Solo marks Star Wars' return to sleaze
The newest entry in the Star Wars series, Solo: A Star Wars Story, has something that other recent entries lacked: sleaze.
This is a relative term, of course. The Star Wars universe continues to be largely devoid of sex, as well as any violence bloody enough to threaten its PG-13 rating. But many of the earlier Star Wars pictures were able to at least create the illusion of sci-fi sleaziness with their glimpses at various facets of the galaxy's criminal underworld.
Han Solo, the titular protagonist of the latest entry, is a major part of this, not because he's a criminal (though technically he is) but because he's first introduced in the original Star Wars in the Mos Eisley cantina, a favored watering hole in that "wretched hive of scum and villainy" and the setting of what became a signature scene for the series. There are few evident heroes in the cantina, and many shady characters of questionable morals; no matter who fires first, Han and bounty hunter Greedo get into a small-scale shootout ending in Greedo's death, and none of the other patrons seem to care.
Later episodes would return to this vision of a galaxy with shady corners. Return of the Jedi opens with a long sequence centered on Star Wars sleaze ambassador Jabba the Hutt, and prequel The Phantom Menace forces the Jedi to negotiate with gambling-addicted slave owner Watto to repair their ship and free young Anakin Skywalker. But when The Force Awakens nods to the original film's cantina scene, it's an act of homage, not an exploration of a seedy underbelly, and The Last Jedi is more concerned with a different sort of amoral character — the richer patrons of the casino on Canto Bight.
Solo: A Star Wars Story, though, has almost nothing to do with the Jedi or the Force, and almost all of it is set on planets with some degree of lawlessness or corruption. Han begins the movie as an almost Oliver Twist-like figure, running low-level jobs for a wormy crime boss and orphan-lord. As promised by earlier Star Wars films, he eventually plays cards with the charming, slick, unscrupulous Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover, staying true to the character's larceny by stealing scenes). Cinematographer Bradford Young shoots many of these planets in low light, accentuating their grubbiness and one-upping the "used" aesthetic George Lucas insisted on applying to the original films.
Solo is not thematically challenging like The Last Jedi, or as gee-whiz charming as The Force Awakens, but chief among its many delights is its journeys into corners of the Star Wars universe where hardly anyone even flicks on a lightsaber, let alone does battle with one. This is a messier and often more mysterious look at this world, where the bad guys are more mean and avaricious than galactically evil. It's a welcome return; characters like Jabba or Watto or the menacing bounty-hunter lineup of Empire Strikes Back made the universe feel more viscerally lived-in, with lives that don't hinge on Jedi-Sith or even Empire-Rebel conflicts.
Yet — without getting into full spoiler territory — Solo can't completely avoid the brewing conflict between the Empire and the Rebel Alliance (it's set about a decade before the events of the original film). That makes sense, but it's also something of a disappointment. As shepherded by consummate company man Ron Howard, Solo feels too distracted by the stakes of its predecessors to fully throw itself into the Star Wars underworld. None of the creatures, for instance, make the same impression as the immense Jabba the Hutt, with his grotesquely wagging tongue and low, sinister laugh.
Still, Solo does an admirable job of imagining some new-yet-dingy corners of the universe, and it's chockablock with instant-classic Star Wars details, like the creepy head in a jar that sings back-up at a villain-packed club, or the light-allergic giant worm that menaces Han early in the film. The fan-service references are a lot of fun, too. It's just a shame that even 10 movies in, when Star Wars dips into the underworld, it always feels obligated to come back up for fresh air.