Considering all the drama surrounding its production — directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller were fired four months into principal photography by Lucasfilm head Kathleen Kennedy, who hired veteran filmmaker Ron Howard to reshoot reportedly 70 percent of the movie — it’s a wonder that Solo: A Star Wars Story is as entertaining and tonally cohesive as it is. The film, a look at the early life of Han Solo and the events that turned him into the cocksure smuggler who gives Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi a lift in the original Star Wars (A New Hope), is less concerned with the overriding mythology of the Rebellion and more interested in being a straight adventure…a bit like A New Hope, in fact.
To some degree, it succeeds. There are no mentions of Jedi Knights or the Force or Death Stars in Solo, which is refreshing in and of itself. The movie takes us to the fringes of the Empire where smugglers, spacefaring gangsters, and other shadowy operators ply their wares and run their schemes without attracting too much Imperial attention. It’s also a corner of the Star Wars galaxy where slave labor, both human and cybernetic, is very much in effect. Hence how we first meet young Han (Alden Ehrenreich) and his childhood friend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), both toiling on Corellia and dreaming of escaping to the stars in their own ship.
From that premise, one could build a Star Wars film that is perhaps new and different but remember, this is the story of Han Solo, so the movie has to get around to ticking off a series of boxes. It is no spoiler at all to inform you that the film chronicles how Han and his loyal Wookiee co-pilot Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) first met, how they crossed paths with smuggler Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), and how they came into possession of the Millennium Falcon. Each of those events is trotted dutifully out with a flourish, like the opening of a new wing in a museum, while the rather thin plot trods along with virtually no suspense or stakes since you know where all three of those characters end up.
The rest of the story involves Han and Chewie teaming up with a professional criminal named Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and his crew, with Beckett becoming something of a mentor to Han and teaching him a few hard lessons along the way. Qi’ra also reappears in the story after she and Han are initially separated, and all of them eventually come together around a master crime boss named Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany) and a plan involving a dangerous heist.
I mentioned the dreaded “spoiler” word earlier, but the truth is that there are hardly any of them in Solo. Sure, the plot has a few twists and reveals, as all plots do, but there’s nothing about this movie that ever comes across as genuinely surprising, which is not exactly a shock itself since Howard is the ultimate journeyman director, and writers Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan play it mostly safe the whole way.
The characters themselves are archetypal and the cast is fine. Ehrenreich (Hail, Caesar!) comes across at first as somewhat bland, but as the story progresses he subtly brings out suggestions and fleeting mannerisms of the older, snarkier Han. He won’t make you forget Harrison Ford but he’s not supposed to: he’s playing Han Solo at a younger age, not the actor. Ehrenreich is not incredibly dynamic, and his chemistry with Clarke is nearly nil, but he does develop an easy rapport with Chewie (Suotamo now effectively owns the part) that is one of the movie’s most endearing aspects.
As for the venerated Glover, I realized watching Solo that I had not really seen him in much before (having not watched Atlanta or Community) and was wondering why I was underwhelmed by his Lando. He does do a nice riff on Billy Dee Williams, but the script doesn’t give Lando a whole lot to do except play cards and bicker. Perhaps he might do better if Lando was the focus of the story, but let’s not give Lucasfilm any more prequel ideas right now.
Harrelson and Bettany have a good old time with their roles — the latter enjoys playing a combination of malevolence and foppishness — while Clarke is serviceable. The most bracing character and performance is L-3, Lando’s droid companion voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge. She’s a bot who finds her voice and purpose as a champion of droid (and human) rights, as well as gender equality when she inadvertently becomes the leader of an uprising late in the film. Her righteous fury is a jolt to the system when Solo begins to lull the viewer into a kind of dull, nodding complacency.
And that’s really the problem here. Whether or not they’ve done it intentionally, Kennedy, Howard, and Kasdan, along with their cast and crew, have gone in the completely opposite direction from the last Lucasfilm release, The Last Jedi. Whether you liked that film or not, you have to agree that it refused to play by the rules. Solo, on the other hand, does everything by the rules. It’s two-plus hours of fan service and Easter eggs masquerading as a movie, and while it may give you little fizzy bubbles of nostalgia along the way, it leaves absolutely nothing behind in terms of a lasting impression.
Howard does direct it well (as he does with most of his movies), and both the action sequences and visual effects are marvelously staged and executed. On the other hand, he’s fighting against Bradford Young’s murky cinematography, which casts everything in muted blues and grays. That worked for the somber, apocalyptic Arrival, which Young also shot, but a space opera deserve a wider color palette. John Powell’s score mostly fades into the background, except for those occasions when he brings in the John Williams classics to provide another little goosebump here and there.
Solo is not a bad film, just a relentlessly average one that has no reason to exist except as a money machine. It gets its protagonist from point A to point B efficiently enough, but it doesn’t tell us anything we need to know that we didn’t already glean from our first meeting with Han in a cantina 40 years ago. It doesn’t shake up the mythology or offer any real emotional investment, yet at the same time, it’s funny, fairly fast-moving, and at times enjoyable. But if this is the template for Star Wars movies going forward (and who knows what the nostalgia-bewitched J.J. Abrams has in store for Episode IX), we might be in for a mundane couple of decades of storytelling.
Solo: A Star Wars Story is out in theaters on May 25.