Review: Solo: A Star Wars Story
Solo: A Star Wars Story is the fourth new film in the iconic sci-fi franchise since 2015, and it goes without saying that things have never felt so bland. The second entry in the anthology spin-off series that began with Rogue One and is set to continue with future installments, Solo takes one of the franchise’s most recognizable characters in terms of popularity, and gives him a plodding backstory that doesn’t add much to the universe and merely serves as an opportunity for Disney to milk more money out of devoted fans.
The story of how Han Solo became Han Solo is far from bad, but unremarkable, lacking any kind of identity, and too preoccupied with crafting elaborate sequences to answer the mystery behind little bits of exposition from past films. I’m sure that when initially envisioned, the concept of a “what if Han Solo, but young” movie seemed like a good idea on paper. Departing from the mystic Jedi background that has driven the series to date to focus on the criminal underbelly of the galaxy, and tracing the origins of Star Wars’ most charismatic and mysterious character, what could go wrong?
Even with the now infamous intervention midway through the project and director switch, the script at hand feels beyond repair. Ron Howard's workmanship skills made for a quick solution to Disney's director dilemma, but he's unable to give the story an edge, resulting in an overly basic, forgettable chapter. The final product has all the things you've come to expect, but the action sequences, one-liners, and frequent emotional beats never register, making the whole thing feel like an enormous slog.
It's doubtful that even the most ardent fans of Star Wars have been clamouring for the origins of Han Solo’s name, or the parameters surrounding what the Kessel Run is, or where Han’s gold dice came from (which until The Last Jedi, was a mere background prop). All of this and more gets an explanation in Solo, in such a straightforward manner that lacks personality. Even the sequence where Han meets Chewbacca for the first time (a moment that may come as a surprise in terms of how it retroactively alters each other’s origins) comes across as a sour note.
The genesis of the story itself is where the biggest fault of Solo comes in, as we follow him, Chewie, and a motley crew of disposable characters on a fairly straightforward journey as he seeks to find a position in the smuggler’s life, joining up with Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), a grifter looking to pull off a heist with his compatriates Val (Thandie Newton) and Rio (voice of Jon Favreau). He’s also aided by childhood friend Qi’ra (Game of Thrones’ Emilia Clarke), now working directly for crime lord Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany), a ruthless gangster and leader of the Crimson Dawn syndicate. And as shown heavily throughout the film’s marketing, a young Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) enters the fray and certainly livens things up, especially with his droid partner L3-37 (voice of Phoebe Waller-Bridge).
The cast itself is maybe the best thing in the movie, though that isn't saying a whole lot. Alden Ehrenreich is charming enough to make you believe he could become Han Solo one day, but here he’s still just learning how to embrace that roguish demeanor. There’s really not that much Harrison Ford in him, which certainly gives him room to differentiate himself over trying to do an impression, but the likeness begins and ends with the namesake. Woody Harrelson sticks out as Beckett, but that's mainly to do with him being a fairly high profile actor to feature in one of these films lately. Emilia Clarke does a fairly good job as Qi'ra, her arc and connection to Han forms the backbone of the narrative and as a result, she serves a vital role throughout and potentially the series’ future. Donald Glover does a great job as Lando in a stroke of casting brilliance, and it seems like a separate spinoff for him could be in the works, based on the performance and Glover’s own prominent star power.
Perhaps the 18-month break until a new Star Wars film is something of a blessing. These anthology movies have potential, but focusing them on a microcosm of the series meant to explain events referenced in passing feels lazy when given the vast range of opportunity this universe affords. And making it about Han Solo whose whole aura of mystery is what makes the character compelling, effectively does the character dirty, especially given the direction of some narrative decisions.
I have no doubt that the popular opinion will be in favor of Solo. The action sequences themselves, while nothing new, may be worth the price of admission for some looking to get their summer movie spectacle on. Others will likely be intrigued by the numerous bits of fan-service, which come across as a double-edged sword in how they are deployed right until the very end. But compared to The Last Jedi, the first movie in the series to be about something more than itself, drive a harsh message that divided fans, and act as a shining example of what these films are capable of, its hard to think of Solo as anything but a safe, digestible entry in cinema's most famous, gargantuan, billion-dollar transmedia empire.