Director: Ron Howard
Screenplay: Jonathan Kasdan, Lawrence Kasdan
Starring: Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover, Thandie Newton, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Joonas Suotamo, Paul Bettany
Runtime: 135 Minutes
It is strange to consider how the roles of the new Star Wars films have switched from their original conceptions. That being that the ‘Episodes’ would be the safer choice, while the new ‘Story’ spinoff features would take greater risks with newer approaches. But considering just how much The Last Jedi shook up the canon, the spinoffs now feel like the benign outliers filling in the gaps of the mythos while trying not to step on the toes of the main storyline and established events.
Solo: A Star Wars Story finds itself in a more restricted place than its predecessor Rogue One, standing as a prequel story depicting the early years of fan favourite Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) as the rugged smuggler with a heart of gold. To retroactively add too much to the character would put it in danger of damaging a character who emerged fully formed in the original 1977 classic, so there’s only so much leeway they can handle while throwing in as many references and elements as they can that fans will recognise and maybe look at in a new light.
So, to say Solo doesn’t really offer anything massively consequential or substantial to the already recognised character or narrative is pretty valid. It basically rattles off a checklist of ‘things to include in a Han Solo origin story’ right down to the nature of his eponymous supposed surname. A bingo game could very easily be played and won based on the sheer number of predictable elements it brings in to play.
That having been said, what it does offer by leaning heavily into the angle of a high stakes western works so solidly – for the most part – that it’s easy to view it as any other space adventure film that happens to be taking place in the Star Wars galaxy, casting Han as the aspiring space cowboy at the centre of it.
The whole film hinges on the construction of heists, in which Woody Harrelson’s Tobias Beckett leads a ragtag band of criminals from the galaxy’s underworld through various largescale set pieces in search of their fortune and to pay off the debts of the crime lords hanging over them. From an impressive looking train robbery, to the mass liberation of slaves in the spice mines and the infamous gambit through the "Kessel Run", the sequences are delivered with intensity and grant it a swashbuckling feeling mostly absent from the more dramatically engaging space opera of the others.
Despite the heavily publicised breakdown of the production, whereby original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were removed from production over “creative differences” and threw things into temporary turmoil amid rumours of onset troubles and extensive reshoots, the workmanlike Ron Howard has stepped in to salvage the film and mostly manages it through being as competent a technician and storyteller as he is. Even if he offers nearly nothing new in the way of aesthetic beyond a dusty visual scheme with occasional splashes of colour.
Amid the fears surrounding his portrayal, Alden Ehrenreich is a sterling and enormously charismatic lead in a difficult role. He captures the swagger and motions of Harrison Ford’s original performance but makes it more than just an emulation as a likeable presence, with his to-and-fro with Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) at the start of their friendship delivering some of the best interactions.
Also on hand are a talented if occasionally underused cast of supporting hands. Donald Glover is channelling a near perfect imitation as a young Lando Calrissian, and considering that’s all he needed to turn up and do he more or less nails it, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge is alternately irksome and refreshingly different as Lando’s first mate and equal rights advocate droid L3-37, who involves herself in a droid rebellion at the Mines of Kessel.
Woody Harrelson is quietly appealing as a surrogate father figure, while Thandie Newton appears and then disappears. Paul Bettany delivers a good psychopathic bad guy. Emilia Clarke is certainly better here than she’s been in most features as femme fatale love interest Qi'ra, but much of her characterisation is held off till late in the game and feels set to pay off in a sequel that the film obnoxiously keeps baiting.
This is a sad consequence of the fundamental nature of its narrative position, and what ends up making it the most complacent and underwhelming Star Wars film for quite some time overall. The exposition dumps come fast and heavy at points, the pace stops and starts between the big beats and closeup call-back references, and a cameo appearance near the end might excite some for the future while it’s likely to make others feel older than they’d like to acknowledge.
It’s a let-down then because all the work with framing the story as a western really does work. From its depictions of goldrush boom towns, slave labour camps and silent standoffs in isolated villages – and culminating in a triple-cross climax that plays things relatively small and character focused for a change while revelling in the moral ambiguities of the little seen middle space occupying this universe – the outline and structure might work as its own entity. But it also wants to deliver on that safe familiarity in a way that feels benign and a little unmemorable.
Not the disaster that was anticipated by followers of its production history, how Solo functions as a genre film is more even-handed and interesting, but in general it’s a conventionally told jaunt that’s just breezy and sporadically entertaining enough as an action film to get away with it.