Solo: A Star Wars Story has hit theaters to a resounding “It’s decent.” It topped the box office its first weekend but came in significantly under expectations, and we probably shouldn’t be surprised.
But Solo has given me one thing that no other Star Wars movie has managed: It made Chewbacca into a character, not just Han’s pet.
[Warning: This post contains spoilers for Solo: A Star Wars Story.]
Yes, Chewie has always been Han’s dog
It’s a matter of record that Chewie was inspired by Indiana, George Lucas’ Alaskan Malamute, who reportedly enjoyed sitting in the passenger seat of his car when he drove around.
“A Malamute is a very large dog,” Lucas told Star Wars Galaxy Magazine in 1997, “like 130 pounds and bigger than a human being and very long-haired. Having her with me all the time inspired me to give Han Solo a sidekick who was like a big, furry dog.”
Chewbacca, a Wookiee, is Han Solo’s co-pilot and partner. The two have a long history as friends and smuggling partners. But if the Star Wars movies didn’t tell you that in dialogue, you’d never know it from the way other characters interact with Chewie. Because they all treat him like Han’s dog.
The best illustration of this is the moment when Luke tries to put binders on Chewie during Star Wars: A New Hope. Chewie has an understandably strong reaction to that, but instead of explaining himself and giving the binders to Chewie, Luke nervously hands the binders to Han and tells him to do it.
It’s a perfect picture of a guy trying to collar an unexpectedly aggressive dog, stepping back in surprise, and handing the collar to someone he knows the dog trusts. Luke doesn’t act as if Chewie, who is completely capable of understanding human speech, is a person he can reason with or explain himself to. He defaults to Han not just as an interpreter, but as a handler.
And lest you think this is a misinterpretation of a scene that was just intended to be a joke about Luke being afraid of Chewie, there are plenty of other examples to draw from.
“Will someone get this walking carpet out of my way?” Leia exclaims, not “Get out of my way, you walking carpet!” as if it were impossible to directly address Chewie. Jabba’s bounty on the crew of the Millennium Falcon is squarely on Han’s head, as if Chewie wasn’t an equal partner in their adventures.
“You must have been so brave,” a Resistance nurse patronizingly says to Chewie, a 200-year old warrior-scoundrel, in an admittedly humorous scene in The Force Awakens. A lot of folks complained that Chewie didn’t get a hug at the end of TFA, but the guy didn’t even get a medal at the end of A New Hope.
Indeed, Chewie’s tacit status as Han’s dog is so complete that Spaceballs parodied him as a literal dog-man.
But not in Solo: A Star Wars Story
In Solo, the only people who treat Chewie like a dog are Imperial soldiers. Even in a cage and covered in mud, Han recognizes a fellow being, not a “beast.” We hear Han speak Shyriiwook on screen for the first time — or at least a few halting phrases of it — as he attempts to communicate and conspire with Chewie, his fellow captive. Conspire, not soothe or win over, as you would a dangerous animal.
But it’s not just the characters in Solo: A Star Wars Story that treat Chewie differently, it’s the narrative. Here, Chewie has an interior life. We find out about his goals: locating members of the Wookiee diaspora, and his dreams: organizing them to take back their Imperial-occupied home planet of Kashyyyk. We understand his reason for being involved with the plot other than his loyalty to Han.
And that loyalty is tested when Chewie runs into a group of Wookiee slaves on Kessel. It’s not a piece of movie that’s relevant to the overall plot — in fact, it’s not entirely clear whether the other characters even notice it’s happening. But Solo: A Star Wars Story clearly shows the audience his inner dilemma: Chewie nearly abandons the crew of the Falcon to stay with the Wookiees on Kessel.
The subplot is even more impressive for being a non-verbal one (or, at least, one without subtitles). Before parting, Chewie and another Wookiee press their foreheads together in a desperate embrace, and if you didn’t have a lump in your throat, you weren’t paying attention. Was that Wookiee a member of his family? His tribe? Or were they simply the first member of his own species he’d spoken to in years?
To paraphrase Beckett from earlier in the film: “What’s the difference?”
This might seem like a little thing for a movie that’s all about Han Solo, but what is the story of Han Solo without Chewbacca? Solo: A Star Wars Story might be resoundingly “meh,” but it’s done something no other Star Wars movie has managed up to this point: It made Chewie a person, not a pet.