The Star Wars universe is ridiculous. And Han Solo knows it.
“The character kind of mocks the movies that he’s in,” said Ryan Britt, author of “Luke Skywalker Can’t Read,” a collection of essays exploring geek culture with a particular focus on Star Wars. “The character is an outsider, and he is the audience surrogate. Once Han is won over by everything that happens, the audience is won over.”
“Solo: A Star Wars Story,” which hits theaters Friday, stars Alden Ehrenreich as a young Solo, as he slowly becomes the character we know by meeting Chewbacca and Lando Calrissian, seeing the Millennium Falcon for the first time and having emotional experiences that color his worldview.
So what made Solo so beloved in the first place? The answer, of course, is easy: Harrison Ford did. And in doing so, he was a big reason Star Wars became a phenomenon.
Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Princess Leia Organa of Alderaan (Carrie Fisher) might drive the original trilogy’s main plot forward, but Solo is what set the Star Wars universe apart from other fantasy and science-fiction epics.
“He’s what makes these films different, because he’s a skeptic. He’s the person who’s a little skeptical about some of this stuff [that’s in the movies], like the Force,” said Chris Ryan, the editorial director of the Ringer who has written extensively about the franchise. “You don’t really have that in ‘Lord of the Rings’ or ‘Star Trek’ or ‘Game of Thrones’ — the person who’s just like, ‘I don’t believe any of this crap.’ ”
“He was able to take this arcane, mythology-sci-fi dialogue and make it sound like it was from a guy on the street,” added Ryan. “It showed that ‘Star Wars’ was not otherworldly, even while some of that stuff was foreign to us.”
By facing the fantastical aspects of the universe with a raised eyebrow, Solo also allowed the audience to be skeptical. So later, when he comes around, he invites the audience to follow his lead.
Ford’s performance informs all of this — which is why it might shock fans that he almost didn’t get the role at all. He wasn’t even allowed to audition at first.
George Lucas had a rule against casting anyone who appeared in his prior films, meaning Ford’s turn in “American Graffiti” disqualified him. Ford, meanwhile, had all but given up on acting, choosing instead to return to his craft of carpentry.
So, as J.W. Rinzler explains in “The Making of Star Wars,” casting consultant Fred Roos hired Ford as a carpenter on the film, thinking Lucas might rethink his rule. The director eventually did just that, asking Ford to read lines with other auditioning actors, and finally deciding that he was the perfect fit. Even though it’s unclear how badly Ford even wanted the job at the time.
Perhaps that casting backstory is what made Solo who he is. Because much of Solo’s ambivalence toward the very world he inhabits seems to be the attitude of Ford himself.
“With Ford you always got the impression that he didn’t really care,” Britt said. “He’s, like, ‘Let’s go back to drilling doors for people.’ You always got the impression that he could literally walk out at any second, and not in a prima donna kind of way, just in an ‘I’m done’ kind of way.”
The actor reinforced that notion in decades of interviews, such as in 2010 when he bluntly told MTV of Solo, “I’m done with him.”
Or that same year, when he told ABC, “As a character he was not so interesting to me. I thought he should have died in the last one, just to give it some bottom. George [Lucas] didn’t think there was any future in dead Han toys.”
Ford often changed his tune, though, such as when he then told Mashable in 2015 he “enjoyed myself doing [the first] ‘Star Wars.’ ”
Ford’s ambivalence was so strong that Hamill said he was counting on the actor to potentially refuse to return to the Star Wars universe. When Hamill wasn’t sure if he wanted to reprise Luke for “The Force Awakens,” he planned to use Ford as a cover, thinking, “He’s too old and too rich and too cranky. He’s not going to do this,” as he told the New York Times. Ford’s insistence on reprising his role ultimately convinced Hamill to do the same.
Ford essentially co-created him with Lucas — improvising throughout the movies, and giving Solo that gritty, uninterested edge that made him so likable.
Ehrenreich’s Solo isn’t quite the same. Young and impressionable, he fills the role with a cool cockiness, but also an earnestness absent from Ford’s Solo. But does it matter? Can Ehrenreich’s Solo — who, while entertaining, sexy and cool, doesn’t quite nail the character’s ambivalence, some critics say — affect how we feel about Han Solo in general?
“One of the most fun parts about Star Wars is you grow up and kind of imagine things for these people,” Ryan said, adding that the franchise “used to be a framework for imagination,” but now, with a movie like “Solo,” “we are entering into an era where there will be no backstory left unturned.”
It’s easy to imagine how Ford’s Solo might react to all this backstory: with a roll of his eyes, as he sauntered off into the distance.