In Defense of ‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’

I haven’t done one of these “In Defense of” posts in a while, where I tell you why I like a thing that the popular consensus has written off and condemned as garbage. This time it’s the Star Wars movie that carefully (perhaps too carefully) tied up just about every little detail of Han Solo’s early life, from where he got his blaster  to how he got his name. If you haven’t seen it, everything from here on down is chock full o’ spoilers, so proceed at your own peril.

And yeah, I agree, we didn’t really need to shlep through all those clockwork plot points, didn’t need to be walked painstakingly through a detailed demonstration of why the famous “Kessel Run” really does involve parsecs, is not either a dumb mistake by the screenwriters or a dumb mistake by a bluffing Han Solo. In that regard, the entire film could be written off as an extended companion to the first 10 minutes of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, straight-up continuity-wanking, a lot of work put into answering questions that only obsessive completists ever cared about.

Donald Glover as Lando Calrissian
Donald Glover as Lando Calrissian, the charming scoundrel he always was.

But none of that matters, because there are a couple of other stories going on in the margins that are worth looking at. Donald Glover channeling Billy Dee Williams as young con-man Lando Calrissian is also a major selling point, and even though Alden Ehrenreich doesn’t quite capture Harrison Ford to the same degree, they do both nail the often-contentious nature of their friendship/rivalry to a far greater degree than I expected, and it’s a lot of fun.

Paul Bettany as Dryden, Woody Harrelson as Beckett
Dryden Vos is not a nice man.

Paul Bettany’s turn as creepy mobster Dryden Vos, a rising figure in the Empire’s criminal underworld, is also far more effective than expected, and sets up a lot of things I am really disappointed were never picked up in any of the subsequent Star Wars films, but oh well.

And then there’s the doomed love story of Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and Val (Thandie Newton), along with the fairly obvious but never explicitly-stated assumption that Enfys Nest (Erin Kellyman), leader of the Cloud Riders, a band of pirates-turned-rebels, is their daughter. Through this family reunion, we get to see a bit of the formation of the Rebel Alliance, and that’s pretty well done. There’s also a nifty Old West train robbery sequence that’s an effective sample of that genre, even if the actual in-story reasons for it are sometimes silly as hell.

Thandie Newton as Val, Woody Harrelson as Beckett, Alden Ehrenreich as Han Solo.
Val and Beckett plan casing the joint with Han.

There is a secondary message beneath the family drama of Beckett, Val, and Enphys; the parents, acting primarily out of personal survival and avarice, are cutting for themselves a slice of a very corrupt pie, attacking the Empire and carrying out arguably terrorist actions against it, not out of any political or ethical motive, not as a stand against tyranny, but simply to get something for themselves by “stickin’ it to the Man.” Their daughter takes their cause a step further, seeking not only to profit from damaging the Empire, but desiring to take it down entirely. Somehow, the two criminals raised a kid with a conscience, and gave her the tools to exercise it. That’s something some older Americans might want to think about with regard to their politically active children and grandchildren.

Emilia Clarke as Qi'ra, Phoebe Waller-Bridge as L3-37.
Two women on very different paths.

The real selling point for Solo, the reason I’m writing this defense of the film, lies in the parallel storylines of the droid L3-37 and Han’s lost love, Qi’ra. I’m half-convinced that their arcs are a large part of why the film was made in the first place, and I suspect (without any evidence, call it a hunch) at least some of the last-minute retooling of the film by replacement director Ron Howard involved expanding these two storylines and the parallels between them.

L3-37 and Lando
L3-37, the heart of ‘Solo’.

L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) is a droid, arguably the most unique droid seen in the Star Wars Universe to date. They left her backstory out of the film, but if you’re paying attention, you can glean some of it from observation. L3-37 is kind of a weird-looking droid, with a barrel-body, domed head, and spindly arms and boxy legs, and there is a reason for that; she began as an astromech droid like R2-D2. At some point, L3 realized that in order to fight for equal rights for artificial life forms like herself, she would need to confront humanoids on their own terms, in their language; she installed a voice system scavenged from somewhere so that she could speak human languages and deliver her message to the people in their own tongue. She then modified her own body to take on a biped form, because humanoid droids like C-3PO are accorded more respect, treated more like people, than the more utilitarian droids are. Her story is one of hope and determination, of lifting herself up in order to be able to better defend herself and others and improve things for her people. Ultimately she dies fighting for that cause.

Qi'ra and Han
A girl’s gotta do what she can to survive.

In contrast to L3-37’s story of selfless heroism, there’s Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), Han Solo’s childhood sweetheart in Lady Proxima’s very Dickensian Corellian underworld. Qi’ra nearly escapes Corellia with Han, but circumstances result in her being left behind. Like L3-37, Qi’ra is on the bottom rung of civilization, and like her, Qi’ra has to make choices to survive. Unlike L3, Qi’ra’s choices never involve consideration for anyone else, nor do they ever involve looking past the immediate need of the moment. She has no cause to fight for except her own immediate personal survival. Each time she faces a decision, she chooses short-term self-preservation, each choice requiring a compromise, a selling-off of some part of herself. She sells herself into an abusive relationship with Vos, and then sells herself into ever-higher levels of involvement in his criminal network, all the while convincing herself that she is still a good person, still the same person, when in fact she has remodeled herself every bit as much as L3 has, only without any awareness of the fact. That is, until she discovers that she’s in too deep, and her final choice is to step into Vos’ role and take over as a crimelord in his place. This decision is the first time she has ever even come close to accepting the fact that she has become evil, and when faced with the decision to pull back or lean in, she leans in hard.

These two arcs provide a contrast between one who has consciously chosen to become a hero, and one who has unconsciously allowed herself to drift into being a villain, to follow C. S. Lewis’ gradual road to hell, “the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts,” and it may be the most important message in the Star Wars canon.

Qi'ra and Chewbacca

This is the message reflected in Luke’s choice to deny his family destiny, in Anakin’s earlier choice to look for shortcuts to power. It’s the real-world application of Yoda’s warnings about the appeal of the Dark Side, told in absolutely non-supernatural terms. The Light and Dark Sides of the Force do not always involve manipulating energy, controlling minds, or random acts of telekinesis; they also involve small decisions that add up to big ones, principles, and the uses of one’s own personal power, however limited, to affect change to whatever small degree we can, or impulsively and selfishly responding to immediate circumstances without regard to consequences.

That’s the real takeaway of the entire Star Wars franchise, and it has never been more clearly illustrated than in the contrapunto played out between L3-37 and Qi’ra.

And that’s why Solo: A Star Wars Story is a Star Wars Story, and one well worth a second look.

Solo: A Star Wars Story

8 Comments

  1. Le Messor

    I’ve never said Solo is a terrible movie. Just not a great one. which is kind of a problem in itself; the original trilogy were great movies; so why do none of the follow-ups live up to them?
    In fact, the only reason you won’t see a copy on my shelves is… wait, why isn’t it on my shelves? I seriously just looked expecting to see it, and it isn’t there. Must’ve lent my copy out.

    Part of the problem that you’ve managed to hide in this article is that it’s so visually dark and dull. I don’t know how you did it, but you’ve found a series of photos for this article that make the movie look brightly-lit and in full colour; when the image I’m seeing for the second trailer you linked to ‘The Train’ – some black picture with blue highlights that I think shows a guy pointing a gun at somebody – is what the whole movie looks like. I can’t even tell what I’m looking at throughout.

    Also, I remember once a guy came up to me in church and asked me what happened in the movie. I couldn’t answer; I didn’t know. And we’d both seen the movie with the same group of people. (I’d only seen it once at the time.)
    ~ But the target audience for Star Wars is kids.
    Yeah, the guy in question was about 6. Not reaching them, either.

    Enfys Nest (Erin Kellyman), leader of the Cloud Riders, a band of pirates-turned-rebels, is their daughter.
    I never noticed or thought of that. (Or did I? Can’t remember.) I was too busy wondering what Hiccup’s mother was doing there.
    http://atomicjunkshop.com/how-to-train-solos-dragon/

  2. Edo Bosnar

    I’m with you on liking Solo; I think it’s a perfectly fine SF-action film, with most of the cast providing very solid performances. I didn’t give any thought to the ‘compare & contrast’ aspect of L3-37 and Qi’ra, but I think that’s a valid way to consider the movie.
    As I noted in the comments to one of Le Messor’s posts last year that touched on Solo, I actually liked the Star Wars world depicted in Solo better than the main, ‘numbered’ movies. Specifically, I liked the rebels as pirates and scavengers and also the fact that someone addressed the disturbing fact that droids – as entirely sentient beings – are basically slaves and fomented an uprising. (At another site a while back, I only half jokingly suggested that I’d love it if one of the “off-year” Star Wars movies headlined IG-88 leading the droids into a rebellion.)
    I’d love to see more movies with those bandit rebels and insurgent droids eventually banding together to fight the Empire and the corrupt criminal organizations that grease its wheels while enriching themselves.

  3. Jeff Nettleton

    Objection! Counselor is leading the witness! The early segments of the film are so badly shot and the idea of Han Solo in the infantry, not a flyer goes against everything that Lucas created or discussed as backstory, in both early script drafts and interviews, plus approved literary works. It goes against the character seen in the originals and also flies in the face of the stormtroopers being the Empire’s infantry. It don’t work, mate.

    That is the problem I have with the film; the first third or so just doesn’t work as backstory for the character we have seen. The other 2/3 I don’t have massive problems with, other than I was bored in several scenes and could barely remember most of the characters. I’ll give you Donald Glover as Lando, but not Alden Ehrenreich as even a young Han; at least, not the one I grew up with. Really, I’d say Peter Quill, in the GOTG films, is closer to what I see as a young Han.

    I’d be cool if the film had just been the heist plot, as that worked wonderfully.

  4. jccalhoun

    I was never able to suspend my disbelief and believe the main actor was Han Solo. If it was just a random scifi movie then maybe I would have liked it but as a Star Wars movie it just didn’t click for me.

    Some of the shots in the first act of the film were so dark you could barely tell what was going on.

    The story was fine but, like Rogue One and Picard, was ruined by having to many callbacks to other movies. Did we really need to know where Han got his gun? And throwing in Darth Maul was just a weird choice. I know they brought him back to life in the cartoon or something but I’m betting a lot of people were like me and haven’t watched that.

  5. Le Messor

    So, Jeff N, jccalhoun and I are in agreement; too dark, can’t see, and we just don’t buy this guy as Han. (I didn’t say that above, but I agree.)

    Also, Hannie get your gun? Yeah, we don’t need that.

  6. Aaron

    I have very few complaints about the movie. To the many fanboys that were upset that the lead wasn’t doing a Harrison Ford impression, I point to Bond films and how glad I am that each actor brings their interpretation of the character and not a Sean Connery impression.

    HOWEVER, my one gripe of an origin that was completely unnecessary: the origin of Chewbacca’s nickname. We know how nicknames work and why they’re used. We don’t need it spelled out just why Han calls him Chewie. Did they really think we’d be confused the first time he said it?

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