That aspect of my youthful love of “Star Wars” has made the new live-action movies in the franchise, and the corresponding decision to do away with the material that made up the Star Wars Expanded Universe, particularly crushing. Yes, movies such as “The Last Jedi,” “Rogue One,” and most recently, “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” which opens on May 25, have introduced us to new planets and new characters. Yet somehow, they have limited themselves to a narrow set of character types, story beats and settings that combine to make the “Star Wars” universe feel strangely small.
When “Solo” begins, Han (Alden Ehrenreich) is living as a street rat and low-level criminal on Corellia. We’re told that Corellia has shipbuilding as its primary industry, but “Solo” has no interest in doing anything more with that information other than making glancing reference to it. Han and Kira (“Game of Thrones” star Emilia Clarke) dream of a score that will let them escape the planet and the crime boss who keeps them indentured, a wormy creature who goes by Lady Proxima, and mostly serves as a waste for Linda Hunt’s voice acting talents.
A chase scene ensues, the couple are separated, and Han ends up in the Imperial Navy. This is actually a genuinely promising setup for a story that could have illuminated a different part of life in the Galactic Empire, and set up the affinity we see between Han (Harrison Ford) and the clone former stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” But thanks to a multi-year time jump and an immediate shift to heist movie mode, this premise barely has time to be floated, much less explored.
From there, “Solo” starts to feel a lot like … well, every other “Star Wars” movie released since 2015. In Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), it has a charismatic hustler hanging out in seedy protected enclaves, though “Solo” gives him blessedly more to do than the main installments have ever granted Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o). Like “Rogue One,” it has a near-impossible heist and a droid character who is in serious danger of making off with the whole picture (here, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s delightful L3-37). Like “The Last Jedi,” it has some very glitzy exclusive pleasure palaces and a minor uprising that happens mostly in the background. And like all of the new “Star Wars” movies — really, like all modern franchise movies — it has a number of actors who are far better than the lines they’re being asked to peddle (including Woody Harrelson, in this case).
To a certain extent, I suppose I understand this fundamental conservatism. The “Star Wars” prequels released between 1999 and 2005 are defined in part by their commitment to building out the galaxy. They introduce us to trade federations, the governance structure of Naboo, the skulduggery of the Old Republic’s Senate and the deliberations of the Jedi Council. And, fairly or not, they are widely derided. Maybe the safe thing to do was to tell the same narrow set of stories about plucky kids from desert planets, Sith acolytes wrestling with their attraction to the light and angry loners who get pulled into freedom fights despite their inclinations, all sprinkled with a soupcon of aliens and climactically varied planets.
It’s not enough. Simply putting a CGI monster on screen isn’t the same thing as hearing Han have a very tense conversation about Jabba the Hutt in “A New Hope,” and seeing that crime lord’s vile lasciviousness in all its grotesquerie two movies later in “Return of the Jedi.” Not all flickering holograms offer up the same sense of dread. And it doesn’t matter how many masks you slap on your characters if you never bother to actually explore the people who are living behind them. The lone area where imitation has led to innovation in the new franchise installments is in the charged tango between Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and Rey (Daisy Ridley), and even that’s an intimate revelation, not a galactic one.
“Solo” is, by design, a movie that’s intended to shade in a familiar part of the “Star Wars” universe, rather than taking us somewhere entirely new: We love Han, and the promise here is that we’ll get to know him better.
But that promise is part of what makes the movie’s sins so egregious. In the course of illuminating some of Han’s most famous exploits, including his record-setting Kessel Run and his acquisition of the Millennium Falcon, “Solo” turns into one of the most frenetic “Star Wars” movies. It whips us around so fast, though, that it’s impossible to see much; it’s less storytelling or world-building than the shallowest kind of tourism. Most disappointing of all is the trip that “Solo” takes into its hero’s head. Instead of making that journey and emerging with something rich and complicated that explains how Han became one of the great characters of the blockbuster era, and one of the most intriguing men in modern movies, “Solo” comes back mostly with treacle.
The new “Star Wars” movies have far too often made a giant, wild galaxy seem awfully homogeneous. Turning Han Solo, of all people, into a psychological cliche suggests just how far the “Star Wars” universe has shrunk.