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.
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’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.
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.
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 (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.
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.
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.