It’s unnecessary… unless it leads to a follow-up.
Disney’s acquisition of the Star Wars universe has seen new films dovetail in two directions. We’re two movies deep on the third trilogy (The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi), and with this weekend’s release of Solo we’ve also gotten two standalone efforts under the A Star Wars Story subtitle (with the first being Rogue One). These latter films have both faced an uphill battle right out of the gate as the stories are set prior to Episode IV with fairly predictable outcomes and a detachment from the actors we’ve come to know and love since the late 70s.
Solo has the particular challenge of recasting one of sci-fi cinema’s most beloved characters, but it meets that task handily with the introduction of a new actor as Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich). He succeeds even as the film around him stumbles with a bumpy start, far too much time devoted to fan service, and the drabbest visual palette of the entire franchise.
“It is lawless times,” states the opening text, and while we know a battle is brewing between rebels and the Empire elsewhere the focus here is far more traditional criminal antics. We’re introduced to a planet where young people survive by stealing for a Fagin-like crook named Lady Proxima (voiced by Linda Hunt). Han is one of the older youths, and he has a plan to get himself and his girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) out from under Proxima’s thumb(-ish appendage). One Landspeeder chase later and he’s forced to escape without her, but he promises he’ll be back.
That’s the core of Solo‘s setup and Han’s motivation — find a ship and rescue Qi’ra — but plans don’t always work out the way they’re intended. Han spends time fighting for the Empire, hooks up with a group of rogues for a train heist, and discovers where he lands on D&D’s Alignment System, and as origin stories go this is definitely one of them.
Director Ron Howard and writers Jonathan Kasdan & Lawrence Kasdan craft a mildly entertaining adventure with Solo, but it’s hampered both by a desire to check boxes and an underwhelming visual style. Surprisingly, the latter comes courtesy of cinematographer Bradford Young whose work here displays none of the vibrancy or energy evident in past efforts like Arrival and A Most Violent Year. The entire first half feels dull-looking and often dimly lit, and after the visually stunning sequences of The Last Jedi, it’s a noticeable letdown.
The story itself is fairly familiar, from the hero’s desire to rescue a girl to heists hoping to secure a powerful fuel in order to pay back a mobster, and it never quite overcomes its basic nature. It also means there are very few surprises to be found. A friend tells Han at one point that the most important lesson here is that he can’t trust anyone, and you know exactly what comes next. That simplicity lasts nearly the entire 135-minute running time.
Rogue One told a specific story with new characters and an ending we already knew going in, but while Solo lacks both those handicaps it comes with one big one of its own — an unfortunate and insatiable need to deliver a fan-service beat every ten to fifteen minutes. Some viewers will eat it up, but for the rest of us, this introduction to a young Han Solo is tempered by too many reveals explaining how his numerous and iconic objects, acquaintances, and attitudes came to be. If the goal was to remove any sense of the man’s mystery then mission accomplished I guess.
Want to see how Han met Chewbacca and Lando? Curious where he got his blaster? Dying to know how he made the Kessel Run in under twelve parsecs? Interested in how he got his name? Open to seeing where his lucky golden dice came from? Wondering what part of Chewie’s diet could be more disturbing than eating Porgs? All these burning questions and more are answered within, and by the time the end credits roll the only Han-related question left standing is where & when does he acquire the styling vest he sports in Star Wars.
The plus side, though, is that literally all of these unnecessary “origins” are now out of the way. If we get a sequel — and we hope we do — it will allow Ehrenreich and friends the opportunity to stake fresh ground of their own. Ehrenreich shows the necessary components of the Han Solo we already know, and if it feels like he’s still finding his feet it should be expected. Not only is he becoming the iconic character, but the young character is himself becoming the icon. It’s a charismatic performance complete with the swagger, beguiling grin, and playful attitude that exemplify Han Solo.
The supporting cast is solid with a stronger than usual turn by Clarke — seriously, have you seen Terminator Genisys? — who finds a connection with the character’s various motives. Donald Glover‘s take on Lando Calrissian is great fun even if it is a direct impression of Billy Dee Williams’ suave and effortlessly cool performance. Some other great talents bring life to new characters including Woody Harrelson, Thandie Newton, Paul Bettany, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge as a robot who can’t stop talking about equal rights. They’re all engaging to varying degrees despite the story around them lacking an equal hold.
Solo leaves viewers with a couple very interesting story threads open in tantalizing and curious ways, and with young Han Solo’s introduction complete a second film can get down to the business of exploring a fresh story worth telling.