Solo: A Star Wars Story box office results are a crossroads moment for the space saga. Here is what Disney must do to move the franchise forward.
When the dust finally settles on Solo: A Star Wars Story, long-term acolytes of George Lucas’s space saga may be reasonably content with it. Although this latest episode may have finally emerged, as AO Scott of the New York Times memorably put it, as “a curiously low-stakes blockbuster, in effect a filmed Wikipedia page”, its muted nature is unlikely to affect audiences for future Star Wars films. Nor will it send Alden Ehrenreich’s chances of retaining the role of Han Solo spinning into the nearest asteroid field.
As a shallow exercise in establishing Solo’s backstory, it ticks all the relevant boxes – even if it does so in workmanlike fashion. It is off screen, in areas that rarely find their way into critical reviews or fan verdicts (but that matter so much to industry watchers), that there is reason for concern.
Fans will not care that this is the most expensive Star Wars movie ever, thanks to reshoots following the sacking of original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. Nor will they remember that Ehrenreich allegedly had on-set acting lessons to look and sound like Harrison Ford. (He doesn’t, not even a little bit.)
But in years to come they may recall that the movie’s debut in cinemas marked a turning point in Disney’s fortunes – the sliding doors moment that led to the studio finally beginning to get Star Wars right. For the Mouse House has now had six years in charge of Star Wars, a period that has hopefully taught it something about how to steward the saga going forward. With luck, Disney can now put its foolhardy apprenticeship behind it and begin to learn the true ways of the Force.
The studio has called it right on a number of occasions. It correctly surmised that the kid-friendly, CGI-heavy approach of Lucas’s prequel trilogy was the work of a man oblivious to the reasons fans enjoyed his creation in the first place. The Force Awakens reintroduced audiences to the concept of a rollicking space yarn. Rogue One gave us the Blake’s 7 of the saga, a gorgeously doom-laden narrative of self-sacrifice that featured one of the series’ finest space battles.
Last year’s The Last Jedi, for all its faults, suggested that Rian Johnson is the right director to take Star Wars into new territory. Johnson’s antics with Luke Skywalker may have upset superfans, but he proved himself willing to subvert tropes and imagine new themes for the saga. His proposed new trilogy, free from the diminishing returns of the Skywalker family narrative, is a tantalising prospect.
However, as a cinematic universe, Star Wars’ does not yet boast the easy flow between pictures that Marvel enjoys. Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy has so far failed to assemble a team of film-makers capable of delivering original visions and keeping the narrative moving onwards and ever forwards. From time to time, the saga is still stuck in pre-hyperspace purgatory, the powers that be shaking their heads at the departure of yet another film-maker who seemed so promising, and muttering under their breath: “It’s not my fault.”
If it has any hope of hitting light speed any time soon, Disney needs to balance appointing the exciting up-and-coming writers and directors who will surely be the future of Star Wars and retaining the services of established directors such as Howard and Tony Gilroy (who was parachuted in to rescue Rogue One two years ago). The studio also has to strike the right balance between reconfiguring Star Wars in the mode of Marvel, as an endlessly episodic saga that’s built for laughs, and re-establishing the sense of cosmic wonder that permeated the original trilogy. It may well find it impossible to achieve both goals, at least if the audience reaction to The Last Jedi’s more irreverent moments is anything to go by.It needs a firm, confident hand on the Millennium Falcon, rather than the nervous, capricious pilot that appears to have been in place since 2012. Only then will the stars up ahead zoom into peripheral vision, as our heroes escape from the Dark Side of the Force all over again.