The Star Wars Universe is often treated as the stuff of fantasy. And that makes sense given all the cool stuff it contains. Fighter pilots! Lightsabers! Space Wizards! No wonder that generations of Star Wars-loving kids have wanted to visit Tattoine, Hoth, Cloud City, Jakku, and Corellia. But as Disney releases more films fleshing out what was really going a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, it has become increasingly clear that children should not want to go there. The new Han Solo spin-off, Solo: A Star Wars Story, drives this point home more thoroughly than any of the previous movies about sad-eyed orphans and rebellious teddy bears.
More and more, Star Wars movies seemed designed to make kids feel lucky to have been born on Earth.
Solo opens on Corellia, a dusty, smoggy, and industrial planet where he’s forced to steal and smuggle for an alien mob-boss. It appears that whatever parents he had died long ago. When viewers find Han on Corellia, he’s still a very young man. But around him are literal children, young teens, living as “scrumrats,” fighting over the bits and pieces they’ve acquired to give to the boss for money and food and a place to live. They have no education or healthcare. They wear rags. It sucks.
Solo’s one friend (and lover) Qi’ra, played by Emilia Clarke, also has no family to speak of. They are both itching for a way to escape, and they nearly do so together. Unfortunately, they’re separated and Han has no other choice but to join the Imperial Army as a pilot in order to raise funds to free his beloved and himself. Years later, when they reunite, Qi’ra has been forced to make unfortunate compromises and terrible friends. She has done the things necessary to survive, but she has not thrived and she has witnessed horror.
Although the film is populated with adults, those adults are the reminders of what harsh experiences and a lack of options do to otherwise innocent kids. A character named Tobias Beckett, played by Woody Harrelson, preaches the gospel of “never trust anyone.” In a heist movie, which this is, that has a sort of rakish charm to it But there’s nothing remoting rueful about Beckett’s big lesson to Han. He means it. He is alone and he will always be alone. We don’t know how long he’s been this way, but an encounter late in the film implies that it could have been a while.
Solo must face down a bandit who — and there’s no need to go into the details here — turns out to be a teenage girl. This is shocking for the audience, but not overwhelming to the characters, who are comfortable with the idea that a desperate kid might organize a gang and strike out on her own. Young warriors are sadly common in the world of Solo, which does well not to play off this horrific situation as an opportunity for empowerment.
What is a young girl doing leading a gang of righteous thieves? What’s a young man like Han Solo doing growing up on the streets of Corellia, stealing valuable goods to survive? Why is Qi’ra helping terrible people? The answer to almost every question about motivation presented in Solo is desperation. Desperation is the forge in which our protagonist is shaped and hardened. This both explains his later behavior (shooting first, struggling in emotional relationships) and makes him a relatable character. What it does not do is make the Star Wars Universe very appealing at all.
It’s curious and worthy of note that Disney has made the decision to double down on the darkness even as it opens theme parks that will allow millions to literally visit the galaxy George Lucas dreamt up so many years ago. In keeping the setting dark, Disney has retained focus on the characters and their evolution over time — something that really lacked in the prequels. In a sense, this makes the films better for kids, who can really learn about how people change and relate. In another sense, it may make the films confusing for younger people prone to wondering if imaginary worlds ought to be joyful.
The Star Wars Universe brings joy because it is a thing we share, but it is not a happy place. And that’s an interesting lesson for children. Joy exists only in good company. Going solo means going without.