Solo: A Star Wars Story
The now-divisive franchise has fun with a propulsive prequel
Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)
Directed by Ron Howard
Cast: Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke
Since Disney bought out Lucasfilm and started making new sequels and prequels in the Star Wars movie canon, the debates have inflamed internet chat rooms and left sci-fi conventions as divided as today’s political conventions. The central question being: Are the new Star Wars films awesome or heresy? Does Force Awakens suck and Last Jedi rule, or is it vice versa? The sad truth is that there’s very little room for them to be actual movies, to be judged on their own individual merits rather than 40 years’ worth of expectations.
Disney’s latest entry in the space-spanning franchise, Solo: A Star Wars Story, isn’t (and can’t be) all things to all people. Some fans will enjoy it. Some fans will not. Which is a real shame, because Solo does just about everything it conceivably can to earn the praise of moviegoers. Despite concern over production issues (original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller of The LEGO Movie were replaced, late in the game, by Ron Howard), the film is a smoothly executed, professionally made, highly entertaining add-on to what has come before.
For starters, the film is written by series stalwart Lawrence Kasdan (who gave us The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens). It’s hard to argue that Kasdan doesn’t know his way around the Star Wars universe. Solo is set in the brief period between Episode III—Revenge of the Sith and Episode IV—A New Hope. The Empire is in full control of the galaxy, and oppressed citizens are just doing what they can to survive. (Howard, along with the film’s dim cinematography, adds some genuine grit to the proceedings.) In the midst of this epic corruption and endless war, a young guttersnipe named Han (up-and-comer Alden Ehrenreich from Stoker) boosts speeders, steals from various and sundry and does whatever he can to stay out of the grasp of Imperial officers. Determined to escape the Dickensian industrial planet of Corellia, Han and his lady love Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke from “Game of Thrones”) make off with a shipment of valuable hyper-fuel known as coaxium. Sadly, Qi’ra is nabbed by authorities, and Han ends up joining the Imperial Navy as his only way out.
Three years down the line, and still dreaming of becoming a hotshot pilot, our boy Han finds himself a lowly grunt unwillingly stamping down assorted planetary rebellions. One bloody day he crosses paths with Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), an infamous con man posing as an Imperial soldier so he and his gang can snatch a fortune in coaxium. Sensing opportunity Han immediately goes AWOL and scams his way into Beckett’s ragtag gang. His famous future as a rogue is underway.
Like Rogue One, which expanded the Star Wars films by dipping its toe into the war movie genre, Solo settles into the heist film genre quite nicely. Kasdan’s script (co-written with his son Jonathan) borrows bits and pieces from a lot of very appropriate films (Bonnie and Clyde, The Great Train Robbery, Kelly’s Heroes). It’s fast, breezy and filled with action. And there’s not a Jedi or a Skywalker in sight.
Of course there’s tons of fan service along the way. This results in one legitimate complaint: the unfortunate urge for prequels to explain each and every thing about a character. It’s hardly realistic that everything we know about Han Solo—from his catchphrases to his vehicle of choice to his clothing—came together over the course of a single two or three day stretch. Have fans really been clamoring to know how Han Solo acquired his DL-44 blaster? (I just assumed he bought it at a gun shop.) To its credit, however, Solo doesn’t make a big deal out of these frequent Easter eggs and insider jokes, dispensing them quickly and without much fanfare. Like them or not, they don’t distract from the story at hand.
Actingwise, Solo has some solid performances. Ehrenreich makes for a perfectly acceptable twentysomething Han Solo. He doesn’t oversell the character or make it an overt imitation of his predecessor. Harrison Ford is never coming back to this role, and fans are just going to have to adjust to it. We could do far worse than Mr. Ehrenreich. Donald Glover is (as expected) perfect as the younger and even more self-centered Lando Calrissian. Harrelson contributes fine work as Solo’s not-so-trustworthy new partner-in-crime. And Paul Bettany (Fresh off Avengers: Infinity War) offers up a particularly nasty villain in condescending crime lord Dryden Voss.
If Star Wars aficionados want to dig deep into the nerdy nitpicking, they can. Han Solo’s lucky sabacc dice, for example, seem to be on the receiving end of a retconned backstory here. A surprise guest appearance late in the game will surely cause timeline confusion among those viewers unaware of today’s extended universe stories (specifically, the animated shows “The Clone Wars” and “Rebels”). But in all honesty, if this were not a “Star Wars” movie, everyone would be falling all over themselves to praise it.
The lingering question is, then: Can a certain stripe of fan let loose of their preconceived notions—the fanboy and fangirl stories they’ve already written in their heads—and just enjoy this film for what it is. Maybe. Granted, there is a certain predestination involved in prequels. We know our main characters can’t bite the big one. We know the Empire is gonna crash and burn in the next decade or so. Ignore that hard-won knowledge, though, and you’ve got one of the better approximations of George Lucas’ original 1977 outing: a shoot-’em-up Saturday matinee Western crashed headlong into a cliffhanging space opera serial.