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I Kinda Love the ‘Star Wars’ Spin-off Films

And some other random thoughts about ‘Solo’

When Lucasfilm head Kathleen Kennedy announced new Star Wars films a few years ago that would continue the storyline of Luke Skywalker and his friends in the Rebellion, it was also revealed that the company would produce spin-off movies that weren’t as closely connected to the main storyline. “One of the many wonderful byproducts of the universe that George [Lucas] created is that nearly anything can happen within it,” said Force Awakens director J.J. Abrams about these spin-off films in 2016. He later added, “Going forward, you’re going to see movies that shift tonally, some that are grittier and tougher, and some more comedic in nature.”

In other words, the Star Wars brain trust wanted to play a massive game of what-if with the franchise, giving us films that were within that world but didn’t necessarily feel like Star Wars movies. So far, Lucasfilm has released two such spin-off films: 2016’s Rogue One and this past weekend’s Solo. Both of them have received mixed reviews — especially in comparison to The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, which are part of the central Star Wars storyline — as naysayers have questioned exactly why anyone need bother with them. Vox film critic Alissa Wilkinson summed up this feeling when writing of Solo, “The result is a bland heist movie in space that does nothing unexpected and never justifies its existence.”

That’s a question you see raised in a lot in reviews of these films — whether or not the movies justify their existence — and it’s an inherent limitation with movies that are merely tangential to a story that people actually care about. It would be like reading all those Star Wars Legends books that take place in the Lucas universe: a way to satiate your Star Wars fixation but hardly monumental or that memorable. It would be like spending as much time listening to Paul McCartney’s solo albums as you do his Beatles records. Some things are just clearly second-tier.

And while I obviously prefer the canon Star Wars movies, I confess to a real fondness for the redheaded stepchildren that are Rogue One and Solo. They’re flawed, unnecessary and rife with behind-the-scenes drama. (Both movies had to replace their filmmakers midway through.) But I kinda love them for all those reasons. They’re Star Wars movies for people who don’t want all their Star Wars movies to be exactly the same.

It’s not that Abrams and Rian Johnson, who wrote and directed The Last Jedi, didn’t take risks with their films. Johnson especially challenged Star Wars fans to see their beloved characters in a new light, resisting the urge to deliver expected payoffs and portraying Luke as an older, cynical Jedi who had lost his idealism. But those movies still felt part of a cinematic universe we know, complete with the trademark opening crawl and John Williams’ triumphant orchestral score. They copy the texture and feel of what Lucas created 41 years ago.

Not so with Rogue One and Solo: There’s no opening crawl, and only snippets of the Williams score are incorporated. More importantly, their tone is very different. When Rogue One was close to release, the word was that it was going to be a Dirty Dozen-style adventure film. In that same Abrams interview, Kennedy described Solo as “closer to a heist or Western type feel.” The idea has been to create Star Wars spin-offs that have their own funky rhythm — to allow filmmakers to play around in that universe without worrying about adhering to every Star Wars tradition.

Solo demonstrates the benefits of this approach. It’s not a particularly deep or moving film, but it’s a rollicking buddy-cop adventure that’s fun in ways that traditional Star Wars movies — with their emphasis on grandeur and mythmaking storytelling — simply aren’t. In Solo, we meet the young Han Solo (played with charming nonchalance by Alden Ehrenreich) as he becomes friends with Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and encounters Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover). It’s an origin story centered around a big heist that also makes room for Han’s love story with his childhood sweetheart Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke). There are chase scenes and action sequences, and the Millennium Falcon does lots of cool stuff.

While watching Solo, I mostly thought back to my younger self, who would inject my own personality into the iconic stories I watched on the big screen. Solo is a very expensive version of the same game, riffing on the Star Wars legend and looking at it from a slightly skewed angle. The movie still has to be reverent to the source material, but it’s goofier and more loose-limbed than The Force Awakens or The Last Jedi. It doesn’t have to carry the burden of advancing the narrative of Hollywood’s most famous franchise. (After all, we know Han, Chewie and Lando aren’t going to die or do anything that shocking.) Solo can just do its own thing. It’s a Star Wars movie without the weight of obligations.

Unfortunately, no one has explained that to Kennedy and the rest of the Lucasfilm team. As you no doubt have heard, Solo had massive problems during production when original directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller were booted from the project, allegedly for not following the screenplay (co-written by Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan) closely enough. From reports, Lord and Miller, best known for the bro-friendly Jump Street comedies and The Lego Movie, wanted a more improv-heavy approach, which clashed with Lucasfilm’s buttoned-down aesthetic. This seems crazy: If you’re going to hire Lord and Miller to do an irreverent take on Han and Chewie toolin’ around the galaxy, then you ought to let them do their thing. Instead, Lucasfilm got rid of them, bringing in seasoned, staid pro Ron Howard to finish the job.

Similarly, Rogue One — which told of the group of spies who obtained the plans to the original Death Star, thereby helping Luke blow it up at the end of Star Wars — brought in Godzilla director Gareth Edwards to make a dark, gritty war movie. But then, Lucasfilm tapped Tony Gilroy (who’s written Jason Bourne films) to reshape the movie, sparking rumors that the company wasn’t happy with how dark Rogue One was becoming.

No matter what you think of Solo or Rogue One, it’s likely that you went into them knowing all about this internal strife that went into their making. That’s not good for business, and it seems antithetical to the dream-different spirit of these spin-offs. Rogue One imagines a Star Wars universe where the Rebellion sometimes screws up and unknown heroes give their lives for the greater good. Solo speculates on what the early days of Han and Chewie’s friendship were like — and how the cynical adult Han Solo emerged from a romantic young dreamer. Lucas’ cinematic empire has more than enough room for such interpretations.

And so, it’s a shame that Lucasfilm has staked out this weird middle ground with these spin-offs, insisting that they’re not part of the main storyline but nonetheless micromanaging them as if the entire company’s future is on the line. Going forward, Lucasfilm has already announced a Boba Fett standalone movie, with a possible Obi-Wan Kenobi story to follow. I hope Kennedy relaxes her grip with these next movies. We tune in to the core Star Wars films for their adherence to the myth and power of this saga. Why not let the standalone films just be for fun?

Here are a few other takeaways from Solo. (Warning: There will be spoilers.)

#1. Hey, I like this new Han Solo.

When relative unknown Alden Ehrenreich was cast in Solo back in 2016, it was a big deal because of the arduous process it took for Lord and Miller to find their young Han Solo. “That guy pretty much went through an audition pentathlon; it was like an acting steeplechase,” Miller said at the time. “He went against a lot of very strong competitors and was very consistently the guy, from minute one. He was the first person who auditioned out of thousands, and just out of the box, made you believe that someday he’d grow into the character we know.”

It was a part just about every young white actor tried out for, including Dave Franco, Miles Teller, Baby Driver’s Ansel Elgort and Kingsman’s Taron Egerton. And almost immediately after Ehrenreich got the part, there were rumors that he wasn’t working out — there where even whispers that the studio had to hire an acting coach to help him. Like with everything else surrounding Solo, these stories just raised expectations that the movie was going to be a debacle.

But as it turns out, Ehrenreich is pretty fun in the role. Will he replace Ford in people’s mind? No, but he’s not supposed to: The Han Solo we meet in Solo is a naïve kid who has some of the same mannerisms as the older Han, but is also a bit more open-hearted and hopeful. This is what Ehrenreich excels at, especially in his 2016 breakthrough Hail, Caesar!, where he played Hobie Doyle, a sweet, dopey cowboy actor who discovers how hard it is to make serious films. Maybe in the Solo sequels Ehrenreich will get to share another scene with Ralph Fiennes.

#2. Yes, Ron Howard’s brother is in the movie.

Some filmmakers have a visual or thematic trademark that lets you know it’s their movie. Alfred Hitchcock always gave himself a brief cameo in his films. J.J. Abrams loves featuring lens flare. Michael Bay’s movies are loud, chaotic and terrible. But Howard, who’s been around for decades and won an Oscar for A Beautiful Mind, doesn’t necessarily have a signature style. There is one constant in his films, though: He almost always casts his brother Clint in them.

Clint Howard is a character actor who’s younger than Ron by five years. But they’ve both been in the business since they were kids, with Clint appearing alongside Ron on The Andy Griffith Show. As Ron’s directing career exploded, he would cast his kid brother in his movies, starting with 1977’s Grand Theft Auto. In subsequent years, Clint made blink-and-you’ll-miss-him appearances in Splash, Cocoon, Gung Ho, Parenthood, The Paper, Apollo 13 and just about every other major Ron Howard movie. (Funny enough, he’s not in A Beautiful Mind.) It’s not quite as momentous as spotting Stan Lee in every Marvel film, but in the Ron Howard Cinematic Universe, a Clint sighting is a familiar, comforting occurrence.

So, when Ron Howard was selected to take over for Lord and Miller on Solo, the inevitable question was whether Ron would put Clint in this movie as well. Ladies and gentlemen, he certainly did:

In typical Clint fashion, it’s a very brief moment where he tangles with Lando’s robot partner L3–37. But it definitely marks Solo as an official Ron Howard production.

#3. Here’s the one ‘Star Wars’ character who really needs his own spin-off film.

With the news that a Boba Fett standalone film is happening — and maybe an Obi-Wan Kenobi one — the internet is filled with proposals about which other Star Wars mainstays should get their own movies, too. Characters like Mace Windu, Princess Leia, Darth Maul and Qui-Gon Jinn are popular choices, but I’d like to advocate for an under-the-radar but personally beloved pick.

I think there should be a Lobot movie.

Do you remember Lobot? He was Lando’s silent partner on Cloud City in The Empire Strikes Back. He looked like this:

The man, the myth, the Lobot

Lobot is in The Empire Strikes Back for, maybe, five minutes. But, as played by John Hollis (who died in 2005 at the age of 77), he had such a distinctive look with that bald head and cool wraparound cybernetic apparatus. (The official Star Wars site informs me it’s a “shiny, brain-enhancing device wrapped around the back of his skull that allowed him to contact directly with the city’s central computer.” Oh.) The character is so little-used in The Empire Strikes Back that these cut scenes are almost as much screen time as Lobot has in the actual movie:

Lobot had a bigger presence in the Star Wars comics. In Issue 56, “Coffin in the Clouds,” from 1982, Lando returns to Cloud City, where he encounters his former right-hand man, only to discover that he’s short-circuited and now thinks Lando is his enemy. Still, Lobot has always been a pretty marginal figure — which is why he would be a great choice for a spin-off. There’s no pressure about making sure you get the character “right.” None of us know anything about him, anyway. So there’s free reign to make up as much as you want.

Weirdly, I’m not the first person to have this (terrible, tongue-in-cheek) idea. Lost and Leftovers co-creator Damon Lindelof jokingly suggested a Lobot spin-off back in 2015, saying, “My hope is that, like, once they’ve run through everybody else in 20 or 22 years, they’ll be looking for someone to write the Lobot movie. I wanna know how he’s ended up working with Lando and exactly what that apparatus does and how he lost his hair.”

As a fellow bald man, Lindelof added, “I always root for the bald guy.”

#4. When you hear the title ‘Solo,’ what first comes to mind?

Obviously, Disney titled its Han Solo movie Solo on the assumption that the first thing you’d think of is the Star Wars character made famous by Harrison Ford. But “Solo” has other cultural connotations as well — some of which Disney is cashing in on.

  • There are those red, plastic, disposable cups. Smartly, Solo has a tie-in to the film, which original Chewbecca actor Peter Mayhew appreciated:

  • There’s Hope Solo, the World Cup- and gold-medal-winning goalie for the U.S. women’s national team. She has nothing to do with Solo — not that that’s kept people on Twitter from fantasizing:

  • But my favorite disassociation comes from Vulture writer Kyle Buchanan, who mentioned this:

https://twitter.com/kylebuchanan/status/996334613701234688

Damn it, now I have it stuck in my head, too.