Film

Han Solo Was the Coolest Star Wars Character Until 'Solo'

Han was cool and mysterious. Then we got a spinoff that ruined the mystery.

Patrick Marlborough

Image via Flickr user BagoGames

Harrison Ford infamously told George Lucas that “you can type this shit, but you sure as hell can’t say it.” Watching Disney’s Solo: A Star Wars Story, I was struck by the simple truth of Ford’s quip. Solo has arrived after a tumultuous production, and is at once travelling through hyperspace while frozen in carbonite. In attempting to merge Han Solo the icon with Disney’s idea of Han Solo the brand, it fails its subject matter and itself.

The tug of war between creator’s intent, cultural zeitgeist, corporate interest, and artistic interpretation that created one Han Solo has doomed another. To understand why, we must ask how a Star Wars film works, and how Han Solo works it.

Star Wars films run on two modes of expectation. We can place every film in the franchise in or between two categories: the referential, and the reflective. The referential films revel in nostalgia: for genre tropes and archetypes, design and characterisation, pop-culture and myth. A New Hope, with its blockbuster reimagining of Flash Gordon type adventure serials, its fantastical sets and monsters, and its mix of everything from Leni Riefenstahl to aerial dog-fight newsreels to bushido, belongs to this category. The reflective films revel in upheaval: they deconstruct the tropes and trajectories paid tribute to and set in motion by their cheerier counterparts. The Empire Strikes Back, with its torture, deceit, and death, is in this category: the love interest is the sister, the villain is the father, the master is an old kook. The camp comfort of the cantina makes way for hot Tauntaun guts.

Star Wars films live and die by how they approach these expectations. As with the force, the key is balance. Return of the Jedi straddles both categories, and (some would argue) suffers for it. The prequels are a gumbo soup of misplaced reverence (Jar Jar’s minstrelsy, “the origins of x,” podracing) and violent newness (midichlorians, CGI clusterfucks, “Yarael Poof”) and exemplify just how cooked things can get when you whiff the balancing act. The Force Awakens went full throttle nostalgia and succeeded wholly at that, but only that. The Last Jedi, like Empire before it, set about wrecking the expectations and tone of its predecessor to create something new, and succeeded soundly at feeling fresh, but at the cost of feeling like Star Wars.

Director Ron Howard and cast at the gala screening for "Solo: A Star Wars Story" at the 71st Festival de Cannes. image via Shutterstock

The “Star Wars Story” subset of franchise spin-offs have more room to play than their big trilogy counterparts. Rogue One was able to ask “what if Star Wars was actually a war movie?” and pulled off nihilism that the main films aren’t afforded. It’s nostalgia came as a footnote, and a corrective one at that: the Vader slaughter-box sequence was designed to return some menace to an iconic villain made cartoonish by three decades of toys and parodies.

Star Wars the films are ultimately confined by Star Wars the brand. For Rogue One, the brand was a sandbox—a place for new characters and their stories to be given life. For Solo, however, the brand is more like a Sarlaac Pit: a gaping maw filled with sharp-toothed throwbacks and name-drops, slowly digesting its subject with the stomach acid of vertical integration and product saturation.

Solo fails because to explain Han Solo is to kill him. To paraphrase a Mandalorian clone: he’s no good to us dead.

Solo isn’t so much referential as it is regurgitation. Every facet of Han Solo is given a footnote—every surprise and enigma is given cause. This is of course to be expected in a prequel, heck, it’s to be wanted. We get a checklist of biographical beats. Here’s Han in the army (oh cool), Here’s Han getting his DL-44 blaster (sure), Here’s Lando cheating Han (okay), here’s Han getting horny for the Falcon (fine), here’s Chewie ripping off arms (I get it), here’s Han making the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs (hurry the fuck up.) These are all rote realisations of moments alluded to in the original trilogy or the ever-retconned Expanded Universe. We want to see Han do these things. This is why we bought our tickets.

The problem? This isn’t Han.

Solo robs Han of his arc. In explicitly telling us how Han came to be cynical, detached and aloof, the veracity of his “cool,” and ultimately his redemption, is eroded. In A New Hope he’s murderous, he’s greedy, he’s chauvinistic, he’s apolitical, but he ultimately reveals himself to be heroic. Through Greedo, Jabba, Boba, and Lando, we come to understand that Han is a man with a past and that that past has shaped the untrusting but savvy man now piloting Luke and the audience on their interstellar adventure. He stands out in this universe of prophesised saviours and virgin births because his mythic status is self-ordained. Han is “cool” because he insists that you can slide around the galaxy on Bantha fodder, but you only reach the Outer Rim on gravel.

Related: Meet the Animator Behind Star Wars and Jurassic Park

What makes Han fun is the tension between his bullshit and his reality. Solo removes that tension, and lowers Han’s self-mythologizing banter into the carbon freeze of banal literalism.

Solo is off-putting not because it does this but because of how it does this. It tells us over and over again that Han is not as badass and selfish as he likes to think he is. Characters explicitly say this to him and, by extension, us. In the original trilogy we learn this organically, excitingly, through his relationships and actions. Here we are simply told, and slowly, “Han Solo” is explained away. He doesn’t call the Falcon “her” because he is a chauvinist, it’s because the Falcon has a female AI uploaded to it. A small touch like this can devalue something larger—here it’s the dissolution of Han’s misogyny via his relationship with Leia. Han doesn’t have a combative relationship with Lando because their self-inflated egos naturally clash, it’s because Han’s girlfriend doggedly explains Lando’s (unseen) brilliance to Han, as if injecting him with an ACME syringe labeled JEALOUSY. So the rivalry never feels organic, and their interactions fall flat.

Worst of all is the coldness of Han’s relationship to Chewie, which instead of being the film’s centerpiece, is given the backseat. What could have been a buddy cop style exploration of how the greatest mateship in pop-culture came to be, is instead a contrived series of mishaps where Chewie becomes another of Han’s accessories, to be labeled, boxed and shelved.

So Han’s arc and relationships are obscured and reset. This could be fine—it could be great—where it becomes a problem is on its overemphasis on the “who” and “what” of Han Solo, and it’s total misinterpretation of the “how” and “why.”

The difference between the Han of Harrison Ford and the Han of Alden Ehrenreich is a matter of, well, force. Ehrenreich’s Han, through no real fault of his own, is a simulacrum. He is playing a product. That product is in the impossible position of keeping in stasis a force that burned bright and moved on a long, long time ago.

Ford’s history of contempt for the character is well known, less so that of his casting. Lucas was set on not casting anyone from his earlier feature American Graffiti (1973), in which Ford had appeared. Casting consultant Fred Roos hired Ford (moonlighting as a carpenter) to install a door at the building where Lucas was conducting auditions, hoping seeing Ford would encourage Lucas to give him a crack at the role. He did, of course, beating out Christopher Walken and Kurt Russell: “Harrison was the funnier, goofier one,” remarked Lucas, “but he could play mean.”

You can see this in his audition tape: Ford is chatting casually, they begin, he is fed the line “all the data banks in number two are still secure,” and then, for a nano-second, he looks into the camera, his eyes flicker sarcastically, and he replies: “now I think we’re due the reward you offered.”

Han was born in that eye-roll. That begrudging glance at the camera illuminates Han Solo. It says to the audience: “I know.”

That knowingness is easily mistaken for contempt (fuelled further by Ford’s grouchy interview style) but it masks something else. Mark Hamill was awed by Ford’s dedication: “he’s written things in the margins, [of the script] saying the same thing basically, but his way. He had an amazing way of keeping the meaning it doing it in a really unique way for his character.” Like Carrie Fischer, that unique eye for reinterpretation leant humanity to a character in a series where many feel like paper cut outs. “It’s a real American story, and it has a mythological quality to it,” Ford would say in an early interview.

The force of Han arrives in Ford’s mix of knowing, smarm, and self-assured ego.

Solo is incapable of reproducing that force. It even struggles to fake it. Towards the end of the film, Lando (Donald Glover) and Han survey the wrecked Falcon. “I hate you,” mumbles Lando, “I know,” replies Han, in a line which again falls flat. Like 90 percent of the quips in Solo, it’s a callback. This time, to what I see as the greatest line of dialogue in all of Star Wars: Leia telling a doomed Han that she loves him, Han replying “I know.” An ad-lib from Ford.

The quip was the result of Ford and director Irvin Kershner coaxing the character from one another: “Harrison is a very fine actor,” Kershner said later on, “I regarded that scene as entirely his, which is why I gave him so much opportunity to tell me how he thought we should treat it.”

Lord and Miller were replaced by cinema’s beige wallpaper, Ron Howard, because Disney disliked their use of improvisation. Their actor driven characterisations spooked executives. It hadn’t really been seen in Star Wars since Fischer, Hamill, Billy Dee Williams, Kershner and Ford.

Such exploration runs counter to Disney’s ethos that these characters and worlds are products that prop up other products. The Lego pieces must be uniform. We see this in the Marvel movies: you can use Downey Jr’s shrinking ad-lib in the Iron Man films to chart Disney’s growing aversion to risk.

It is difficult to merge this corporate uniformity with a character defined by his unwillingness to conform. Han was made as one thing but through the collaborative process and the imaginations of countless kids and nerds became something else. By burying himself in the cultural conscious, Han became ungraspable.

Lando similarly became something beyond what was laid out by the script. Dale Pollock wrote that Lucas was "still smarting from criticism that Star Wars was racist" so he conceived a character that would appeal to black audiences and cast Billy Dee Williams—who’d already achieved icon status—in the role. Ironically, Williams claimed he was interested in the role precisely because there was nothing inherently black about Lando. The character was created somewhat cynically but thanks to Williams’ performance became a beloved part of the Star Wars mythopia. Somewhat miraculously, Solo, saps both Lando and Donald Glover of any charisma. Glover at times looks visibly confined by this neutered version of the character. What does the Disney version of a character nicknamed the “space pimp” look like? Solo insists it looks cool as heck, but beyond some sick shirts and capes, never lets us see it.

Ultimately, the tragedy of Solo is that there’s clearly a great movie in there, somewhere. At two hours and 15 minutes, it somehow feels rushed. There are too many disparate and unnecessary elements that detract from some genuinely interesting themes and ideas. Arguably the best new character is Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s L3-37, who finally brings up the fact that droids are sentient, and are as such essentially slaves. But this is lost in some odd lines inferring that Lando and her fuck. So the film broaches an interesting idea or character or set piece (Han in the trenches) then castrates it with 20 janky tone shifts and lifeless chase scenes.

We get the creeping familiarity of Disney’s Marvel films, where scenes and characters float up as if to promote their own toys and spin-offs. By now we are attuned to know who the market accepts as a killable character, so there’s no tension. Instead of a fun adventure where we explore the roots of the Han/Chewie/Lando dynamic, we get 135 minutes of clunky exposition dumps and nods to everything from Aura Sing to oddly canonized throw-away lines.

What should have been a 100 minute crime caper that explores the roots of these relationships via a single focused yet amusingly chaotic heist is instead a bloated grab bag of self-assured nostalgia and mishandled pastiche.

Solo takes an eternity to make the same mistake made by Lucas in an instant in the 1997 re-release of the original trilogy. Where Lucas edits to show us why Han wouldn’t shoot first, Solo rambles on about why he would. Both fail to realise that it’s a pretty boring conversation anyway.

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