When Disney announced that their second Star Wars anthology film would center around the early days of Han Solo, my reaction was, why? Harrison Ford was 35 (Pretty young) when he made A New Hope and the ambiguity and mystique to his character is what made Han Solo so compelling. Did we really need to know his backstory?
But I don’t work for Disney (sadly), so they decided to go back to the well rather than develop something new and original within the Star Wars universe. Disney has since announced that they will be making a standalone Boba Fett movie and that an Obi Wan Kenobi origin story could also be in the works.
They’ve also given Last Jedi director, Rian Johnson, the opportunity to develop a whole new trilogy featuring original ideas and characters. So at least Disney is finally realizing that, if you put STAR WARS in the title, that’s a $100 million opening no matter who the star is.
The first anthology film, Rogue One, is unique in that it’s a one-off. It features new characters on a suicide mission to steal the plans to the Death Star and get them to rebel forces. Solo: A Star Wars Story has the disadvantage of centering around a character previously played by an actor four times across nearly 40 years. So, our new Solo, (Alden Ehrenreich), is already at a disadvantage.
When we first meet him on Corellia, he’s up to no good. Amid bribing an Imperial officer to grant he and his love, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), safe passage on an outgoing transport, the pursuers capture Qi’ra. Now Han vows to return and save her.
He eventually joins a crew of unsavory types. Led by Beckett (Woody Harrelson), the gang devises a plan to travel to the mining planet Kessel to steal a batch of valuable coaxium (Jet fuel?) and return it to gangster Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany). Solo meets Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), who has just the ship needed for such a daring mission.
Solo has a hard timing deciding what it wants to be. First, it’s a love story. Then a war movie and then a heist movie and then a space western. The plot is fairly straight forward with a clear macguffin (coaxium), but director Ron Howard has a hard time deciding which genre to follow.
It certainly isn’t an origin story. Screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, well-versed in the character of Han Solo at this point, yada yadas Han’s entire upbringing and how he learns to drive and fly. Characters, including Han himself, tell us that he’s this amazing pilot, but we see none of that development. Remember how fans were upset that Rey develops all these skills (Flying, handling a light saber) quickly in The Force Awakens? You could argue Han has a similar treatment in this story.
Setting aside story and character development, the performances and dialogue are terrific. Han and Chewbacca’s chemistry are pitch-perfect. Glover oozes charisma as Lando and the complicated relationship between Han and Qi’ra works. Phoebe Waller-Bridge plays the android L3-37 and while everything she says is hysterical, she’s almost too jokey. There’s a minor subplot where L3-37 is trying to liberate her fellow androids. But it’s mainly comic relief rather than an interesting statement about the treatment of droids within the Star Wars universe. That felt like a wasted opportunity.
Harrelson is also forgettable as Beckett. Is he a bad guy? Is he a mentor to Han? Kasdan can’t really decide what to do with him. But his scene at the end with Han is important. Especially to fan’s overall perception of whether Han is a scoundrel or a hero.
Bettany is great as the central villain and it reminded me of how much I enjoy him playing villains over heroes. But he’s barely in the film which means he has no backstory whatsoever.
Ehrenreich mostly pulls off the daunting task of following in the footsteps of Ford. He’s charming and funny, but the movie is almost too fun. There’s very little room for actual drama. The movie is too concerned with moving on to the next set piece or delivering more quippy banter.
But Solo: A Star Wars Story at least knows it’s tone. There’s great call-backs to the original trilogy including Lando’s mispronunciation of Han’s name, Han having “a great feeling about this” and Chewie losing at holochess. Lando’s affinity for capes is also a fun observation.
Solo is a consistently funny movie, but that humor is juxtaposed with a rather stale visual look. The first act features dark and dreary environments that feel like sets rather than lived-in locations. The three previous Star Wars movies did a much better job conveying worlds that could exist.
As for the set pieces, the two that standout include an extended heist scene aboard a moving train in the snowy mountains and Han piloting the Millenium Falcon in the last act. There were genuine goosebumps when he steps in for an injured Lando to fly the ship for the first time.
As a summer popcorn movie, Solo: A Star Wars Story mostly works. It’s fun, breezy and the characters are likeable. But as a Star Wars movie, it’s easily the weakest of the new bunch. The simplistic plot and lack of character development or drama really undercut the movie’s reason for existing.
And that’s the real question. Did this movie need to exist? The answer is probably not.