Solo: A Star Wars Story review

Diamonds in the rough.

There’s a game I played at the Dreamation game convention last year called Companion’s Tale. In it, you play the various sidekicks, mentors, paramours and rescuees of a mysterious hero, fleshing out the world around the main saga, caring only in sharing in the epic struggle that the hero engages in. I loved it.

Solo: A Star Wars Story reminded me very much of that game. While I love me some Dark Side/ Light Side clashes, it’s nice to see some small-scale stuff going on, some run-of-the-mill galactic cartel heists without overt mentions of the Force or the Empire. Solo introduces us to the history of everyone’s favorite stuck-up, half-witted, scruffy-looking nerf-herder, his initial forays into scum and villainy, his first encounter with lifelong friend Chewbacca, an early romantic interest, and even the origin of his last name. He doesn’t bring balance to the Force, defeat a Sith Lord, master a long-lost skill, or save the galaxy. If his actions liberate a people, it’s inadvertent (and triggered by a sidekick, at that). And while Han does end up helping the Rebels, it’s far from the main conflict in the movie. Rather, the plot focuses on his antics as a loveable, hopelessly romantic rogue, yet to learn the cynicism he displays in A New Hope. Instead of cosmic Good Vs Evil conflicts, Solo’s most prominent theme is more profane: friendship, how it starts and is sustained, and why it might end.

The main plot revolves around a material called coaxium (a fuel so valuable and rare that no other Star Wars movie dares to even mention it), and Han’s various attempts at helping different criminal crews steal large quantities of it.  But such plot details are merely window-dressing for exciting high-jinx and some surprisingly deep character development. The action is fast and frenetic, and just when you think the pace is going to slow, the movie revs it up again in entirely delightful ways. The characters are... really cool! Alden Ehrenreich uncannily captures Harrison Ford’s speech patterns and mannerisms. Donald Glover‘s Lando Calrissian is rogueish and sexy (and still loves capes). Chewbacca is fleshed out a little more. Qi’ra, Solo’s childhood love, is sufficiently interesting and complex to elevate her from the just-another-girl-to-rescue trope. And then of course, there’s L3.

Played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the genius behind the recent shows Fleabag and Killing Eve, L3 is Calrissian’s sassy droid and copilot. She’s also the only character to voice ideas the sci-fi community loves to wallow in, but that no Star Wars movie has ever engaged with: droid rights. When you first encounter L3, she’s trying to get a group of pit-fighting droids to seek liberation. Later, she requests “equal rights” without hesitation, when asked if she needs anything further to fly the Millennium Falcon. The emancipation of droids seems to be her consuming passion, which is pretty cool: while many Star Wars characters care deeply about justice, few are shown to be as invested in this form of social justice. It’s easy to see the metaphorical parallels to women’s or racial justice movements. It would also be easy to judge L3 and her neverending snark as an unkind parody of “overly-PC” folks, except that L3 actually does something about the causes she cares for. She totally walks the walk, and the filmmakers celebrate her for doing so. It’s nice to see a Star Wars movie grapple with such topical themes. (Also, is it just me or do the droids always steal the show? Case in point: R2, K2 and BB-8…)

Part of the joy of Star Wars movies has always been about recognizing the constants and the familiar; of rediscovering an ancient and well-loved galaxy over and over again. And if you’re a Star Wars fan, there are plenty of in-jokes and references in Solo to keep you grinning throughout. You learn about Han’s 12-parsec Kessel run. You get to hear the Imperial March diegetically. The obligatory weird alien-musicians are present and wonderful (though this time, the venue is no wretched hive of scum and villainy). There are even a couple of callouts to The Phantom Menace, of all movies. But intrepid newcomers (and one has to be intrepid, to enter such a beloved series at such an odd place) can still find the movie to be a joy, a swashbuckling ride through space and hyperspace in the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy.