Disney continue to make good on their promise of delivering a new Star Wars feature film every year, and following Rogue One (this writer would argue is one of their best recent efforts) it seems evident that the strength of the franchise lies within these stand-alone films. And with two instalments of their spin-off series in the bag, there’s a much greater appeal in exploring these alternative narratives.
It would be misleading to call Solo: A Star Wars Story an origin story, and with the movie focusing on a twenty-something Han Solo at a time when he meets Chewbacca and Lando for the first time, it is better described simply as a prequel. Alden Ehrenreich (Blue Jasmine, Hail Caesar) steps into Harrison Ford’s incredibly big shoes and assumes the character effortlessly, and with this important piece of casting, the audience is reassured that the fallacy of The Last Jedi would not infect this new recalibration.
We are introduced to Han Solo several years before his involvement in Episode IV, trapped on a hellish slave planet, ruled by a ruthless crime lord who provides outcasts refuge and protection in return for servitude. Han and his girlfriend, Qi’Ra (Emilia Clarke), make a desperate attempt to escape the planet with hopes of a better life, but things don’t go according to plan and Han is soon thrust in to a war he doesn’t understand. When he encounters a motley crew of thieves on the battlefield, he finds his true calling and hoodwinks his way onto the team, lead by Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), who becomes something of a mentor to Han. Along the way he meets Chewbacca and finds an unlikely alliance with Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) as they run a big heist for a merciless crime lord, Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany).
And so begins a classic sci-fi adventure that adheres to the spirit of George Lucas’s original Star Wars, and brings the series back to its humble beginnings. A good way to describe the film’s look and attitude would be to compare it with Joss Whedon’s cult series Firefly (which itself took massive cues from Star Wars), and in fact a major story within Solo is very reminiscent of a particular train-heist episode of that show. That’s not to say that writers Jonathan and Lawrence Kasdan have imitated that beloved series by any means, it’s simply a realistic comparison to best describe how Solo looks and feels different to the other Star Wars stories. It isn’t a perfect film by any means, but it is a modest and unassuming one.
Fans grew nervous when the film’s original directors, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, were fired due to creative differences, and their apprehension grew even stronger when Ron Howard stepped in to take over. Of course, Howard is what many astute moviegoers would consider to be a reliable and competent replacement, having over 30 years of craftsmanship to attest to (Apollo 13, Backdraft, A Beautiful Mind, Splash). Not to mention the fact that his relationship with George Lucas goes way back; a young Howard starred in Lucas’ ’73 picture American Graffiti. And so, from my perspective, Howard brought confidence and peace of mind to the project, not dread.
It is uncertain where Lord and Miller’s film ends and where Howard’s begins, but I will assume that Solo belongs almost entirely to the latter. And while Howard’s films tend to have a signature ‘look’ to them, this Star Wars instalment bares little resemblance to anything he’s made before. He is no stranger to special effects-driven movies, however he’s never helmed anything of this magnitude. I can report that he does so with ease, skilfully combining an abundance of computer generated imagery with an equal measure of practical effects. The result is a fluent and seamless blockbuster movie that ought to thrill its global audience… but of course in today’s social media word it will have its detractors – and then some.
I imagine some of the criticisms of Solo will include its injection of humour, or perhaps its cheeky references to iconic moments from the greater saga. Or maybe people will take issue with certain villainous revelations that pass without resolution or substantial development, or even its thinly veiled attempts at social commentary. They are legitimate criticisms, however they are also counterbalanced by all that is good about the movie.
Ehrenreich gives a wonderful lead performance, an enthusiastic and charismatic turn as our titular hero. His physical appearance may be a vague reflection of a young Harrison Ford, but his mannerisms are on point. The same goes for Donald Glover’s portrayal of Lando. Glover’s attention to detail, from facial expressions and voice patterns, to his idiosyncrasies and overall presence, make for some uncanny similarities. He fully embodies the character to such effect that he may as well have been Billy Dee Williams. The rest of the cast are good as well, with Clarke and Harrelson in particular nestling into the Star Wars environment with ease, their grounded performances ensuring they are well suited to the story without drawing attention to their celebrity.
Solo is a straightforward adventure that taps into that Indiana Jones style of escapade, while lingering on the fringes of a western sub-genre. It tells a humble story while filling a few gaps from the overriding narrative. Perhaps most importantly, Solo delivers an overabundance of fun – without pretension, which, when looking at a film like this, is what going to the cinema is all about.