Before he was the gun-slinging scoundrel who always shoots first, he was young, scrappy and hungry. This is the man we meet in Solo: A Star Wars Story.
Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich), a street urchin from the backwater planet of Corellia, enlists in the Imperial forces with dreams of becoming a pilot. Stuck in the infantry, Han chances across a group of smugglers and sees a way out. He ingratiates himself with the group’s leader Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and becomes acquainted with the Wookiee Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo). Han finds himself entangled in a web of warring crime syndicates as he sets off on a mission to steal a shipment of the valuable and highly volatile fuel Coaxium.
Tobias and his crew must deliver the Coaxium to the dangerous crime lord Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany), head of the Crimson Dawn syndicate. Along the way, Han runs into his boyhood sweetheart Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), who has fallen in with some unsavoury characters. Han also crosses paths with the dashing smuggler Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) and sets his heart on acquiring Lando’s beloved ship. As he launches head first into adventure, Han takes his first steps into a larger world.
Solo: A Star Wars Story has mainly been greeted with cynicism. You’ve probably heard murmurs about how this is an unnecessary endeavour, or how Disney is milking its cash cow. Look at it this way: the Star Wars galaxy is a vast playground for filmmakers to explore. It makes sense that the first anthology movies, Rogue One and Solo, cover not entirely untrodden ground, before future instalments branch off into farther reaches and further away from what we’re familiar with.
Brian Daley’s Han Solo Adventures book trilogy and Ann C. Crispin’s Han Solo Trilogy explored Han and Chewie’s adventures before meeting Luke and Obi-Wan. A movie covering similar ground seems logical enough.
This film has had a rocky journey to the screen, with initially-hired directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller fired and then replaced with Ron Howard. Yes, it’s tempting to imagine what might have been, but all things considered, Solo does not feel like a movie that was taken apart and hastily reassembled. It might not work as tightly as Rogue One, which similarly underwent reshoots under a different director, but Solo hangs together well enough.
The general criticisms about Solo, in addition to how its existence is not exactly vital, are that Alden Ehrenreich doesn’t match up to Harrison Ford and that the movie is formulaic and going through the motions. We’ll get to the leading man in a moment. This reviewer will argue that being formulaic is not a bad thing if the result is entertaining, and Solo is supremely entertaining. After all, the Star Wars movies are often formulaic, following patterns established in mythology and storytelling across the ages. This is a movie that hits the ground running, is bursting with energy, and while there are times when it seems like a corporation-mandated product, there is a bit of welcome eagerness and scrappiness to it.
Like Rogue One before it, Solo works to bridge the Prequel and Original trilogies, with references to characters and events from both. Solo feels tactile and lived-in, with our characters visiting various dusty, windy, grimy, muddy locales. The creature effects are supervised by Neal Scanlan, who worked on The Force Awakens, Rogue Oneand The Last Jedi. There is a reliance on puppets and prosthetics, and while there are computer-generated or enhanced creatures and sets, nothing in Solo feels entirely synthetic.
The set pieces are executed well and are generally enjoyable. There’s a daring train heist which is a genuinely pulse-quickening sequence, and we get to see Solo and co. undertake the risky Kessel Run. Just as with Rogue One, this reviewer was initially worried that Solo “wouldn’t feel like Star Wars”. To us at least, it does. The design elements could’ve done with a little more creativity, though.
Solo’s narrative must hit certain mile markers and portray all the important moments that made him who he is. Despite this requirement, it never feels like things are on autopilot. Howard has been decried as a “safe” choice, but there’s still liveliness and humour to the proceedings. This does not come across as a movie that was narrowly plucked from the jaws of death, limping into theatres.
Few people are going to give Ehrenreich a fair shake. The actor visibly tries his best to capture the essence of the iconic scoundrel, and while he’s not Harrison Ford (because really, who else is?), he’s better than most will give him credit for. Ehrenreich is not effortlessly cool, but that works here, because we’re meeting a Han who is finding his footing and who has yet to be moulded into the man audiences know him as. He’s about on par with Sean Patrick Flanery, who portrayed a younger version of that other popular Harrison Ford character in The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles.
Woody Harrelson plays the mentor figure with a trick or two up his sleeve, and the Tobias character plays very much to Harrelson’s strengths. It’s nothing we haven’t seen from Harrelson, but it makes sense that this is the guy that taught Han Solo much of what he knows.
Donald Glover is a fantastic Lando — vain, charismatic, smooth and owner of a walk-in closet filled entirely with capes. There’s a subtle inflection that is very reminiscent of Billy Dee Williams without feeling like an SNL impersonation, and there’s just enough of Lando in this that this reviewer wants to see what else Glover can do with the role.
The supporting characters introduced in this film are not as memorable as those in Rogue One, but still fit well within the narrative. Emilia Clarke is fine as Qi’ra and there are times when this reviewer was really hoping she and Han would end up together, before realising that it’s a foregone conclusion that they won’t. Since The Force Awakens and Rogue One both cast young English brunettes in the lead, perhaps a leading lady who’s a little different from that mould would have been a little more interesting.
Suotamo does a lot of physical work as Chewie, and the film’s depiction of how Han and Chewie meet is an absolute hoot and one of the best moments of the film. Bettany’s crime lord is archetypical but still sufficiently commanding. The character was intended to be an alien played by Michael K. Williams, and the character was reworked and recast when Williams was unable to make the reshoots.
Alas, Thandie Newton is criminally underused, and what seems like an interesting character isn’t given much to do.
There’s joy to be found in Star Wars movies that are layered and philosophical, but there’s also joy to be found in a straightforward, exhilarating adventure, which Solo is to a tee. There are flaws, there are places where it could’ve been a little wilder and freer, but as a detour from the main series, it has its charm.
RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars