The latest ‘Star Wars’ movie turns the iconic franchise into a pile of required reading.
It took George Lucas more than 20 years to release four Star Wars movies. This week, Disney reached the same milestone, less than six years after purchasing the franchise and less than six months after the last entry in the series, The Last Jedi. The Ron Howard-directed Solo: A Star Wars Story has been in production since before the Disney deal was even a twinkle in Lucas’s eye, and it shows:
This film feels like a relic of another era of Star Wars storytelling, an olive branch extended to the legions of fans who were infuriated by the bold myth-making of The Last Jedi. Where that film made the galaxy feel infinite and beautiful again, Solo returns to an incestuous, hopelessly interconnected version of the Star Wars universe, a world where C-3PO was built by Darth Vader and Han Solo’s girlfriend works for Darth Maul.
That’s right, Solo brings back The Phantom Menace‘s scene-stealer for a brief cameo that derails the last 15 minutes of the film. He’s a lot talkier here, with Ray Park returning to mouthily overact his way around Sam Witwer’s spoken dialogue. For most general audiences, Maul’s presence here will be met with total confusion; upon the reveal of his face, my theater echoed with a few whispered “What?”s. It’s an effective surprise, and totally incompetent filmmaking.
To understand what Darth Maul is doing in Solo, you need to know that he returned on Lucasfilm’s canon cartoon show The Clone Wars, on which it was revealed that he had survived his legless fall into a Naboo reactor pit. This new Maul comes fully equipped with robot legs and a burning desire for revenge. His arc on the show ends with an ascent to criminal overlord (on Boba Fett’s home planet, if all of this wasn’t insufferably fan-wanky enough for you) and a heated lightsaber battle with Emperor Palpatine.
The very fact that all of this needs to be explained is proof that it should never have been included in the film. It’s one thing to nod at extraneous expanded universe material with brief background cameos (Lucasfilm’s last standalone Star Wars did this quite unobtrusively with some subtle nods to Star Wars Rebels). And there’s nothing particularly wrong with giving a cartoon character a prominent live-action role; Rogue One‘s Saw Gerrera originated on The Clone Wars as well.
But Darth Maul is a character most prominently known for his barn-burner of an appearance in The Phantom Menace, and part of that cultural knowledge is tied up in his untimely demise. To have him appear alive and well in a new Star Wars movie, set years after The Phantom Menace, is to openly thumb your nose at an audience that doesn’t pay attention to Star Wars material beyond the films. It’s a flagrantly corporate business move designed to make every part of the franchise into a requirement. It’s also just plain bad on a purely narrative level, lacking any kind of creativity whatsoever.
Maul’s cameo in Solo doesn’t even serve to complete the story that was left incomplete when The Clone Wars was canceled; the character’s arc already came to a close on Star Wars Rebels, in which he returned once again and was killed once again, by Obi-Wan Kenobi in last year’s “Twin Suns” episode. Maul’s Solo appearance is instead concerned with fruitlessly filling in the space between two other pieces of the all-important Star Wars canon. Like most other things in the movie, it exists entirely in service of some other piece of entertainment.
Maul’s scene in the movie resembles the many, many moronic fan theories that circulated the Internet in the wake of The Force Awakens. Imagine if The Last Jedi had actually featured a scene where Supreme Leader Snoke turns directly to camera and leered “I am Darth Plagueis.” Rian Johnson, smart filmmaker that he is, knew how dramatically inert that would have been. In a post-screening Q&A session transcribed by Entertainment Weekly, he said on the matter, “It would have stopped any of these scenes dead cold if he had stopped and given a 30-second speech about how he’s Darth Plagueis. It doesn’t matter to Rey. If he had done that, Rey would have blinked and said, ‘Who?’ And the scene would have gone on.”
The reveal of Maul in Solo has exactly the same impact Johnson describes. When Maul removes his hood and ignites his double-sided lightsaber in a pointlessly dramatic hologram message to Emilia Clarke’s Qi’ra, it’s an aggressively tension-free moment. When he creaks to his robot feet and ignites his lightsaber menacingly, it serves no narrative purpose beyond confirming his identity to the audience. Within the universe of Solo, the scene has no impact outside of its reference to something else. Qi’ra doesn’t react; she doesn’t know who Darth Maul really is because, like most members of the audience, she hasn’t watched Star Wars: The Clone Wars.
And this is only the most obvious symptom of a disease that spreads throughout the film. For something supposedly conceived as standalone, Solo is remarkably concerned with endless references to other pieces of Star Wars arcana. As it turns out, Han Solo received his famous blaster, met Chewbacca and Lando, made the Kessel Run, and won the Millennium Falcon all in a matter of two or three days.
The movie is so concerned with frantically connecting all these dots that it forgets to be about anything itself, rushing from character to character and event to event without any time for a single performance or set piece to really breathe. This is the most remarkable thing about Solo: It manages to effortlessly ape the atmosphere and forward drive of a Star Wars movie without ever coming close to approaching the deeper meaning that has always run beneath the surface of the franchise, even in its weakest entries. It’s a hollow imitation of a Star Wars movie, a finely polished Millennium Falcon running on fumes.
Star Wars today is engaged in a crisis of identity, with the modern films split between the bold leaps of the sequel trilogy and the dull gap-filling of the standalone entries. It feels almost as if Lucasfilm is determined to placate both halves of its divided fanbase, with the company’s upcoming slate including both a series of wholly original films conceived by Rian Johnson, and the continuing Star Wars Story brand, soon to focus on Boba Fett and Obi-Wan Kenobi.
The Star Wars franchise as it exists today has these two potential paths to take. Johnson’s The Last Jedi had no regard for last names or legacies; it buried the Skywalkers with quiet dignity and expanded the touch of the Force to include young scavengers and broom-wielding slaves alike. Meanwhile, Solo has nothing but reverence for its lead character’s last name, even granting it its own painfully silly origin story. One of these films points towards that far-off horizon, twin suns shining in the distance, leading to a limitless and unfamiliar future where the series can sustain itself on the depths of an infinite galaxy. The other choice, Solo’s choice, is far easier, and far more dangerous. If it isn’t careful, Star Wars will drown in the sands of Tatooine, chasing a familiar landscape that cannot be sustained, one that abandons the bold freedom that made the franchise special to begin with.