The characters we wish to emulate in classic tales aren’t always necessarily the righteous hero, nor the diabolical villain, but quite often the supporting players. Why do they frequently leave the strongest impression on us? Perhaps it’s because they’re given more freedom to show multi-faceted dimensions to their personalities. They’re given permission to be funny and flawed, charming and unscrupulous, or occasionally all of the above.
That may partially explain why a fan favorite in the Star Wars saga has always been the smuggler Han Solo. The character made legendary by then up-and-coming star Harrison Ford, who would become a major leading man and household name thanks to this role, was the cocky, swaggering swashbuckler with a blaster pistol. He preferred shoot-outs with his opponents over sneaking around, and consequently constantly got himself in way over his head. He presented himself as an amoral entrepreneur, only in it for the money, but we knew deep down he had a firm resolve in choosing right over wrong.
So when Disney bought Lucasfilm back in 2012 and announced they would be making Star Wars anthology films alongside a new trilogy, it only seemed to make sense to create a solo film about, well, Han Solo. The story is set in an unspecified time period; sometime after the rise of the Empire, but certainly a while before our lovable scruffy-looking nerfherder’s life would change forever in a cantina on Tatooine.
We open on a young Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich), less cynical but just as eager to get into trouble as he attempts to steal some special Coaxium, a powerful mineral, in order to start a new life for himself and his girlfriend, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke). But just as it seems they’re finally able to break free from the shackles of their old life, destiny has other plans and the young lovers are separated. Alone and nowhere else to go, Han decides to join the Empire, vowing to make enough in order to return and retrieve his lady love. But three years pass, and Solo knows it’s only a matter of time before he becomes another casualty in the seemingly endless war against the Rebel Alliance.
Opportunity knocks in the form of a gang of thieves, led by Beckett (Woody Harrelson), as Han makes his escape and joins them in a heist with the promise of enough wealth for him to start a new life. Joining the team are Qi’ra, a former captive Wookie named Chewbacca, and a smooth talking criminal with a dexterous poker hand and the fastest ship in the galaxy, named Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover).
Can Han start over again with Qi’ra and save her from her ties with her volatile, possessive, and unhinged criminal superior (Paul Bettany)? Will he end up winning the Millenium Falcon from Lando in a game of cards? Is he able to make the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs? Most of you probably already know the answers to these questions, although the film tries throwing in a couple of twists, which prove to be either predictable or in service of sequel baiting.
There has been a lot of press coverage on the film’s troubled production, as the original directors, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, were fired five months into shooting and replaced by Ron Howard. At times, one can see glimpses of Lord and Miller’s collective vision through the brief bouts of ad-libbing, as well as moments where the actors have fun with the characters and universe. There’s one funny moment, for instance, during an intense chase scene where Beckett tries telling the gang how close the enemy fighters are using expressions you typically hear in a Star Wars film, which prompts a frustrated demand from Han to speak in plain English. More moments like these could have created a movie that poked fun at it’s source material while still being an affectionate love letter to that brand, much like Lord and Miller’s brilliantly subversive The Lego Movie.
Howard’s direction is more straightforward, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing as he’s capable of delivering fine work (Apollo 13, Splash, and Willow, another Lucasfilm production released 30 years ago). However, that approach to give what he and the studio believe the audience wants often results in lackluster films as well (such as believing families wanted to see crude humor in a Dr. Seuss movie like The Grinch, or make a film that’s overly frenetic and disorienting, such as his last one, the atrocious Inferno).
His past experience in dealing with special effects lead to some entertaining action set pieces, including a train robbery where our heroes have to face off against stormtroopers in zero gravity boots. Imagine a train robbery from a classic western mixed with a roller coaster ride. There’s also an exciting escape through storm clouds and giant crystals (I was reminded of the chase through the ice field in Don Bluth’s Titan A.E) that results in a confrontation with a giant killer squid and a deadly black hole.
Yet Howard stages other action sequences with shaky hand-held camerawork, rendering them occasionally hard to follow and cut too quickly for us to get properly involved. The cinematography by Bradford Young (Arrival) is dictated by a muted color palette, undoubtedly to create a world as rough and grimy as the criminals that inhabit it. This style worked better in the last anthology film, Rogue One, which was able to balance large scale shots with a gritty aesthetic, feeling like a war film in space.
Ehrenreich, having caught the public eye two years ago as the scene-stealing singer-turned-actor Hobie Doyle in Hail Caesar!, tries his hardest to fill in Ford’s shoes. He’s got the handsome look, emotes swagger and confidence, albeit with a little more naïveté, yet the need to mimic Ford’s mannerisms sometimes seems to restrict his versatility as an actor. Glover occasionally nails Billy Dee Williams’ speech patterns, but he goes overboard in his formal locution, to the point of donning a British accent, making the character sound somewhat inconsistent. While I can’t say there are standout performances from the rest of the ensemble, the cast puts on their A-game and try to channel some fun into their performances.
Solo is, for me, the weakest of the latest Star Wars films from Disney, but it’s by no means a bad one. It fulfills the requirements for a basic action/heist film, and the fans will certainly have a good time with it. But its lack of character investment and distinction in story and style don’t make this a must-see, especially when one can feel just as content watching their favorite space scoundrel performing his heroics in previous movies. It doesn’t do anything to tarnish the character’s legacy, but it doesn’t leave much of a mark in his 40+ year history either.