but it also liberates the viewer to just enjoy it as light entertainment, and then let it go.   

The Makers: Miller and Lord, Ron Howard, the Kasdans

Aren: Are there any moments in the film where you can suss out the influence of Lord and Miller? I thought that the scene where Han and Chewie fight in the pit offer glimpses of the sort of broad comedy that we could’ve gotten with Christopher Miller and Phil Lord, even though I have no idea whether this footage was reshot or not. Han trying to speak Shryiiwook is pretty silly, but I also thought it works really well as a joke.

Anders: I suspect that not much really changed, since it was still Kasdan’s script. I’m hard pressed to imagine what Lord and Miller would have brought that wouldn’t have made it feel like Robot Chicken: Star Wars. So, I’m fine with Howard’s direction for the most part. It serves its purpose.

Anton: Honestly, I didn’t really think of Lord and Miller while watching the movie. I was never a fan of them getting a Star Wars movie, and I was happy to see them go. I was pleased with the selection of Ron Howard, a one-time protege of Lucas, and he did a serviceable job here.

What do you guys think about the Kasdans writing the movie? For one, I’ll say they did a decent job, but I also think it’s evidence that maybe Kasdan isn’t the amazing writer adding so much quality to Lucas’s feeble scripts that many fans have spun out before. I mean, I think Solo would suggest that we can’t just chalk Empire up to Kasdan’s script.

Aren: Agreed. I think some of the generic influences are from Lawrence Kasdan, as he’s definitely one of those film brats who has a wide knowledge of film history and who likes to reference movies in his work. I also think that you’re hitting on something interesting regarding Kasdan, which is that fans are probably misguided when attributing all the successes of Empire to his scriptwork. It’s true that Empire probably has the best dialogue of the Original Trilogy, but it also starts to soften the character of Han Solo and make him less of a badass than he is in A New Hope. Perhaps we should start to view Kasdan as contributing more to the romantic Han than the roguish Han, which then makes sense in his work on Solo since this is clearly a Han Solo who is infatuated with a girl.

What do you think, Anders?

Anders: I think you’re absolutely right that fans regularly overpraise Kasdan and minimize the contributions of Lucas on Empire and Return of the Jedi. But this isn’t the first time we can see that Kasdan, despite working on two of my favourite screenplays of all time, is mortal: Exhibit A - Dreamcatcher (2003). I’ll take the opportunity here to push The Secret History of Star Wars by Michael Kaminski, a book that anyone who wants to have an opinion on the writing and genesis of the Star Wars films should read.

Cinema is always a more collaboratory venture than our adherence to auteurism would have us believe (obviously creators do leave their mark on films, but it’s never as pure as we make it out to be). In the case of Solo, we can see how the auteur narrative can backfire, leaving the audiences to play detective in piecing together whose influence makes a film good or bad. Everyone comes into it with various investments and opinions about actors, writers, and directors; even about studios and marketing. It all plays into our response. It’s impossible to strip it all away, but it’s definitely a shame that Solo, probably the most fun I’ve had at a film in a while, should become the flashpoint for all these various beefs. In the end, I was happy to take a little side trip to A Galaxy Far, Far Away… this summer and I’ll leave it at that.