It doesn’t feel like it’s been nearly long enough to have a new Star Wars movie, but only five months after Rian Johnson’s polarizing The Last Jedi hit theaters, the second anthology segment Solo has jettisoned to screens in less than twelve parsecs. With a fresh take on one of cinema’s most beloved characters, it stands to see how this latest installment will fare with a following of devotees that is increasingly difficult to please. With little-to-no surprises or bold new directions for the franchise, this latest prequel is sure to sit with fair-weather fans better than anyone else.
After three stellar Star Wars entries, the streak takes a bit of a dive here. Not anywhere close to the degree of Lucas’s The Phantom Menace, mind you, but due to production issues and a concept lacking in ambition, Solo represents the first treat from the new era that rests more on the middling side. When Rogue One was in development, the fear that presided was that franchise newcomers would fumble tackling new material in a meaningful way, but Lucasfilm delivered a breathtaking vision, and shattered expectations. In Solo, however, the studio has matched them.
Let’s get something straight: there is absolutely nothing wrong with Lucasfilm branching off from the dominant saga, attempting to offer new stories from that galaxy far, far away, or focusing on iconic characters who have retired from the regular series. Star Wars’ mythology is astoundingly rich and expansive, fertile with material for decades to come. But at the same time, it’s ideal that these anthological installments uphold the Star Wars tradition of exhibiting unforgettable, industry-leading content. Solo is a fine film, but it falls short of this charge.
And that may be more due in part to conflict behind the scenes than anything else. Solo‘s production suffered from one of the most critical mishaps possible, and that is a shake-up in directors. Five months into filming, Christopher Lord and Phil Miller of 21 Jump Street and The Lego Movie were ousted due to “creative differences,” and movie mogul Ron Howard swooped in to try salvage the film. Howard reshot over 70% of the scenes, and in comparison to how rocky principal photography was, the final product is far more cohesive than one would expect.
In Solo, Star Wars explores the backstory of Han Solo for the first time, the cynical and cocky smuggler first introduced in George Lucas’s inaugural film, and originally portrayed by Harrison Ford. We begin in the slums of the planet Corellia, where a young Han (Alden Ehrenreich) and his love Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) are stuck working for gangsters to survive. When they devise a plan to board an imperial transport to freedom, Qi’ra gets left behind. With no money, Han signs up with the empire so he can learn to become a pilot and fly back to Corellia to return for Qi’ra.
As you can imagine, Han has trouble following orders, and doesn’t last long in flight school. He ends up in a party of ruffians led by Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) in a job stealing the flight fuel coaxium for the ruthless crime lord Dryden Voss (Paul Bettany). After the job initially fails, Han is shocked to find Qi’ra working as a lieutenant for Voss, and she is ordered to observe him on a run to Kessel for a new job stealing coaxium. During the course of events, Han also comes across Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) for the first time.
It goes without saying that Han Solo is one of cinema’s most prized and iconic characters, and there is a lot of weight resting on the task that Disney depicts him right here, and they do… Mostly. Alden Ehrenreich is well-cast as Solo: he captures the flyboy swagger perfectly, channeling Ford’s essence, but he also doesn’t just imitate. He makes the character his own, forging a colorful and engaging space pilot beyond what is offered in the material. The casting here is spot-on, but unfortunately, the writing on the scruffy-looking nerf herder is a bit off.
The original Han was a carefree swindler who would rather run or die than be tied down. This Han is a pathetic romantic, forever pining after a girl that doesn’t seem to share the same affection. It could be that the writers intended to depict him in an opposite light to explore his evolution, but that never occurs on-screen. Han here is a forlorn lover boy, not at all the star hopping smuggler of no attachments of the original films. The prequel mostly nails the character, but this aspect of the script is misguided, and is sure to provoke fans the most.
What is most surprising in all this is that the film is penned by original trilogy writer Lawrence Kasdan and his son Jonathan, who you would expect to know the character better than anyone, other than Lucas himself. But alas, he may have been holding onto a differing interpretation of the character all these years. Other than this, the film is mostly solid, but as this is a Star Wars film and not some mid-season stand-in, the content of the plot is a little too light. As a breezy summer blockbuster, however, it will fit in just right among the pack of seasonal spectacles.
Even with an action-bereft climax consisting of a game of convoluted detective-style “gotchas,” Solo is a delightful rush of 135 minutes that fly across the screen at light speed. The cast hits all the right beats despite a range of effectiveness in character writing, and though some of the action sequences tend to stumble, the film’s drama behind the scenes is hardly evident. Don’t expect to find any added depth to the smuggler here, but Solo is a brisk, undemanding space adventure that draws on elements of Westerns to add some proper fun to the Star Wars universe.
SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, Lucasfilm Ltd.
Directed by Ron Howard.
Written by Lawrence Kasdan and Jonathan Kasdan.
Starring Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover, Thandie Newton, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Joonas Suotamo, and Paul Bettany.
Released May 25, 2018.