“C’mon, let’s keep a little optimism!” – The pleading words of Harrison Ford as Han Solo, in Return of the Jedi. It seems a big ask for his fellow rebels, currently attempting to sneak a stolen Imperial shuttle past a fleet of Star Destroyers, flying so close to Darth Vader’s command bridge they could probably write rude words in the condensation on his window. For film fans, safe behind their keyboards and not threatened with imminent obliteration (as long as someone in Washington DC is in a good mood), it seems far lighter request. But if you take a customary glance at Twitter, Reddit, and a whole host of film websites, it soon becomes apparent that optimism for the Corellian smuggler’s spin-off film is rarer than a Stormtrooper passing basic target practice.
Here’s the story so far: in July 2015, Lucasfilm announced that the second in their ‘Anthology’ series of Star Wars films (later changed to the suffix ‘A Star Wars Story’) would focus on the adventures of a young Han Solo. Directors Chris Miller and Phil Lord (The LEGO Movie, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, 21 Jump Street) were hired to take on the project, with returning scribe Lawrence Kasdan (The Empire Strikes Back, The Force Awakens) and his son, Jon, creating the screenplay. Up-and-coming star Alden Ehrenreich was cast the following year in the central role, and as production got underway in early 2017, his co-stars were revealed: Donald Glover would take on the role of a young Lando Calrissian, with Emilia Clarke, Woody Harrelson, Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Michael Kenneth Williams appearing in still unknown roles.
Despite some cynicism already emerging from prequel-phobic fans who didn’t understand the need for backstory about Solo’s pre-rebellion life, the film seemed to be progressing well, in the hands of capable directors who’d worked wonders on already established brands whilst leaving their own unique action-comedy trademark. However, on 20th June 2017, Lord and Miller announced they were leaving the project, citing that classic reason “creative differences”. Within 24 hours of their departure, Ron Howard was sworn-in as the new director. Due to scheduling conflicts, Michael Kenneth Williams was unable to return for Howard’s period of production, so was replaced by Paul Bettany.
With approximately four months now remaining until release at time of writing, and not a peep from the marketing department (besides a logo and leaked images of LEGO sets), it’s easy to see why scepticism within the fan community is rife, and why some corners of the internet suspect that Disney have little faith in the film. Forgoing the obvious reason for this being The Last Jedi currently basking in the spotlight, there are more than a few reasons to ignore the cynicism and approach the looming spectre of release with the same cautious optimism of the rebellion hoping to take down the Empire with little more than a nicked spaceship and some teddy bears.
Let’s get the obvious one out of the way first: Ron Howard. More specifically, the Ron Howard who made Willow, Parenthood, Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, Frost/Nixon and Rush. With a portfolio featuring those (though, admittedly, also featuring The Dilemma), there’s no question of Howard’s affinity for action, comedy and drama. But beyond that, his dedication to adapting Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon novels may yet be the best possible indication for a successful approach to Star Wars. No, close that tab labelled ‘Mark Kermode reviews Inferno’ and hear me out: regardless of the eventual quality of those movies, there’s no question that Howard threw himself into the essence of the books with as much energy as his other work, and tried to live up to Brown’s legacy. Howard understood the formula of those novels and how to utilise the elements that made them such a hit (even if said formula was inherently misguided from the start). This bodes well for Solo because Howard understands how to leap into the driving seat of a franchise with a pre-established set of conventions and deliver something fans can enjoy.
As for the talent in front of the camera, who are we to expect failure from such a stellar line-up? Ehrenreich has made his name with Hail, Caesar (playing a role that subverts the roguish charm of movie stars, getting behind the façade of the on-screen archetype into which Han Solo would easily fit), but to succeed in inhabiting a such a legendary role could make him a star. Harrelson seems likely to complete his hat-trick of recent mentor roles (Haymitch in The Hunger Games and Merritt McKinney in the Now You See Me films), and Glover is every fan’s dream in the shoes (or cape, perhaps) of Lando. The still-unknown nature of Clarke and Waller-Bridge’s roles makes it difficult to tell how well they fit, but they’re bankable presences nonetheless (the former for her ever-evolving role in Game of Thrones and the latter for a barnstorming turn as the lead in Fleabag).
Two more reasons to be excited for Solo go hand-in-hand: tone and storytelling. The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi have been crucial Star Wars stories with massive side effects and implications for the characters, the canon, and future films. For all the talk of Rogue One being a standalone, it felt very connected to the stories bookending it, rife with consequences for the episodes we know and love. Solo might just be the first film in the series to truly stand by itself; a flight of fancy, a good time at the movies that doesn’t require a day’s worth of saga marathon preamble. Despite the relative lightness of tone adopted by The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, they still carried the burden of heavy stories and several of the saga’s darkest moments. A fun sci-fi actioner aided by its connection to a larger franchise rather than dogged by suffocating spoiler anxiety and endless fan theories would be a really nice change (though we’re sure the internet will find a way to prove that Woody Harrelson is playing a young Snoke somehow). Lawrence Kasdan is no better guide for such a screenplay, and his son Jon’s comedy credentials makes us fairly confident in our tonal predictions.
There is still one Bantha in the room: with Howard fulfilling director duties until the end of post-production, a vast series of re-shoots were required to fill in the gaps and pick up where Lord and Miller left off. ‘Re-shoots’ became somewhat of a dirty word in Star Wars fandom back in May 2016, when news first emerged of a similar fate befalling Gareth Edward’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. At the slightest sign of Hollywood interference (despite additional photography being an absolute staple of major studio movies) and rumours of a ‘lightening of tone’ (despite zero supporting evidence besides Reddit thread hearsay), the fans panicked. And yet, the final film showed there was nothing to fear. Save for a handful of shots that only made their way into trailers, very little felt missing or choppy in Lucasfilm’s first standalone effort. The seams were barely apparent, and by all insider accounts (including Edwards himself), the film emerged far more coherent than originally planned, ditching a baggy third act and sort-of happy ending. Rogue One’s late-stage reinvention even gave us the final Darth Vader hallway sequence, which has since become a firm fan favourite.
Now, we’re not for one moment suggesting it’ll all be twin sunshine and rainbows. We have our own doubts. Perhaps the seams will be more obvious this time around, considering the sheer volume of production left for Howard? Could Ehrenreich’s first time heading up a gigantic blockbuster prove too much for him to handle? Will Emilia Clarke’s eyebrows live up to the promise of her appearance in Me Before You and finally gain sentience? True, there’ll be that pang of regret in the gut of every fan that we never got to see Lord and Miller’s take on Han Solo, but that “Wouldn’t it be cool if…” is just another part of being involved in fandom: it’s been that way since David Lynch turned down Return of the Jedi. Plus, when was the last time anyone raised any regrets pertaining to Josh Trank’s addition to the Star Wars films? See, you’d forgotten that even happened until I mentioned it again. Just like you’ll forget the re-shoot drama. Just like you’ll go see Solo and (hopefully) enjoy the heck out of it. The internet’s betting you won’t, but as a dashing young smuggler once said: “Never tell me the odds!”
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