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[This story contains spoilers for Solo: A Star Wars Story]
Within the great drama of Star Wars, death has been a carefully doled out act for its major characters. It’s been a significant part of the franchise’s most shocking and in turn memorable moments, like when Obi-Wan Kenobi was struck down in the original Star Wars, or when Han Solo was impaled by Kylo Ren in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, or when an entire cast of characters met their fate at the end of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. The stakes of life and death have helped add to the emotional texture of this iconic galaxy, while enhancing their immediacy.
But Ron Howard’s Solo: A Star Wars Story yearns to be the product of a darker, more unpredictable cinematic atmosphere than any Star Wars installment before. It’s not only that these environs and heroes aren’t blessed with The Force, but that death and darkness is a way of life. To convey this, Solo boldly and bizarrely kills off some of its supporting characters in its first and second acts. But within the scheme of the film’s narrative, these characters are essentially martyrs to storytelling that is concerned with looking busy more than anything.
The deaths of supporting characters Rio, Val and L3-37 are essentially a continuation of a recent Star Wars trend that started with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. In that film, Forest Whitaker played Saw Gerrera, a protagonist of significance to lead hero Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) and her story. When he dies early into the movie, it’s a shocking experience to characters and viewers alike. But it’s also a challenge to the unwritten Star Wars dramatic playbook and the franchise’s history of character deaths. This wasn’t a random Rebel pilot meeting an end in an opening battle; it wasn’t even that one dead Ewok in Return of the Jedi. This was a figure who was featured on the poster but killed in the middle of what could have been a much longer arc, especially given the caliber of the actor playing him.
Solo fails to capture the shock of Gerrera’s death despite having three of its own. It proves why Star Wars should resist the Game of Thrones-esque temptation to kill off characters, especially those who don’t have much screen time in the first place.
For example, let’s look at what happens to the dearly departed and affable Rio, as voiced by Jon Favreau. He’s introduced as a welcome cartoonish presence, excitedly asking if Han Solo’s unnamed crush has sharp teeth. But after three of four scenes, he is shot in the middle of the train heist, as if to primarily give Han a chance to be seen flying something. Unexpected, sure. But something about his death feels inconsequential and it actually softens the sense of life-or-death stakes.
In this same scene, Solo also does away with one of its most interesting characters from the start, Thandie Newton’s space pirate Val. Given her romantic relationship with Woody Harrelson’s Tobias Beckett, her loss is meant to be a devastating moment. But that emotional story runs cold, with Newton’s charisma wasted to be a casual impetus for Harrelson’s character. It’s another death in which a new, barely established character seems tossed away for a cheap shock.
The film’s biggest death comes for Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s robot L3-37, which is a strange reward considering the wonderful comic relief and breathless pizazz she brought to the story. Killed during the robot rebellion that she helped start at the Kessel mines, her death is shocking most of all for its pointlessness. It feels particularly miscalculated as the film gets progressively bigger laughs from her quips, and plays like another opportunity to get a new side character out of the cockpit so that we can see ol’ Han & Chewie pilot the Millennium Falcon together. Even when the movie spends a minute to show how her death devastates her partner Lando (Donald Glover), the story blazes on and doesn’t look back. L3-37’s brain is used to navigate the Falcon during the famous Kessel run, but we know that she could have been of more use to the story than that.
This all points to a larger problem that plagues enjoyment of Solo. It’s busy with twists but struggles to compound them into a thorough tension. This is a massive film that thinks too small when it comes to drama, feeling like a collection of climaxes that sometimes include the death of characters you’ve just started to like. In Solo, deaths are not shattering moments but a means to keep things in motion, as with a cameo from a space squid that pops in to make Han’s mythic Kessel run even more challenging. The hollow spectacle of Solo is like watching Lando and Han’s tensionless games of Sabacc. The rules don’t matter, it’s only about who is getting played.
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