SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY
Director: Ron Howard
Starring: Alden Ehrenreich, Donald Glover, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Thandie Newton, Paul Bettany, Joonas Suotamo, Phoebe Waller-Bridge
Ever since Disney aquired Lucas Film and gained the rights to Star Wars, they’ve promised new movies every calendar year with the new trilogy (The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, and 2019’s Episode IX) and standalone features (Rogue One) in between those movies. The latest is Solo: A Star Wars Story, which gives the backstory to fan favorite character Han Solo, previously played by Harrison Ford. Young Han is now under the capable hands of Alden Ehrenreich, primarily known for roles in the Coen Bros’ Hail, Caesar and Warren Beatty’s Rules Don’t Apply. Ehrenreich’s Han is based on the planet Corellia and is desperately trying to escape from the crime syndicate he’s involved in. He’s essentially committing crimes for others in return for survival and protection. He’s looking for a way off the planet and can easily hot wire any space vessel that can get him and girlfriend Qi’ra (Game of Thrones’ Emilia Clarke) out of any situation. Their latest attempt at escaping goes wrong separating them for an indeterminate time. Han promises to one day make it back to Corellia to be with Qi’ra.
The story jumps forward three years and finds Han as a soldier in battle. It’s here where he meets up with criminal smugglers Tobias Beckett (Harrelson), his wife Val (Newton), and future co-pilot Chewbacca (now played by Joonas Suotamo). Han concocts a scheme to join them on their heist mission aboard a train winding through the snowy mountains. It’s one of the best sequences in the whole movie. They eventually find themselves on another mission to transport coaxium fuel canisters. Han considers himself the fastest pilot in the galaxy, but what he needs is the fastest ship. That just happens to be the trusty Millennium Falcon currently owned by unlawful gambler Lando Calrissian (Glover) who’s not about to hand over the keys to his precious Falcon.
It’s best to go into Solo: A Star Wars Story with the right expectations. This is by far the lightest, minimalist movie in the canon, especially coming after the massive nature of The Last Jedi. This film is set a decade or so before Episode IV: A New Hope, so it doesn’t come with that sharp, futuristic feel of the newer films. In a way that feels appropriate given where it’s set in the overall timeline. Solo is quite scaled back in its production values as if it was given a third of the budget of the others. Screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan is no stranger to the franchise after writing The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, and The Force Awakens. With Solo, he’s partnered with his son, Jonathan, and they’ve given it a space western meets James Bond feel to it. It’s a character driven piece instead of a galactic space opera full of special effects and epic battles between good and evil with light sabers. As far as the standalone films go, this is missing that grand scale with huge stakes, which Rogue One still captured as it bridged the gap for audiences to the other movies they remember. It’s hard to tell if some of the film’s tonal issues come with the change in directors with Ron Howard stepping in weeks before production was supposed to wrap after the film’s original directors, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, were let go due to creative differences. Howard effectively brings it all together, but there’s a looming aura of something missing along the way.
Solo works the hardest at trying to buy in the audience to a variety of new creatures and characters like Qi’ra, Tobias, Val, and the film’s primary antagonist Dryden Vos, played by Paul Bettany. The end result is a mixed bag with a few characters leaving a strong impression, while others are wholly forgettable. As Qi’ra, Emilia Clarke has that sparkle in her eye that lights up the galaxy. She’s beautiful, but dangerous asking us if we should really trust Qi’ra, much like your standard femme fatale. Not once was I reminded of Clarke’s work as my favorite character, Daenerys, on Game of Thrones. Bettany is tragically lacking at making Dryden a juicy villain to follow in the footsteps of other villains like Darth Vader, Darth Maul, or Snoke. It’s worth noting that Bettany came into production after Howard took over with reshoots when original actor Michael K. Williams had to bow out due to scheduling conflicts.
Maybe it’s the purist in me, but it works the best when we have our returning characters like Han, Chewie, and Lando all back in the same scenes. I got a kick out of how the Kasdans play out the budding friendship between Han and Chewie, where the names Solo and Chewie came from, and seeing how Lando plays into all of this. You then try to connect all the dots to what we know of their relationships in A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back. The biggest challenge facing the film comes with how it treats the Han Solo character. This take on the character is not quite the Solo we have come to expect. He’s still growing into the quintessential bad boy image Ford gave him. He’s not quite jaded yet under Alden Ehrenreich’s take on the character. He successfully makes the character his own without relying on Ford impressions. He’s at his best when he gets to be arrogant and cocky flashing that winning smile of his.
Another big debate coming out of Solo will be about who steals the film between Ehrenreich or Donald Glover as Lando. I’m not fully convinced that Ehrenreich’s Solo would eventually become Ford’s Solo. On the flip side, I can easily buy into Glover one day turning into the Lando previously played by Billy Dee Williams. It feels effortless for Glover to inhabit this character and capture Williams’ tone without impersonation. My only qualm is that we don’t get enough Lando in this film given how strong Glover is, as it’s far too long before he appears on screen.
Of the newest Disney-owned Star Wars movies, Solo: A Star Wars Story is the furthest away from capturing that iconic Star Wars feel. The opening scroll is given a different approach, and the score by John Powell is lacking the depth and texture John Williams brought to the other films. I kept waiting for this story to lock in place and firmly connect itself to one of the other films. This change in approach may appease those who thought The Force Awakens was too nostalgia driven or thought The Last Jedi veered too off course. I think Ron Howard chose to ensure that this film played as a lighter, more playful adventure for the audience. I don’t know if the projection was poor at my screening, but Bradford Young’s cinematography seemed awfully dark oftentimes making it hard to really capture what was happening on screen. I’d rank Solo as mid-level Star Wars given the lack of compelling new characters, and that it’s missing the gravitas that’s come before. Now that expectations are in place, it may play better on repeat viewings if you can truly view it as a standalone film.
Is It Worth Your Trip to the Movies? Solo has a few winning performances but is playing it too safe given the character and franchise’s history.
RATING: 3.5 out of 5 TICKET STUBS