‘Solo’ is only the second ‘story’ film set within the Star Wars Universe, but it comes to audiences with so much baggage it begs the question of whether or not Disney/Lucasfilm can sustain its grand plans for the franchise. As understood by the industry and fans, the idea behind these ‘Star Wars Stories’ was to tell unburdened tales of characters within and adjacent to the events of the main episodes, giving talent the freedom to play in the sandbox creatively. It remains unclear whether or not it bodes well for the future that the ‘Solo’ end product is a competent, fun, adventure film with nods to canon lore and expanded content.
When it was announced that everyone’s favorite rogue smuggler was getting his own feature (and possible pre-quel trilogy) set a decade prior to the events of the original ‘Star Wars’ movie, the news was met with a bit of a shrug and a head scratch. How could any young actor possibly inhabit one of the most defining roles played by one of the biggest, most charismatic stars on the planet? How would this story tie into the larger tapestry in both tone and content? And most importantly, what would be the point of taking on such a challenge? The answers would prove to be even further complicated by what could be construed as behind-the-scenes chaos, ranging from the late replacement of the irreverent directing team of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (’21 Jump St.’, ‘The LEGO Movie’) with the steady hand of industry vet Ron Howard, extensive reshoots and recasting, and the hiring of an acting coach for star Alden Ehrenreich.
‘Solo’ fills out some of the backstory for the cynical space pirate, bolstered by a large and assured supporting cast. The movie opens on couple Han and Q’ra, in an initial chase scene played with youthful fervor by Ehrenreich (thankfully not doing a Harrison Ford impression) and Emilia Clarke (ditching her regal ‘Game of Thrones’ persona effectively). It’s jarring to find a Han Solo so full of hope and possibility, a contrast to the jaded, self-serving man introduced to audiences in 1977. What enfolds from here are a series of events and character introductions that begin to influence his future mindset. The new faces acquit themselves well, including Woody Harrelson as wry seasoned criminal / father-figure Beckett, Thandie Newton as his wary paramour Val, and Paul Bettany as Dryden Vos, middle-manager in the criminal organization Crimson Dawn. Inevitably, ‘Solo’ also reveals Han’s first meetings with best bud Chewbacca (now played expressively by Joonas Suotamo) and eternal frenemy Lando Calrissian (an as suspected, perfectly cast Donald Glover who’s obviously having a blast). The movie handles these interactions very well, despite a few on-the-nose callbacks, while also introducing one of the most welcome newcomers – L3-37, Lando’s droid companion played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Her mo-cap/vocal performance provides the biggest laughs of a consistently chuckle-worthy film as an uninhibited force advocating for droid rights, a cheeky but clever riff on an oft-wondered aspect of this cinematic universe.
In true serial fashion, ‘Solo’ opens up as many questions as it answers, leaving the audience wondering if the whole affair has ramifications on the saga at large. To its detriment, like all prequels of known properties and characters, the movie also lacks stakes. When a characters’ full arc is already established, it is generally hard to muster enthusiasm, despite a flexing attempt by father/son screen-writing team, Jonathan and Lawrence Kasdan (who wrote ‘Empire’, ‘Jedi’, & ‘Force Awakens’, therefore cementing the Han Solo aesthete). ‘Solo’ is effective at transporting its audience into fully realized, lived-in settings rife with various nefarious and gray-leaning characters, and maintaining momentary investment in the happenings on screen, but unlike the main Episodes, the movie is only really alive during its runtime, offering a pleasant diversion within larger IP . . .
Directed By: Ron Howard
Written By: Jonathan & Lawrence Kasdan
Running Time: 139 min.
* * * (out of 4 stars) -OR- B