Star Wars has never been more popular. Take someone from summer 1977 who’s queued round the block to see the original film ten times, drop them into the mid-2010s, and even they’d probably say that the hype surrounding the franchise is a little extreme.
Disney’s purchase of Lucasfilm was, at first, contentious, but with the rousing return of the original cast and introduction of a new generation in The Force Awakens and the fan-delight narrative expansion of Rogue One, almost everybody’s on board. Whether you’re a life-long Star Wars fan who can read Aurebesh without prompt, or didn’t know your Vaders from your Mauls before December 2015, it’s hard to not be excited for where things are heading in that galaxy far, far away. Just look at The Last Jedi; Episode VIII is ten months away and people have been complaining about a lack of trailer for months.
But there’s one film on the slate that has been facing a surprising lack of hype: the untitled Han Solo standalone movie.
When you take into account all the talent, this is probably the most stacked film of the Disney era. The Lego Movie and Jump Street’s Phil Lord and Chris Miller are directing, with Oscar-nominated cinematographer Bradford Young controlling the visuals and Lawrence Kasdan, widely regarded as the best writer Star Wars ever had, working on the script with son Jon. The cast is just as solid. It’s led by Alden Ehrenreich, the heartfelt cowboy actor from Hail, Caesar!, as Han himself, who’s joined by Chewie and Donald Glover as the coolness-personified Lando Calrissian, a core trio that's supported by Woody Harrelson as Han’s mentor (identity unclear), Emilia Clarke (possibly the love interest), Thandie Newton and (potentially) Phoebe Waller-Bridge as the series' first female droid. Take this bevy of talent and give them a shooting schedule that means the project will be in no way rushed, and what’s not to like?
The problem seems to lie not in the abilities of those involved, but the purposefulness of the whole Anthology enterprise. Continuing the Skywalker Saga is a no-brainer with obvious direction, but what these Star Wars Stories mean is unclear. The first, Rogue One, plugged a well-known inter-movie gap, but Han Solo is just a prequel that shows the younger days of a beloved character - and Yoda knows Star Wars doesn’t need any more of those.
But is Rogue One really the barometer by which we should measure Han Solo by? Quite possibly not.
What Is The Purpose Of The Anthology Movies?
Anthology movies were an essential part of Disney’s initial pitch for Star Wars. The company's shock purchase of Lucasfilm was dominated by the realization that Episode VII was actually going to happen, but Disney soon confirmed they were looking at standalone films to release in-between the biennial Episodes VII, VIII and IX.
Initially mooted ideas included adventures exploring the background of such icons as Yoda and Darth Vader, although this was more the product of fan speculation than anything concrete. As we now know, the films being planned were Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One, Lord and Miller’s Han Solo and Josh Trank’s Boba Fett; the latter was shelved when the director left the project, but the other two moved ahead. What those confirmed projects – as well as talk of a Ewan McGregor Obi-Wan film on cards – point towards is a heavy focus on the Original Trilogy, expanding beloved characters from the events surrounding their first appearances.
Rogue One's finished product definitely adds that feeling; while none of its main characters were pre-existing icons, it not only tied directly into A New Hope (to the point you could edit Star Wars’ opening shot to its ending and barely see the join), but also had several major elements of direct crossover. Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher were recreated with CGI, archive footage of Drewe Henley and Angus MacInnes (Red Leader and Gold Leader, respectively) was used for the space battle, and the whole production design was centered on accurately recreating the first film. Of course, for this specific film it worked because to do it any other way would negatively hamper the story – while CGI Tarkin may have been controversial, there’d have been just as many complaints had he not appeared at all – but doesn’t apply for things more disconnected.
This may be where the Han Solo trepidation comes from. Do you really want to see Han settle down in the Mos Eisley cantina booth, watch a farmboy and old man stumble in and wink to the audience as the credits roll? Based on Rogue One, there's the risk of shedding a light on the areas directly around the movies, without any care for story beyond fan-bait.
But that reading isn’t the real purpose of the standalone movies. They are, quite simply, the true future of Star Wars. Back in 2012, when Episode VII was years away, it was easy to see the sequel trilogy as everything, but now with the second part drawing slowly closer the fact it’ll end is beginning to sink in. And what’s next? Episode IX comes out in 2019 and, based on the franchise’s structure, will round off Rey’s journey and resolve the Resistance-First Order conflict. After that, Disney could do an Episode X, but that either requires waiting the requisite time for actors to age, or forsaking the multi-decade gap between trilogies, and either way it risks cheapening Star Wars: when there aremore main series movies set after Darth Vader’s death than before, the space opera is really nothing more than a soap with laser swords.
The Anthology films are the way around this. Instead of forging further and further into a future of futility, Star Wars can expand around the movies that exist. So far it's been OT-era stories because that’s what’s safest – the prequels are still maligned by big portions of the fanbase and the sequels too mysterious to ground anything in yet – but as things develop Disney could become more daring. Rogue One showed there’s a massive audience for non-Skywalker films, setting up more world-building entries. It’s the Expanded Universe storytelling method applied to the big screen. You can see this already being prepped for with the titles of the sequel trilogy dropping the Episode numbering to make the distinction between Skywalker and Story movies harder at a glance.
What Is Han Solo Really Going To Be?
When it comes down to the Anthology films uniquely, the big distinction between them appears to be genre. Star Wars is famously a grab bag of cinematic influences, taking from Flash Gordon serials and Kurosawa epics with equal ferocity. The Stories are almost a reversal of the process, honing in on one element of the vast Star Wars tapestry and deconstructing it. There’s a finite number of explicit genres to work with, but an infinite number of mash-ups, styles and tones; Rogue One was a heist-cum-war movie and Han Solo will take on the western (presumably Boba Fett would be the underworld crime movie).
As such, Han Solo is already in conception a far way from Rogue One - and there’s more. Lord and Miller are best known for their taking of impossible ideas – a reboot of a TV show remembered only fleetingly due to Johnny Depp, a film based on a building toy, a movie called Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs – which not only makes them ideal for the doubted Han Solo project, but suggests it will have a more overtly comedic tone. That’s not to say it'll be all-out parody, but something more in-line with the lighter sides of A New Hope and The Force Awakens than the grit of the other Anthology.
But it goes beyond that. There's something intrinsically different in the very approach to the film that, even almost two years away from release, we can safely assess: the way it's handling classic characters, and by extension Star Wars iconography. In Rogue One, any major player who appeared in A New Hope - Vader, Tarkin, Leia, Dodonna, Red Leader, Gold Leader, Ponda Baba and Doctor Evazan - was recreated as accurately as possible through a mixture of intricate make-up, CGI, reused old footage or (in Dodonna's case) smart recasting and limited screen-time. Han Solo is going in the complete opposite direction and recasting everyone, going for actors who are feelalikes to their icon originals rather than direct lifts. How this will work is unknown, but it's a major creative difference allowed by presumed narrative distance (Lord and Miller won't need to tie plot threads into other beloved movies).
Going deeper into the film is hard given how far off from release it is, but there's several other suggestions for something unique. First is the size; despite detailing troops on the ground, Rogue One was a big movie on a similar scale to the main movies. Han Solo by its nature can’t embrace that, and the limited main cast would seem to back that up. Then you have the structure; there isn’t a specific life event of Solo’s to tell, and with such a wide base of touchstones – the film will definitely deal with Han’s mentor and his acquisition of the Falcon, and it'd be crazy if the Kessel Run doesn't make an appearance – it may take Rogue One’s removal of certain Star Wars elements and run with it into a uniquely told movie.
Han Solo may seem like the safest, most obvious and as a result most pointless of Disney’s confirmed Star Wars movies, but while it comes from the same sandbox as the rest of the series, everything about Lord and Miller's entry suggests it will be a franchise-altering event. Rogue One showed that standalone Star Wars movies could work - if Han Solo is a success, it’ll show their scope it unlimited.
- Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018) release date: May 25, 2018
- Star Wars 8/Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) release date: Dec 15, 2017
- Star Wars 9 / Star Wars: Episode IX (2019) release date: Dec 20, 2019