Solo: A Star Wars Story is a pivotal moment in the history of the franchise. It is the first Star Wars film to concentrate on the origin history of a single character, and its success or failure could lead to a trilogy of movies about Solo – or not.
But it is also the fourth Star Wars film in as many years and arrives just six months after The Last Jedi. There must be concerns building over franchise fatigue.
The bigger question for Star Wars fans is whether the new film will mess with the legacy of Han Solo, played with such gruff charm by Harrison Ford in the original trilogy and The Force Awakens – arguably the most beloved of all characters in the Star Wars universe.
Why an origin film?
“A Han Solo movie made a lot of sense because he had never carried a movie,” says director Ron Howard, speaking at the Cannes Film Festival where the epic had its European premiere. “He was never central, and yet he’s kind of a classic movie hero. In the films thus far there have been a lot of clues about his back story, but also a lot of mystery.”
Hail, Caesar! star Alden Ehrenreich is the actor charged with stepping into Harrison Ford's considerable cosplay shoes.
Ehrenreich says it was important not to try to mimic the Solo we meet when he walks into the Mos Eisley Cantina in 1977's A New Hope, but to give the character a more naive and youthful personality.
“You’re really meeting him at a different time of his life, where he’s kind of an idealist and he’s someone who throws himself into what he does,” Ehrenreich says. “He always believes that he’ll find a way through whatever is thrown at him. He’s more of a dreamer. He comes from a hardscrabble background and he’s fighting for his freedom.”
Learning Han Solo's back story
The film introduces us to many elements that have gone on to make the Han Solo legend. We first meet him as a teenager on his unforgiving home planet of Corellia, where he has fallen in love with his best friend Qi'ra (played by Games of Thrones star Emelia Clarke). They are both young urchins using their wits, guile and some underhandedness to survive life on the mean streets.
“I think the love story is quintessential and important – it’s a pivotal part of what shapes him,” Ehrenreich says. “Watching somebody who is going to end up a little bit jaded in a place where he’s so hopeful gives the movie the best shape possible.”
Scriptwriter Lawrence Kasdan, who wrote The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, was brought back into the fold to co-write the Solo origin story with his son, Jonathan. It was a way of ensuring a bridge between the films, especially because Solo: A Star Wars Story pads out a lot of the details that are passing lines in the original films. So we finally get to see how Han first won the Millennium Falcon from his friend and competitor Lando Calrissian, where he met his loveable hairy sidekick Chewbacca and how he came to be called Solo.
In preparing for the role, Ehrenreich met with Ford. "I had lunch with him before we started," he says. "He's seen the movie now and is really supportive of it and really loves it, which means the world to all of us."
The breakout star
A lot of the reviews coming out of the Cannes Film Festival argued that the real star of Solo is Donald Glover, with his charismatic turn as Calrissian. The actor and musician, who came to Cannes on the back of the monumental success of his Childish Gambino music video This Is America, says to play Calrissian was full circle to his own childhood. "My dad got me the Calrissian action figure and that was like the first toy that I ever had."
The thing that fascinated Glover about Calrissian is that in a world of Jedi Knights and The Empire, Calrissian is a character that has a much more nuanced and less defined moral compass. “When you first meet him, you don’t know whether to trust him or not. I think that was very different for Star Wars, where everyone is light and dark and he’s there being like: ‘Hey I’m just trying to eat’ – which is a very human thing.”
Connecting with the times
Solo also moves with our human times. The new droid, L3-37 – a motion-capture performance by Fleabag creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge – calls for equal rights and talks a fellow droid out of a death match with another machine. When Waller-Bridge auditioned for the role, she didn't even know what a droid was and it was only at the audition that she says she realised it was a robot. Yet L3-37 is a character that reflects her own ethos. "I think jogging people out of a polarised point of view is something I'm always personally aiming for," she says.
It's a sensibility shared by Westworld star Thandie Newton, who plays a bounty hunter named Val. She turned up to the most famous red carpet in the world at Cannes wearing a Vivienne Westwood dress paying homage to the black characters that have appeared in Star Wars. The fact that it didn't take up much of the dress was a pointed statement about the lack of diversity in the Star Wars universe. "It became clear to me after the movie wrapped that there is a real imbalance here," Newton says. "Also looking at Black Panther and The Avengers movie, and Star Wars seems behind. I was surprised to learn that I was the first woman of colour with a principal role."
Dark clouds initially loomed ominously over the film, which was beset by production problems. The original directors of Solo, Christopher Miller and Phil Lord, best known for directing the Lego Movie, left the project over creative differences and were replaced by Howard.
The cast and crew were all united in stating that the change was seamless, but Howard admits that jumping onto a project so late in the day is not something he is likely to do in the future.
“I inherited many of the sort of big decisions that were made,” he says. “I was able to come in and contribute ideas and get creatively involved, but you know the big architecture of it was something you either had to embrace or not.”
In the end, Howard says it’s the legion of Star Wars fans that will decide whether the new standalone film about Solo was a gamble worth taking.