With ‘Solo,’ Star Wars rediscovers its offbeat sense of humor
New film shrewdly explores new, uncanny corners of the galaxy
We had good reason to worry about Solo. First off, there was the challenge inherent to the project: Lead actor Alden Ehrenreich had to live up to the legendary Harrison Ford. Then, in June 2017, deep into production, Solo’s directors (Phil Lord and Christopher Miller) were fired. Amidst the chaos, Ron Howard—known for an eclectic filmography—was hired to step in.
It wasn’t the first one-shot “Star Wars Story” to be plagued with problems. Its predecessor in the spinoff category, Rogue One, also underwent a series of reshoots and a complete script overhaul by one of Hollywood’s top writers.
But upon release, Solo: A Star Wars Story yielded worse reviews than the troubled Rogue One. The most blunt of these critiques was that of The New York Times’ A.O. Scott, who called Solo a “filmed Wikipedia page,” one that “answered questions you may not have asked.”
That may be an unfair criticism, because answering unnecessary questions is essentially the task of every prequel. While a one-shot movie should answer the major questions it poses, the storytelling job of sequels and prequels—besides making tons of money—is to answer questions audiences didn’t ask the first time around.
Star Wars’ own prequel trilogy answered a lot of questions that were definitely not at the top of anyone’s list, like—how was C–3PO built? Who was Boba Fett’s dad? What was the legislative process of the Galactic Republic? How did Chewbacca and Yoda first meet? Wait—what?
While Solo isn’t perfect, it is a fairly well–put–together film, especially for a blockbuster that had its directors fired mid–shoot. Ron Howard deserves kudos for salvaging the movie and, though it doesn’t ‘soar,’ per se, it gets the job done. Ehrenreich turns in a good effort as the title character—and Donald Glover brings the character of Lando Calrissian back to the saga with charisma and confidence.
Generic critiques aside, what I wanted to focus on in this piece is the brand of humor featured in Solo: A Star Wars Story. Earlier this year, I pointed out ‘The Last Jedi’s snark problem’—discussing how the humor of Star Wars: Episode VIII focused on undermining plot points and genre tropes to prove a point— and a shallow point at that.
The positive thing about Solo: A Star Wars Story is that the jokes actually fit in with a long tradition of off-the-wall Star Wars humor. In Solo, as in much of the original trilogy, the weird–yet–uncanny aspects of the Star Wars universe are the driving force of its comedic edge.
The Uncanny Cantina Band
Consider the classic moment of the Mos Eisley Cantina scene in the original Star Wars film. As the protagonists enter the cantina, a bartender growls “we don’t serve their kind” at the droids C–3PO and R2–D2—a puzzling allusion to racism. Meanwhile, Ben Kenobi and Luke Skywalker glance at the various aliens hanging around the Cantina, all weird, all strange—but doing things that look vaguely familiar. Drinking. Playing music. Smoking hookah. Sitting in booths. It looks like a bar from hell—but one thing’s for sure—it is a bar.
Other original trilogy moments evoked elements of the uncanny, the idea that a thing feels familiar—but something is off.
In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke gets attacked by a ‘wampa’—Star Wars’ version of an abominable snowman. In Return of the Jedi, the Ewoks treat C–3PO as a god—reminiscent of the story about how the native Hawaiians might have viewed Captain Cook as a deity.
There’s also the moment in Empire Strikes Back when Darth Vader greets a gathering of bounty hunters on the bridge of his Star Destroyer. It’s a scene that might be from a sword–and–sandal flick, when an Emperor orders some toughs to catch the hero. In the Star Wars version, there are a couple aliens, a lizard–man, a robot — and Boba Fett. Darth Vader plays it straight — but the sheer weirdness of the scene, the cast of odd characters assembled — it all contributes to the realization of a unique world. One that’s strange, but familiar—a universe that could have only taken place a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…
Despite their mixed execution, the prequels had their own share of these ‘uncanny’ moments. I’ll name just a couple. With its announcers, engine sounds, and flag parade—The Phantom Menace’s podrace sequence is clearly an allusion to auto racing. In Attack of the Clones, there’s a scene in which Obi-Wan asks a grease–stained alien cook for advice in what looks like a 1950s Jersey diner.
While the latter scene is sometimes maligned in fan communities, it actually fits in with the pattern of remixing tropes that the franchise had already established. For many years, what Star Wars excelled at was delivering scenes that evoked familiar storytelling situations, while casting them through an unfamiliar SW prism.
Then The Force Awakens, Rogue One, and The Last Jedi happened. Rather than recasting scenes and situations from the cultural zeitgeist and imbuing them with a dash of Star Wars–weirdness—these films mostly relied on remixing exact scenes from the original trilogy. The bar scene in The Force Awakens is an homage to the cantina scene; the assault on Starkiller Base is a carbon copy of the trench run in A New Hope; the entire closing act of Rogue One is a tribute to the conclusions of A New Hope and Return of the Jedi; the Snoke confrontation scene in The Last Jedi is a callback to Return of the Jedi; the assault on the Resistance base on the salt planet is a reference to famed AT-AT sequence in The Empire Strikes Back.
And while The Last Jedi attempted to insert social commentary through its Canto Bight scenes, it amounted to a botched effort. Though the corrosive nature of the casino planet and its alien–horse–racing industry are touched on, these critiques are directly leveled in dialogue, rather than shown and cheekily explored through the franchise’s longstanding practice of inverting tropes through the SW lens.
With Solo, however, we can celebrate the return of these uncanny, humorous situations. Beware, all who wish to proceed: spoilers for ‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’ lie ahead.
The uncanny comedic situations in ‘Solo’
From Solo’s title crawl, we learn that a nefarious–sounding LADY PROXIMA controls certain parts of the planet Corellia. Only a few minutes into the movie do we learn that Lady Proxima is actually a gigantic aquatic caterpillar voiced by Linda Hunt. It’s a clever misdirection, transposing what sounds like a villain with a cartoonish character—the fact that the slums of Corellia are governed by the whims of a giant caterpillar that talks like the Queen is kind of hilarious.
In the next few scenes we are greeted with a warped mirror–vision of an airport that looks eerily reminiscent of Washington Dulles. Like earthling airports, there are automated messages playing in the background, announcements on line etiquette, tedious security checkpoints. But the spaceport is guarded by armed stormtroopers. And that makes all the difference. It’s an ironic commentary on our current moment, the lengths modern society has to take to be secure in our own, real world.
Other moments in Solo allude to the past. When Han joins the Imperial Navy, he ends up fighting in World War I–style trenches fighting alongside very British commanding officers. His first job under the leadership of Beckett (Woody Harrelson) is an old–fashioned train raid from a Western. The space ‘yacht’ of gangster Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany) is an Art Deco allusion to the Roaring 20s, complete with alien jazz and cocktails.
What’s more, Lando’s droid L3–37 is a sort of droid version of the stereotypical ‘outspoken activist.’ (And while many might bemoan Lando’s newly revealed droid–friendly sexual orientation, it seems like this new running joke adds to the weirdness of the Star Wars universe—indeed, answering a question we had not asked—and raising more questions in the process.)
All these scenes comment on cultural and storytelling tropes by revealing them through the warped lens of the Star Wars universe.
Headed for hyperspace?
All told, Solo is fun summer cinema. Of course, it has a heavy dosage of fan service—but it adds some fresh new elements to the Star Wars galaxy as well. Without the shuffling of perspectives inherent in the larger ensemble films of the saga, the movie is free to use Han’s mild character arc as an entry point to more deeply explore the implications of its universe.
Regardless, Solo showcases the strength of George Lucas’ original vision in 1977, giving us more respect to what he then accomplished. By recasting tropes from a variety of sources and genres (among them Westerns, samurai films, and sci–fi) into something at once strange and familiar—he changed the storytelling game of cinema. Judging by the heated passions aroused by every new Star Wars release, it remains a potent combination today.