(Spoilers for Solo and Rogue One)
Following Disney’s purchase of Lucasfilm, the company responsible for the Star Wars movies didn’t take long to announce the production of new installments. Episodes seven through nine, direct continuations to the Skywalker family saga, were the first to appear on its calendar. Other movies, set in the same universe but separate from the main story, soon joined them.
There was great potential in this last idea. These Anthology movies (as they were known initially) could explore and further develop any idea or corner of the galaxy the other movies and their media spinoffs had barely touched on. The sky (and the format of a PG-13 blockbuster) was the limit.
Rogue One, the very first Star Wars Story, was based on an idea from visual effects supervisor John Knoll about the theft of the Death Star plans, an event only alluded by the opening crawl of the original Star Wars. In December 2016, we would see completely new characters on an adventure that had as much in common with a classic war film as a Star Wars movie.
The second film announced, be it because of its concept or its coming second, sounded a lot less exciting. The movie that would become this May’s Solo: A Star Wars Story promised more of the same: the story of a beloved character whose backstory was a mystery, but not one people were dying to figure out. There was no need, outside of money and nostalgia, to return to this character.
Yet something odd happened. While Rogue One promised to open up what a Star Wars movie could be, Solo, the prequel that nobody wanted, was the one that delivered. While the movie gives us loads of information we don’t really need (how Han Solo obtained the Millennium Falcon, his blaster pistol and his name; how he met Chewbacca and Lando Calrissian), it also gives us a more fresh and nuanced universe, and a much different idea of what a theatrical Star Wars can be.
This may seem like a knock on the previous spin-off, but truth be told, I like Solo only slightly more than Rogue One. So let’s begin by looking at what the earlier film got right, because I feel it’s a movie with a lot of bright ideas and a lot to celebrate. Its director, Gareth Edwards, has a unique gift for scale, very much appreciated in a film where the most important character is not a human (or an alien) but a moon-sized space station, which Edwards shoots with grace and beauty.
It never goes quite as far as Solo, but Rogue One adds to the Star Wars mythos in its own way. Its villain is an excellent example. Though Orson Krennic is an agent of the original trilogy’s Galactic Empire, he has more in common with a branch manager than someone like Darth Vader. He is a pathetic figure, one with no real power besides what the more powerful Emperor and Grand Moff Tarkin deign to give him. And Ben Mendelsohn’s determined performance seals Krennic’s place as one of the best characters the Star Wars universe has produced.
Rogue One also further complicates the black and white morality of Star Wars. It is still the story of a noble rebellion taking on an evil empire, but its heroes don’t always share goals and methods. The Rebel Alliance, Rogue One tells us, is not a monolithic unit but an awkward conjunction of cells that collaborate, not because they want to, but because they don’t have a choice. Its characters are no strangers to extreme measures: Cassian Andor doesn’t think twice before sacrificing an ally to the cause, and Saw Gerrera, the movie suggests, is basically a terrorist.
For all these reasons, I don’t want to say that Rogue One adds nothing to the Star Wars universe, but rather that Solo goes a step beyond.
A key difference is both movies’ take on the Force. While Rogue One is the first movie in the series without a Jedi as the protagonist , the concept of an energy field that binds the galaxy together itself is hardly absent. Darth Vader himself has a key role that sees him take out his lightsaber and use his powers to brutally dispatch rebel soldiers. The mother of protagonist Jyn Erso, urges her daughter to “trust the Force”. And though Chirrut Îmwe and Baze Malbus, monks from the order of the Guardians of the Whills, have no access to its powers, they still worship the Force religiously. It is they who repeat the movie’s more memorable line, “I am one with the Force and the Force is with me”.
Solo goes two hours without even mentioning the Force (Darth Maul, in a cameo appearance does use it, but more on that later), and this is felt throughout the movie’s morality. The world of Solo is one of chance and self-interest. As a certain smuggler once said, “No mystical field controls my destiny.” No higher power is there to impose a system of values on these characters. This, more so than the movie’s plot and photography, truly takes it into the amoral realm of a western and a heist movie.
Loyalties are good only for a while, a way for their mercenary characters to obtain the material rewards they want. The movie’s two opposing “factions” are the criminal syndicate Crimson Dawn, represented by Dryden Vos, and the rebellion-sympathizing pirates led by Enfys Nest. Han’s crew falls somewhere in between, torn between both sides and their own disparate interests. Solo is not the first Star Wars movie to show characters who are capable of betrayal or are motivated by self-interest. But Lando Calrissian from The Empire Strikes Back and DJ from The Last Jedi are there to show that not all fall squarely within the categories of good and evil. In Solo, moral ambiguity is not the exception, but the rule.
Solo’s characters, whether heroes or antagonists, are all pirates and mercenaries. The Empire appears only at the margins, but is used effectively. More than a symbol of evil, it is the authority and legality that its outlaw characters have to constantly elude. They are the cops in a gangster movie, but as previous movies established them as part of a fascist government, the morality of following characters who dispatch them without remorse is, fortunately, a lot less complicated.
Family is another theme that Solo approaches differently from previous Star Wars movies. Rogue One, despite being the first in the series not to focus on the Skywalker clan, is still one where family and genealogy are key. The relationship between Jyn and Galen Erso is as important to Rogue One as Luke and Vader’s is to Return of the Jedi.
In Solo, these bonds either don’t exist or don’t matter. Yes, Han’s father is briefly mentioned and Beckett is a father figure of sorts, but neither man is more important to the title character as Qi’ra, his first love.
But the scale of both movies may be what sets them the most apart. Greig Fraser shoots Rogue One in gritty, muted colors and creates a texture unlike any previous movie in the series. Yet the movie ends as any other Star Wars movie would: a space battle, a land skirmish and its main characters infiltrating an enemy base. It’s a big, dazzling ending where the fate of the galaxy truly feels at stake — not too different from what we saw at the end of Return of the Jedi and The Phantom Menace.
Solo’s ending takes place entirely within Dryden Vos’ quarters and the nearby beach where his ship is stationed. It’s a lot smaller, but also more complex given its characters’ different loyalties. It has less in common with Star Wars than with film noir (The Maltese Falcon comes to mind), and therefore feels a lot fresher.
Solo is not a perfect movie. I won’t defend how it treats its female characters (Thandie Newton and Phoebe Waller-Bridge deserved a lot better), or Maul’s cameo (which makes sense within the series’ canon, but takes too much attention away from its supposedly emotional ending). I wouldn’t like a sequel. But the movie filled me with something this franchise has always treasured: hope.
There’s a lot to like in Rogue One, but it almost immediately made me question the viability of a Star Wars film without the Skywalkers, the Force or the Jedi. The movie should have broadened the series’ horizons, but wound up feeling too familiar.
First time I saw Solo, I have to admit, I didn’t like it a lot, in part because it didn’t feel very much like a Star Wars film. It was too small, too inconsequential, and its characters too shallow. Why should I concern myself with the problems of a petty criminal when there’s so much more to this galaxy?
Then I saw it a second time and realized this petty criminal was one of the many more things this galaxy had to offer. That by lowering the stakes, the movie had finally broadened the definition of what a Star Wars movie could be. And it was fun too. Once I adjusted my expectations, I enjoyed its individual action scenes, its fast (at times too fast) pace, and the chemistry of its cast a whole lot more. By focusing on a very specific corner of the galaxy, its criminal underworld, and crafting an entertaining story around it, Solo suggests that this galaxy is rich in characters and tales. It lacks the grandeur and drama we have come to expect from a Star Wars movies but, given that we will be getting a new movie once a year for the foreseeable future, maybe that’s a good thing.