With Solo: A Star Wars Story, veteran journeyman Ron Howard had a tough task ahead of him. How do you portray one of Hollywood’s most iconic performances with a completely different actor? That he had to take on this herculean task more than halfway through principal photography after its original filmmakers (Phil Lord and Chris Miller) were fired, makes the effort seemingly all the more insurmountable.
That Solo, the second of these “Star Wars Stories”, isn’t a face-plant is a miracle unto itself, but that doesn’t mean it escapes the trappings of its premise.
If you were to pitch a Han Solo spin-off that takes place ahead of Episode IV, just what do you think it would cover? The Millennium Falcon coming into his possession? Check. His first meeting with Chewie? Check. The beginning of his frienemy relationship with Lando? Check. Much like the previous side-story that focused on the architectural flaw within the Death Star, this is a project that clearly had specific story beats that absolutely needed to be covered before production even began, and when they’re introduced on screen, those moments are when Solo often feels a good deal more strained than is comfortable.
It’s a film that’s battling between two different intentions. The first is the overbearing need to be a prequel to everything that’s to come in A New Hope (while also setting up potential sequels of its own), which really doesn’t work, Donald Glover aside). The second is an adaptation of the Star Wars formula into the Western genre, which works to Howard and company’s advantage to a much greater degree. For the entirety of its running time, there’s not a Jedi in sight, and the Empire is really more of a brief obstacle for Han to get around. This is the Star Wars of the Mos Eisley Cantina and Jabba’s Palace; a lawless place where criminal empires run rampant, and there’s lots of jobs with big scores to be had.
The premise sees young Han (Alden Ehrenreich) fall into this world of gangsters, as he and his partner Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) go on the run from a local crime lord. They’re separated thanks to the Empire’s overbearing influence, and Han ends up falling into the employ of a crew of thieves led by Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), an admitted Long John Silver/Will Munny-type that teaches him the ropes and gets him involved in some of the biggest heists of his life. From there, Han will meet the characters you’re plopping down your hard-earned 20 bucks for and finds himself in deeper danger than he ever could have bargained for, thanks to a pretty delicious villain played by Paul Bettany.
When Solo plays to its strengths, its an entertaining little adventure – little being the key word here. There’s something refreshing about a Star Wars film that isn’t about Galaxy-spanning stakes and spends so much of its time focusing on the little guy and the underlying struggles of people just trying to survive in the shadow of the Empire. But it’s greatest strength is Howard’s acumen for big set-pieces that go out of their way to echo the thrilling tropes of John Ford, Sam Peckinpah and other giants of Western cinema. A train heist, a chase to get away from a cavalry (of tie-fighters), warring gangs (one of which resembles a Native tribe), and an apprentice-type relationship between a younger and older gunslinger. Even a Star Wars version of poker plays a significant role. It makes sense as Han Solo, if any character, was the cowboy-esque rogue of the original series to the more samurai-like Luke Skywalker. And so when Solo wallows in these influences, its a much more thrilling feature that plays like a puzzle piece in the greater tapestry of the entire saga’s origins.
But it’s not all a smooth ride, cowpokes. As previously mentioned, Solo spends a lot of time, far too much, needling its audience with information that is already baked in to the DNA of the story and pre-existing familiarity of the viewers. It’s a narrative that is consistently being lurched unnaturally from point to point in order to cover every single facet of Han Solo, most of which is already implicit or unnecessary. Han goes through a lot of character development in the original trilogy, which makes any kind of attempt at development here far more stunted. He’s basically trapped in amber, and when he makes a significant decision, we’re left scratching our heads as to why. It’s as if Howard and the Kasdans (the father and son co-screenwriters) are working overtime to recreate the Han you know and love from the original trilogy rather than crafting a younger, more formative version from which he can evolve.
In short, it’s clearly a movie made by committee with many hands on deck.
There was much hay to be made of Alden Ehrenreich’s performance and how he might be able to follow-on from Harrison Ford in the role, and while he’s given a pretty thankless task, once you cast Ford out of your mind and grow accustomed to Ehrenreich’s “middle American spaceboy”, he isn’t the drag on the film you might expect based on how the marketing seemed to be hiding him. But the real stars of the show are Glover, whose personification of a young Billy Dee Williams is spot-on, if only occasionally overly mannered, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge who plays L3-37, Lando’s robotic companion. Waller-Bridge is without doubt the MVP of the whole enterprise, deploying a needed wry sense of humor and injecting an actively new element into the Star Wars franchise (if there’s anything left of Miller and Lord’s version of the film, it may exist in her scenes). And as mentioned, Bettany is game to chew scenery in a fascinating way. Unfortunately, much of the rest of the cast makes less of an impression. Harrellson just looks happy to collect a big budget pay-check, and Clarke once again is unable to translate her Game of Thrones on-screen success into any other franchise.
The other strike against the film is that for a not insignificant amount of its running time, the visuals are surprisingly bad. Bradford Young is one of the rising DPs in the industry, but you’d never know it from looking at this. It’s an especially murky experience in the first 30 minutes of the film, where everything is cast in various shades of grey and muddy, grimy exterior. It may very well be the least attractive Star Wars film in the franchise’s history.
Solo: A Star Wars Story is a film that feels like it doesn’t have a reason to exist when it spends its time retelling or explaining the origin of details we already know about its titular character’s backstory. That said, the movie is at its best when it works towards the stylistic influences of the original film, allowing for the idea that new life can be woven into these well-known characters and histories.