Solo: A Star Wars Story is the one instalment in the Star Wars franchise that’s been largely forgotten since its release – why did it fail? .
Very recently I embarked on a rewatch of Solo: A Star Wars Story – a film I hadn’t seen since its release in 2018. Given how little it’s discussed, it’s surprising to think that it came out as recently as that, but the Han Solo prequel starring Alden Ehrenreich has been largely left out of the Star Wars discourse. At the time, it was one of the most expensive films ever made (with an estimated production budget of over $275 million). Grossing $393.2 million worldwide, it became the franchise’s first box office bomb.
But why did it fail? And did it deserve it?
It’s no secret that the film was plagued with issues throughout production, which began in January 2017. By June, directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (who worked of course on The LEGO Movie and 21 Jump Street) were fired by Disney, who gave the typical reason of ‘creative differences’, and were swiftly replaced by Ron Howard, who completed the remainder of the shoot and presided over five weeks of reshoots. The Hollywood Reporter claimed the creative differences between Lord and Miller and Disney were due to Kathleen Kennedy’s displeasure over how long the directors were taking to shoot, as well as the lack of diverse camera setups they were using on set and their improvisational style.
Lord and Miller said that they were never given enough time to shoot in the first place, and had severely restricted creative freedom.
The directors weren’t the only casualties of the late-in-production changes. LucasFilm replaced Solo‘s original editor, Chris Dickens (who worked on the Michael Fassbender-led Macbeth) with Oscar winner and frequent Ridley Scott collaborator Pietro Scalia. An acting coach was also brought in very late into filming to help Alden Ehrenreich, who wasn’t giving the performance LucasFilm had wanted.
Huge changes to the character of antagonist Dryden Vos were also made during the reshoots. The late Michael K. Williams was originally cast in the role, with him reportedly set to be a half-human, half-lion-like alien character. Williams wasn’t available for the reshoots due to scheduling conflicts, so was summarily replaced with Paul Bettany. The character was drastically changed as a result, becoming the much more human iteration seen in the finished product.
With the production troubled from the very start, it would be easy to blame behind-the-scenes squabbles for the film’s box office failure and forgettable nature. But let’s look at the film itself which, in my opinion, is not nearly as bad as some claim.
It’s ironic that Kathleen Kennedy has recently cited Solo’s failure at the box office as the reason LucasFilm can’t recast characters and must rely on CGI and deepfakes. The performances of Alden Ehrenreich and Donald Glover as Han and Lando Calrissian respectively are hands down the best, most memorable part of the film.
The trepidation audiences felt at the prospect of an actor having to live up to Harrison Ford turned out to be completely unfounded. Ehrenreich brings buckets of charisma to the role and is by all accounts a perfect young Han. He’s easily matched (maybe even outdone) by Glover as Lando, who had clearly studied Billy Dee Williams’ performance and incorporated a lot of his mannerisms while still making it his own. It’s a shame that this film seems to have unjustly affected Ehrenreich’s career. In 2023, he will appear in Elizabeth Banks’ Cocaine Bear and Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer – these will be the first films he’s been in since Solo.
The movie’s problems, as with a lot of blockbusters, stem from the script.
Roguish charm is at the centre of Han’s character, and any prequel should present an anarchic smuggling adventure that’s exciting from start to finish. What we got was a narrative that was hung up on explaining every facet of his past. We needed a backstory for Han’s surname and how he got his lucky dice as much as we needed the story behind Poirot’s moustache (sorry, Kenneth Branagh).
Despite the narrative being centred on Han getting in with a gang of criminals and becoming indebted to a violent gangster, there’s a surprising lack of tension and threat. Bettany’s antagonist falls a bit flat, and too much of the story is focused on obtaining coaxium, or hyperfuel, that powers ships. We’re told repeatedly that it’s highly volatile, likely to explode if kept at the wrong temperature, and yet it never feels like a tangible problem. The danger is over-explained instead of being felt.
However, the talented cast performances and basically enjoyable plot make Solo worth revisiting.
Woody Harrelson plays his usual type as smuggler Beckett, and he doesn’t disappoint. Even the barely present side characters are played by big names, like Thandiwe Newton as Val and Erin Kellyman as the leader of Rebel group the Cloud Riders. Let’s also not forget the excellent Darth Maul cameo, with The Phantom Menace actor Ray Park and The Clone Wars voice actor Sam Witwer both returning to the role. In the absence of tension and unpredictable story the film becomes character driven, and it’s the performances that really hold everything together.
It’s worth noting as well that Solo was released just months after The Last Jedi, by far the most divisive of Star Wars films. Its falling at the box office could easily be down to the wariness of fans, as much as anything wrong with the movie itself.
Solo: A Star Wars Story may not be the strongest instalment in the franchise, but it took a huge risk in recasting beloved characters that massively paid off. It’s a shame that the studio seems to have learned all the wrong lessons from it.
Hopefully this isn’t the end of LucasFilm wanting to explore this period in Star Wars history. On their 2020 Investor Day, Disney announced that a Lando series is in the works that’s due to get a release on Disney+. Not much information is available on the show, but I’m hopeful it could include Glover’s young Lando. Though I suppose with LucasFilm it could just as easily be an uncanny CGI’d Billy Dee Williams.
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