WARNING: The following contains major spoilers for Solo: A Star Wars Story, in theaters now.
The Star Wars film franchise got by for decades by leaning on the hero’s journey narrative structure. A young boy (or young girl, as is the case with the present trilogy) would rise from nothing to become either a powerful, righteous Jedi or a nefarious, corrupt Sith. The two sides duked it out with lightsabers and Force powers to resolve problems both personal and intergalactic in scope. Matters ranging from parentage to political supremacy were decided in this manner until 2016, when the first Star Wars anthology movie, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, was released. Rogue One introduced series fans to new facets of the galaxy far, far away, a trend the most recent anthology movie, Solo: A Star Wars Story, has maintained.
Solo is a heist movie at its core. The film spends some time exploring Han Solo’s (Alden Ehrenreich) formative days on the dreary factory world of Corellia, taking time to introduce his accomplice and love interest Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) along the way, but after that it’s off to the races. Han meets his soon-to-be mentor Tobia Beckett (Woody Harrelson) while the man is posing as an Imperial officer (he’s actually there to steal a shipment of starship fuel from the Empire). The job goes wrong and Han, Beckett and Chewbacca suddenly find themselves deep in debt to the Crimson Dawn crime syndicate. The newly-formed smuggling crew agrees to take on a very dangerous contract to make up for the lost fuel, one that sends them to the strangest corners of the galaxy. Solo is only tangentially concerned with the doings of the Empire and the Rebellion. In the film, the Empire is well into its rule and looking to expand its reach. The Rebellion is still only a conceptual thing.
But Han and Beckett’s adventures also serve to expand how moviegoers think of the Star Wars universe. Each stop on their trip confirms something about the franchise that audiences likely assumed, but could never confirm because the evidence rarely presented itself. Corellia reveals how the oft unseen impoverished class lives -- they’re beholden to the will of the Empire and their children are sold off to minor crime syndicates. Han and Beckett’s meeting with Crimson Dawn leader Dryden Vos’ reveals how corrupt, cutthroat and diverse the Star Wars criminal underbelly really is (the same can be said of Han’s sabacc game with Lando). Their trip to Kessel to steal unrefined coaxium finally shows the horrors of slavery in a narrative universe that has only dealt with the inhumane practice in an idyllic, whitewashed kind of way.
Everyone and everything in Solo is covered with a thick coat of grime, even more so than in Rogue One. Character motivations are complex and far deeper than the tug of war between good and evil often depicted in mainline Star Wars films. There’s no better example of this than Qi’ra.
Qi’ra is first introduced as Han’s love interest and accomplice on Corellia, but that doesn’t last long. The two are quickly separated, and Qi’ra has three years to develop on her own. In that time, she becomes a lieutenant in the Crimson Dawn, serving under Dryden Vos. She accompanies Han and his crew in stealing the coaxium, and even does away with Dryden Vos right as he’s about to take out Han. This seems like a perfect moment for Qi’ra to make a righteous turn, to join with Han or Enfys Nest and become a hero. But here Solo makes one of its most surprising reveals, turning Qi’ra into a willing villain and servant of former Sith Darth Maul. Qi’ra’s decision is perhaps one of the most complex, yet grounded, in Star Wars lore, proving that even in a galaxy far, far away, some people don’t want to be liberated. We’re not meant to see her as particularly malicious or benevolent, only as what she is: a survivor.
The Star Wars franchise has slowly been creeping towards a new tone that eschews the black and white finality that defined the prequel and original trilogy films. That change kicked off with the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and Rogue One doubled down on it. Solo might be Star Wars at its most ambiguous, though. That level of ambiguity might not be needed throughout the whole franchise, but as a side story centered around Star Wars’ most beloved scoundrel with a heart of gold it makes sense and adds a welcomed dash of complexity.
In theaters now, Solo: A Star Wars Story is directed by Ron Howard and stars Alden Ehrenreich as Han Solo, Woody Harrelson as Tobias Beckett, Emilia Clarke as Qi'ra, Donald Glover as Lando Calrissian, Thandie Newton as Val Beckett, Phoebe Waller-Bridge as L3-37, Joonas Suotamo as Chewbacca and Paul Bettany as Dryden Vos.