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What to know before you see Solo: A Star Wars Story

You can't keep a good scoundrel down. Han Solo might've met the wrong end of Kylo Ren's lightsaber at the end of The Force Awakens, but that's not going to keep Star Wars' fans' favorite scruffy-looking nerf herder away from the big screen. On May 25, 2018, Alden Ehrenreich takes control of the part that made Harrison Ford a household name in Solo: A Star Wars Story, Disney and Lucasfilm's second Star Wars "anthology" movie.

Even if you only know a little bit about Star Wars, you'll probably recognize Lando Calrissian (played by Atlanta and Community's Donald Glover instead of Billy Dee Williams), Han's best buddy Chewbacca, and his ship, the Millennium Falcon. And yet, over the past 40-odd years, the Star Wars universe has gotten awfully busy, and Solo looks like it's going to be packed with references and Easter eggs for dedicated fans. If you're not in that group, we've got you covered, leaving you free to simply buckle up and enjoy the ride. 

When does Solo take place?

When it comes to the Star Wars franchise, Disney seems to have two goals: cranking out a brand new Star Wars film every year, and wiping away the stench that surrounds the whole "prequel" concept. Rogue One, 2016's entry in the series, happens right before the very first Star Wars. The animated series Star Wars Rebels begins four years earlier. Solo takes place a few years before that, when Han is still just a young man trying to find his place in the world and not the infamous smuggler we've all come to know and love.

Going by the timeline established in the past sections of Last Shot, the Solo tie-in novel by Daniel José Older, Solo's action unfurls three to eight years before Darth Vader captures Princess Leia and Luke Skywalker leaves Tatooine (the novel's flashbacks, which bookend Solo, take place 10 and 15 years before the book's "present day" story, which unfolds two years after the Battle of Jakku). In other words, don't expect to see other baby versions of the OG Star Wars crew show up. When Solo begins, Han's criminal career is still a one-man operation.

That doesn't mean that you won't see some familiar faces, of course. In Solo, we'll finally learn how Han and Chewie hooked up, and will (hopefully) discover why the Wookiee owes Han a life debt. We'll get to see the very first meeting between Han and his best frenemy, the charming scoundrel Lando Calrissian, and we'll watch as Han meets his one true love. No, not Leia — we're talking, of course, about the modified YT-1300 Corellian freighter known around the galaxy as the Millennium Falcon.

Who is the Game of Thrones lady playing?

Game of Thrones viewers know her best as Daenerys Stormborn of the house Targaryen, first of her name, the unburnt, queen of the Andals and the First Men, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, breaker of chains, and the mother of dragons, but in the Star Wars universe Emilia Clarke goes by a simpler name: Qi'ra. The lack of titles doesn't make Qi'ra any less important, however. The woman might look high-class, but Qi'ra's just as sneaky and underhanded as Solo's title star.

"If you have got a really glamorous lady in a really sordid environment," Clarke has hinted, "you kind of know that maybe the glamour is hiding a few rough roads." We'd expect nothing less. After all, Qi'ra isn't just a pretty face. She grew up on the streets, serving as Han Solo's confidant, his partner in crime, and maybe his girlfriend. According to Clarke, she's got "a core of steel," and doesn't hesitate to do whatever she needs to do to survive. Gambling, smuggling, cheating, and fighting — for Qi'ra, none of it's off the table. In the tradition of the best femme fatales, Qi'ra's also hiding some major secrets behind her high-class smile. "The thing that that you see with Qi'ra is that she an enigma," Clarke added.

Qi'ra doesn't show up in the later Star Wars movies, hinting that she may not have a happy ending, but Clarke says that Qi'ra's influence on Han Solo lasts the rest of his life. After all, Clarke says, the young Han Solo spends his life surrounded by strong, capable, and independent women. "And then he meets Leia," Clarke pointed out, "so it all kind of falls into place."

Are we supposed to recognize all of those other criminals?

With all of Lucasfilm's tie-in books, comics, and TV shows, Star Wars continuity can get very complicated very quickly, but other than Han, Lando, and Chewbacca, almost all of of Solo's main cast is brand new. If you head into the theater without doing your research, it's fine. Not even hardcore Star Wars fans know who these people are.

You'll probably recognize the actors, however. Like Rogue One before it, the latest Star Wars prequel is full of accomplished character actors and other familiar faces. In Solo, Cheers, True Detective, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri star Woody Harrelson plays Tobias Beckett, a thief who serves as Han's criminal mentor, and who owes more than a little to Robert Louis Stevenson's infamous pirate, Long John Silver. Westworld's murderous madame, Thandie Newton, stars as Val, an expert marksman and the first woman of color to have a major onscreen role in the Star Wars film franchise. Paul Bettany, who portrays the Vision in Avengers: Infinity War, serves as the head of the Crimson Dawn crime syndicate (and, most likely, Solo's big bad) Dryden Vos.

Solo will have a couple of cameos for diehard fans, though. In the movie, Jonathan Kasdan and Toby Hefferman, who are respectively Solo's co-writer and first assistant director, will play Imperial officers Tag and Bink, a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern-type duo who originally appeared in Dark Horse's (now non-canon) Star Wars comics and accidentally influenced major parts of the original Star Wars trilogy. Their comics aren't essential reading, although they're quite funny and lots of fun. Tag and Bink are punchlines more than real pieces of the saga, and aren't crucial parts of Star Wars lore at all.

What's up with the Millenium Falcon?

If you've seen Solo's trailers, you might've noticed that the Millennium Falcon looks a little different. In the earlier movies, both Luke and Rey mistake the Falcon for a piece of garbage (in Rey's case, quite literally). It's dirty. It's run-down. It's, quite simply, a mess — and Han Solo wouldn't have it any other way.

Not in Solo. In the latest Star Wars adventure, the Millennium Falcon is well-lit, expertly maintained, and spotless. It's like it has a completely different owner — and with good reason. It does. When Solo begins, the Falcon is the property of one Lando Calrissian, a smuggler who's notorious for his impeccable sense of style. Donald Glover, who plays the criminal in Solo, told Entertainment Weekly that Lando's meticulous tastes extend to his ship, too. In fact, Glover was so impressed with Lando's Falcon that he'd hang out in Lando's room when he wasn't shooting: "I would just lay in his bed and read a book or write something because it is very comfortable."

Eventually, Han wins the Falcon from Lando in a game of sabacc (more on that in a minute), and according to Last Shot, starts fouling the place up  almost immediately. It's also worth noting that Lando isn't the Falcon's first owner. The ship made a cameo in Revenge of the Sith, which takes place years before Solo when Lando was still just a kid. Lando might've fixed the Falcon up and adjusted it to his needs, but by the time that he takes ownership, the ship is already very, very old.

What is sabacc, anyway?

In Solo, we're going to see exactly how Han manages to wrest control of the Millennium Falcon from Lando, and it's going to involve two things: gambling and some very creative rule-bending — if not, y'know, outright cheating.

Specifically, Han wins the Falcon by playing sabacc, which is essentially outer space poker. As revealed in Claudia Gray's Bloodline novel, the typical sabacc deck has 76 cards; 60 of those belong to one of four suits, with values from one to 11, plus four face cards (the Commander, the Mistress, the Master, and the Ace) valued at 12 through 15. The final 16 cards consist of eight pairs of special cards, each of which has its own unique, negative values. The goal is to compile a hand as close to positive or negative 23 as possible without going over.

If you want to play sabacc at home, you can. Way back in the day, West End Games published an official version of the game's rules, which Lucasfilm repurposed and re-canonized for a special promotion at Star Wars Celebration Anaheim in 2015. As far as equipment goes, you can print your own cards, and there's an unofficial app that replicates the game in its entirety, too.

Just watch out for rule variants. Like poker, sabacc comes in many different forms. According to The Force Awakens Visual Dictionary, for example, Han actually won the Falcon in a game of Corellian Spike, which adds dice to the proceedings to make things even more random. After he won, he dipped those dice in gold and hung them from the Falcon's windshield — you probably saw them make an appearance in The Last Jedi, when Luke hands them off to Leia in tribute to his dearly departed friend.

Why does Lando's droid look so weird?

In the grand Star Wars tradition, Solo will introduce a new droid to the Star Wars universe, and like R2-D2, BB-8, and Rogue One's K-2SO, she's all set to become the movie's breakout star. Still, there's something different about L3-37. Not only is she a woman (L3-37 is voiced and played by actress Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who's best known creating and starring in Amazon's Fleabag), but she's not nearly as shiny or well-put together as Star Wars' other robotic sidekicks.

There's a good reason for that. When Donald Glover told Entertainment Weekly that L3-37 is self-made, he wasn't using a metaphor. L3-37 literally built herself out of old droid parts. The top of her head looks like BB-8's. Her body is made up of pieces from an R2-D2-style astromech. Other appendages come from other robots, including C-3PO-like protocol droids.

It's more than just an aesthetic, too. In Last Shot's flashback sections, readers learn that L3-37 is both a committed droids' rights activist and deeply spiritual. "Some guy in a factory probably pieced me together originally, and someone else programmed me," L3-37 says in the book, "But then the galaxy itself forged me into who I am. Because we learn." When droids say "Thank the Maker," L3-37 explains, they're not talking about the physical beings who manufactured them. They're referring to the experiences that've shaped them into who they are. "Maybe we're our own makers, no matter who put the parts together," she says. That's pretty heady stuff for a machine, especially one whose name is a flat-out joke (L337 is a nod to '90s "leet speak") — and not a particularly good one, at that.

What's the story behind the mud planet?

Early in his career, Solo spent a very, very small amount of time serving the Empire on a planet called Mimban, which is set to make its big-screen debut in Solo. It's been a long, long time coming. Mimban hasn't ever been a big part of the Star Wars universe, but from a behind-the-scenes standpoint, it's older than Hoth, Bespin, Dagobah, and Endor.

Mimban first appeared in the 1978 novel Splinter of the Mind's Eye. Before Star Wars premiered, George Lucas didn't know that the film would be a hit. While he wanted to make a sequel, he wasn't sure what kind of budget he'd be working with, so he commissioned renowned sci-fi author Alan Dean Foster (who also wrote the Star Wars novelization) to pen a novel that could also function as a cheap sequel. In the book, Luke and Leia travel to Mimban, a planet that's covered in fog and full of tunnels (eliminating the need for expensive sets) in order to hunt down the mysterious Kaiburr crystal.

Star Wars was a hit, of course, and Lucas went on to make a much grander movie with The Empire Strikes Back. Still, Lucas and his partners never quite abandoned Mimban. Early drafts of A New Hope featured an unnamed "bog planet," and Mimban stood in for Dagobah in preliminary versions of The Empire Strikes Back. Rogue One almost used Mimban instead of Jedha, and the planet's been name-dropped in The Clone Wars animated series. Still, Solo will be the first time that Mimban's been featured on the big screen. Given that Han Solo doesn't appear in Splinter of the Mind's Eye, thanks to Harrison Ford's lack of a multi-picture contract, that's pretty ironic.

Who are those other Wookiees?

Some of Solo's promotional materials feature Chewbacca hanging out with at least one other Wookiee, and while we don't know for sure who those fuzzy critters are, we've got a pretty good guess: they're Chewie's wife and/or kids.

That's right: Han Solo's lovable sidekick is a family man. In 1978, the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special introduced fans to Chewbacca's wife, Malla, his son, Lumpy, and his grandfather, Itchy. The Star Wars Holiday Special wasn't ever canon, thank goodness, but the characters have made their way into proper Star Wars lore just the same. Alexandra Bracken's YA retelling of the original Star Wars film, A New Hope: The Princess, the Scoundrel, and the Farm Boy, brought Malla into the fold, while Lumpy appears in Chuck Wendig's Aftermath: Empire's End. According to the various Star Wars novels released after Disney rebooted the property in 2014, Chewie actually retired from the smuggling business to spend time with his family after the Rebellion ended, although the Wookiee still helps Han with odd jobs here and there.

During Solo, of course, things are different. While the Wookiees fought on the side of the Republic during the Clone Wars (Chewbacca even has a small role in Revenge of the Sith), the Empire conquered the Wookiee homeworld Kashyyyk and enslaved its inhabitants, as told in Wendig's book, Life Debt. That's why Chewbacca owes Han Solo his life: Han helped liberate Chewie from the Empire, which is an event that we'll probably get to see unfold on the screen when Solo finally hits theaters.

Who directed this thing, anyway?

Oh, you've heard about that? Yeah, behind the scenes, Solo's had a little bit of trouble. Rumors say that Lucasfilm hired an acting coach late in the game after growing concerned about star Alden Ehrenreich's performance, and reportedly brought co-writer Lawrence Kasdan (who also wrote and co-wrote The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Return of the Jedi, and The Force Awakens) on-set to help get production on-track.

That didn't seem to work, however, and in summer 2017, when Solo was right in the middle of shooting, Lucasfilm fired directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. According to reports, there were a couple of reasons. Lord and Miller clashed with Lucasfilm over Han's character. In addition, the directors, who are behind comedies like The Lego Movie, the 21 Jump Street reboot, its sequel, and the TV show Last Man on Earth, tend to improv a lot on set. That didn't work for a Star Wars movie, given how much the franchise relies on pre-production, planning, and media tie-ins.

Solo shut down for a few weeks, and when it resumed, veteran filmmaker Ron Howard was sitting in the director's chair (Miller and Lord will still get executive producer credits). Is that a cause for concern? It's hard to say. Obviously, Solo isn't normal. On the other hand, Howard is no slouch — anyone who's got Parenthood, Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, and Frost/Nixon on his filmography can't be that bad. Further, Rogue One had similar problems, and that ended up being pretty good. Besides, it wouldn't be a Han Solo adventure if everything went according to plan. That's just not Han's style.

Does it stand alone?

Solo is the 10th big-screen Star Wars movie (11th if you count the animated Clone Wars film). It gives backstory to characters that were introduced elsewhere. By design, it's one piece of a much bigger whole.

Solo's story, however, is a done-in-one. You won't find any cliffhangers here, and you don't need to watch any previous movies to understand what's going on. The Last Jedi this ain't. You'll probably get more out of Solo if you have a passing familiarity with the characters — one joke in the second Solo trailer, for example, only lands if you're up on your Star Wars catchphrases — but it's not necessary. If you're not an expert on everything that happened a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, you should be fine.

If you end up liking Solo and want more, however, you're not going to be disappointed. As mentioned earlier, Daniel José Older's Last Shot serves as both a prequel and a sequel to Solo, although its plot doesn't directly tie in to the movie. Most Wanted by Rae Carson, which comes out the same day as the film, will delve into Han and Qi'ra's adventures as kids on the planet Corellia. In May 2018, Marvel will publish a Lando miniseries that takes place right before Solo, while a few kids' books will tell stories about Chewbacca's heroic exploits.

If Solo ends up being really popular, we might get more big-screen adventures starring young Han, too. Alden Ehrenreich is signed up for three movies, so if Solo's a hit, it could end up kicking off a trilogy. We'll just have to wait and see.