A few weeks ago, I sat down for dinner with a friend of mine and was asked to explain Mad Max: Fury Road. My friend, who is not much of an action movie fan, had given into the Oscar hype and tried the first fifteen minutes of Fury Road one night before bed. She found the narrative to be completely impenetrable; would the story be any easier to follow if she watched the other movies? Not at all, I explained, and Mad Max is all the better for it. In an industry that avoids ambiguity like the plague, George Miller’s aim to make his Mad Max films a series of loosely connected localized myths is perhaps its most appealing feature. As many smart critics have pointed out, we live in an era starved for cinematic secrets, and any franchise that would rather challenge the audience than cater to their need for finality has my utmost respect.
Ambiguity is a powerful storytelling tool in film, no more so than in the Star Wars universe. The films of the seventies and eighties introduced iconic characters with pasts shrouded in mystery. Of the many problems inherent to Episodes I, II, and III, it is director George Lucas’s need to over-explain backstory that stalled the franchise out the most. That puts a lot on the shoulders Disney’s planned anthology Star Wars films. Over the past few months, Lucasfilm has auditioned every white male actor between the ages twenty and thirty-five, hoping to find just the right talent for the upcoming Untitled Han Solo Star Wars Anthology Film and instilling faith in fans that this origin story is in the right hands. And this past week, rumors started to circulate that Lucasfilm may have found its lead, with Deadline reporting that Alden Ehrenreich had emerged as the favorite for the role.
Should we be excited for Alden Ehrenreich as Han Solo? Absolutely. Ehrenreich stole an entire movie away from George Clooney and Tilda Swinton in 2015’s Hail, Caesar!, an impressive accomplishment for any actor, let alone one still more untapped potential than established talent. Unlike many actors his age, Ehrenreich has caught the eye of respected filmmakers who move outside the normal Hollywood channels – Chan-wook Park, Woody Allen, and Francis Ford Coppola (twice) included – and even checks an oddly prominent Hollywood box by starring in a failed YA adaptation (Beautiful Creatures). He’s charming, talented, and mostly devoid of onscreen connotations, giving the creative team behind Untitled Han Solo Star Wars Anthology Film the biggest potential franchise star this side of… well, this side of Harrison Ford, really.
That’s one way of looking at it. Here’s another: there may be a lot working in Ehrenreich’s favor, but none of it separates Ehrenreich’s career from the artistic and commercial successes of every candidate on Disney’s Han Solo shortlist. Maybe it’s possible to compare Ehrenreich to Taron Egerton or Emory Cohen and make the definitive case as to why one would be a better fit for Han Solo than the other, but my gut tells me that any of these three would be just fine. The casting process really does mean more to that individual actor than it does any member of the audience – for one, they would no longer need to answer questions about it while doing press for other films – which is partially why the buzz surrounding the casting rumors is a bit underwhelming, even for those who enjoy a good internet brouhaha now and then.
So if the casting is mostly just a high-stakes game of studio solitaire, and the film threatens to unravel the ambiguity around Han Solo that makes the character so much fun, isn’t Untitled Han Solo Star Wars Anthology Film a bad idea? I’m not sure that it is. For as much as we might value leaving things unsaid with these characters, there’s an opportunity here for someone other than George Lucas to tackle the lore of the Star Wars universe. It’s hard to picture anyone other else directing the Mad Max films partially because George Miller has already crafted his universe as a series of loosely connected anthology films. With Star Wars, we’ve reached a point of authorial fatigue where the original vision of George Lucas had run its course. Films like Rogue One and the new Han Solo movie are doing more than just telling significant stories in the Star Wars universe: they’re breaking the franchise up into pieces and democratizing ownership of these characters and history.
You can see something similar happening on television right now with George R.R. Martin and the Game of Thrones HBO series. While Martin did not ostracize his fans through his creative decisions, Westeros has also reached a point where its continued success depends on the ability of other writers and producers. If you’re like me and believe that Martin will never actually publish another Game of Thrones book, then you’ve made your peace with the idea that Martin’s original vision for the characters will never be realized as originally intended. Lucas wrote an incredible climax and struggled to begin his story; Martin wrote an amazing beginning and can’t quite work his way to the end. Even if there will always be fans who value the original cannon over the new stories, there are many more who recognize it’s time for someone else to pick up the slack.
So good luck to Alden Ehrenreich and the entire creative team behind Untitled Han Solo Star Wars Anthology Film, but for once, I’m not sure that the cards are stacked against a movie prequel. We often treat the storyteller as a hallowed position in film and television, but every so often the storyteller becomes the person impeding the progress of a story. George Lucas created a universe that speaks to people everywhere in the world; now’s a very good time to see what that universe looks like when divided up among other talented filmmakers and actors.
Related Topics: Star Wars