3.5 out of 5 stars.
“Solo: A Star Wars Story” isn’t the Star Wars movie we needed. It isn’t even the Star Wars movie that many people wanted. Behind-the-scenes troubles arose halfway through production, causing a good deal of apprehension as to how the final product would turn out, while even many die-hard fans seemed hard-pressed to work up enthusiasm for the film, coming out a mere five months after “Star Wars: Episode VIII.”
But the result is a real surprise, a film that doesn’t just delve into the backstory of everyone’s favorite smuggler, but also adds a lot of new things to the Star Wars canon, and gives some big nods to the fans who devoutly follow all of the content that comes from that galaxy far, far away, not just the live-action films. The film opens with young Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) on Corellia, where, along with girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), he’s just trying to survive on a planet that is run by crime syndicates and the increasingly-powerful Empire. But he is soon drawn into working on a job with the criminal Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and his gang, a job that helps set Han on the path to becoming one of the galaxy’s most notorious smugglers and renowned pilots.
“Solo” suffers from a story that prefers to take Han through a series of vignettes that don’t always form a very cohesive story, or flow well from one sequence to the next. In fact, it feels like the filmmakers were primarily following a checklist of important things we know about Han’s backstory that they wanted to cover, and formed a story around that. Meeting Chewbacca? Check. Meeting Lando Calrissian and winning the Millennium Falcon in a sabaac game? Check. Completing the Kessel Run in 12 parasecs? That’s in there too. But even if it isn’t always compelling, it’s really exciting to see those things that we’ve only heard referenced in the other films before brought to life on the big screen. And the story does manage to be very different (there’s no mention of or use of the Force, for one thing), but still looks and feel like a Star Wars film. It’s more akin to a western than any of the films in the series, and there’s an impressive amount of detail and thought put into the way the crime syndicates work, as well as neat new alien species and characters. The action is fantastic and nearly non-stop, featuring everything from train heists to gun battles to spaceship chases.
On the topic of characters, an array of interesting newcomers and near-perfect casting elevates the material at every turn. Donald Glover is as perfect a Lando as everyone expected, but Ehrenreich is also a perfect Han. He isn’t Harrison Ford, but he brings the same swagger to the role that Ford does, as well as something else. This is Han at a different time in his life, and he’s a bit of a different person—there’s a naivety and optimism present that is gone by the time we meet Han again in “A New Hope,” and this movie gives us a bit of an idea of how he began to lose that optimism (although to be honest, Han doesn’t seem to go through too much of a change in this movie, which is another of the film’s few glaring flaws). But Ehrenreich brings an irresistible charm and charisma to the character that makes me want to see him play Han again. His relationship with Chewbacca (played again by Joonas Suatamo, who has taken over the role from Peter Mayhew) is one of the highlights of the film, as is his relationship with Qi’ra, who is possibly the most interesting character in the movie, alongside rival marauder Enfys Nest. Clarke has some of the standout moments as Qi’ra, and keeps the audience guessing as to the character’s intentions until the credits roll. Other faces include Paul Bettany as crime lord Dryden Vos, Thandie Newton as Val, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge as Lando’s very independent droid, L3-37. Some of the characters only appear briefly, but they make enough of an impact that you’ll want to see more of them in some other capacity.
The film builds to a solid and surprisingly twisty third act that certainly at least ties it with “The Last Jedi” for the prize of craziest Star Wars movie to date. Ron Howard directed the film, taking over after the film’s original director duo, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (of “The LEGO Movie” and “21 Jump Street” fame) were fired over creative differences after completing nearly three-fourths of filming. It’s hard to say how much of their contributions (Lord and Miller are still listed as executive producers on the film) stayed in the movie, versus what Howard contributed. We’ll probably never know exactly. But the screenplay (which is by Star Wars veteran Lawrence Kasdan and his son Jon), while it doesn’t hit all the right notes, does accomplish something wonderful. It truly works well as a standalone movie, more-so than any entry in the Star Wars franchise to date, so that casual viewers or even people who have never seen a Star Wars movie before can jump right in and enjoy it. But it’s also a true love letter to the fans: not just the fans who watch the movies over and over, but those who read the books and comics, play the games, watch the animated series, and otherwise fully immerse themselves in the fandom. There are things in this movie that I wasn’t expecting, things that won’t register with those who aren’t familiar, but are sure to delight and surprise those who are. The film spends so much time setting up the Han Solo we know and love, but does so in an entertaining way that also leaves lots of room for the further adventures of Han and Chewie, uninhibited by the obligatory origin story. Now that’s a sequel I’d love to see.
Runtime: 135 minutes. Rated PG-13.