Flying Solo

On the 18th October 2017, Ron Howard wrapped up production on the then-untitled new Han Solo movie. He marked the moment by tweeting a video, at the end of which he revealed what the title of the new film would be. I remember the anticipation of that moment, the big reveal that we’d been waiting for. And then he revealed that it would be called….. “Solo.”

I felt disappointed. What a boring name. Of all the titles they could come up with for a movie about such a beloved and fascinating character, they chose…his name. That’s it. I was still excited for the movie, but man, I hated that title.

Jump forward around 7 months and I had just seen Solo at a midnight screening. I loved the film, and still do. I began my usual process of starting to break down the storytelling and the themes, and as I ran through some of the scenes and moments in my head, some pieces began to fall into place. And that title that I’d hated so much, I suddenly loved.

Let’s talk about why.

There’s a scene early on in the film where Han is trying to escape his home planet with Qi’ra, the woman he loves. They are separated, and in an attempt to escape his pursuers he ducks into an Imperial recruitment office to sign up, in the hope of finding some protection from those hunting him. Then a huge moment happens. The Imperial officer behind the desk asks him his last name….and he has no answer. He doesn’t have a last name. The officer keeps pressing him for an answer and asks “Who are your people?” And Han pauses, and the shot holds on him. And in his face you see his loneliness, his isolation. Then he says “I don’t have people. I’m alone.” The officer, who is just trying to get the form filled out, decides on the spot that he’ll give him the last name “Solo.” And there we have it, that’s how Han became Han Solo.

In most screenings I was in, that scene always got a laugh from the audience. And it is a funny little moment. But there was also a heap of backlash to that scene, people who HATED it. Who thought it just a little too “cutesy” and “clever.” Like an unnecessary piece of fan service. But I noticed in almost every reaction to that scene everyone missed the moment before the joke. The moment where Han pauses. And the camera lingers on him. The shot holds and we see the lost empty look in his eyes. And you see the weight of this moment for him. Because that moment is the moment where it hits home for Han how alone he is, that he has no people. And that is the heart of the entire film.

Now you might think that’s a stretch to pull that from such a small moment, but as I dug further into the film itself, and interviews with the writers and filmmakers, I came across a ton of evidence throughout the film that this idea of being alone, of searching for family, is central to the heart of this film. But before we start digging into some of the other characters and scenes, let’s take a moment to hear from legendary screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, who along with co-writing Solo with his son, also wrote the screenplays for a few small films such as Empire Strikes Back, Raiders Of The Lost Ark, Return Of The Jedi and the recent The Force Awakens. A somewhat impressive resume.

The idea for this film was in development before Lucasfilm was sold to Disney, so once the sale had happened, Kasdan had to pitch the idea for the film to Bob Iger, the head of Disney, and here’s what he had to say about that moment:

“My presentation was, [Han] comes to an immigration spot and someone asks, ‘What’s your name?’ It’s not just that he doesn’t have a name, which tells you a lot about his history. He says ‘I have no people.’ That to me is so forlorn and so isolating and rife, and the guy fills in his name. Bob Iger said ‘Alright, I’m in.’ That was it. That was the moment. He reacted to it the way I reacted to it, which was, it’s very moving. This was a guy who has nothing. Someone plants a name on him. He doesn’t even know the guy. It sticks for the rest of the saga.”

He said the idea for that scene, was the whole reason he came on board with idea of doing a Han Solo film. That was the moment where he felt like he had a story to tell. So when the screenwriter of the film says that’s the heart of the film, then you should find this theme repeated throughout.

So if we can express the theme of the film as “the lonely searching for family” then how else do we see this communicated in the film? The most consistent form is in the characters, and for time’s sake we’ll only address a few.

Qi’ra is an orphan just like Han, we hear nothing of her family or if she has any. We know only that she is completely alone without Han, and in need of safety. They express very early on that the galaxy is not a safe place for a couple of orphans. So in the absence of genuine family, and with the need for the safety of one, she falls into the dysfunctional family of the Crimson Dawn crime syndicate. She follows a pattern she has learnt growing up as an orphan, that if you prove yourself useful, you will be safe. And this rings so heartbreakingly true. There are so many people who in the absence of a safe loving family, find themselves falling into harmful and dangerous associations purely for safety, purely for a sense of belonging. She lost the closest thing she had to a family in Han, so for safety finds a twisted version of it again in Crimson Dawn and Dryden Vos. And upon Han’s return she has to decide which she will choose. Will she stay with the world she now knows so well, the simplicity of “if you’re useful, you’re safe.” Or does she take the risk of someone accepting her for simply who she is, not based on usefulness. And her wrestle all film is that she doesn’t think she is acceptable, she believes she’s done too many bad things. That she isn’t worth of love just for who she is anymore. So in terms of theme, yep she’s dead on. She’s alone and searching for family, but is scared of trusting the real thing when it suddenly returns.

There’s two characters who extremely overtly convey this idea, so we’ll easily fit both into one quick paragraph. Chewbacca: he literally says he’s alone and searching for his tribe/family. Done. And Rio Durant, who has all the bravado and bluster of saying he can’t be tied down etc, but as he dies says to Han “It’s not good to die alone.” Sometimes theme is not communicated subtly at all, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Lando Calrissian is not a man with friends. He has associates. He has people he stands to gain from. And he has enemies. He’s portrayed as a man who sees people as opportunities for his own advancement, and tellingly the closest thing he has to a friend, is a droid. He is very alone, wrapped up in his own ego and image. And when we see his heart break over the loss of his droid L3 it’s clear to see he’s looking for the same thing everyone else in this film is looking for, a family. Somewhere to belong. No matter his bravado and the show he puts on, when he loses L3 it hurts him deeply, because he lost his only friend. It’s hard to find a family and a home when you’re only allegiance is to yourself.

And this is where we see the markers that tell us Han isn’t the scoundrel, that he really is the good guy. Try as he likes to project that he’s dangerous and an outlaw, he isn’t that guy. He isn’t selfish. He looks out for others, not for his own gain, but because it’s the right thing to do. He lets Chewbacca go in the mines of Kessell when he sees some other Wookies needing help, even though it puts their entire plan and his own life at risk. He gives Enfys Nest the coaxium, sacrificing a huge fortune. And it’s these moments that tell us that Han will be okay, that he will find family one day. Because that’s what it means to be in a family. It means not looking out for yourself anymore. It means you’ve found other people who mean more to you than anything else, and you will sacrifice for them. And in one of the closing scenes of the film, he has that very thing offered to him.

Early on in the film, when Han relays to Beckett and Val that Chewbacca is looking for his tribe or family, Beckett’s response is “What’s the difference?” Because true family has less to do with blood, and more to do with loyalty and sacrifice. So at the end of the film when Enfys Nest asks him to join her, she’s asking him to join a family. A group of lost souls who’ve found a bond that’s bigger than themselves, the beginnings of the Rebellion. Han refuses to join, and this is where once again this film rings so true in it’s portrayal of humanity. Because it takes more than a few days to heal from a lifetime of danger and not having a family. Of not having someone you can trust, and never feeling safe or that you belong. It can take years of loyalty and love from someone before we can truly learn to give ourselves over to others. Of slowly learning that you can let yourself go and someone will catch you. It takes someone just like a certain “giant walking carpet”, who’ll spend years loyal and by your side before you start to learn what it means to not be alone anymore. And maybe, somewhere in the future, you might be ready to trust your future into the hands of others. To give yourself over to something bigger than yourself.

And finally find a family.

So when I see the title of the film now, I don’t see just his last name. I see a word that is filled with meaning that cuts to the heart of who this character is, and I see the center around which everything in this film is circling. He is Solo, but he’s looking for more. And so is everyone else in the film. And that kind of thematic clarity seems so rare in screenwriting these days. That kind of connectedness where everything is filled with not just meaning, but a singular idea that resonates through the entire film. That’s the kind of writing that thrills me, to discover that beneath the surface of a fun ride there is a careful design that is full of heart and humanity, and ideas that are at the core of who we are and what we’re looking for as human beings.

We are Solo. But hopefully we won’t stay that way.

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