OnScreen Review: "Solo: A Star Wars Story"

Ken Jones

  • Chief Film Critic

If the tale as old as time is Beauty and the Beast, the oldest tale in Hollywood might be the troubled production. For all of the financial and critical success of the Star Wars franchise since it was bought by Disney and they set out to launch a new trilogy and a slew of spin-offs and origin stories, there has been a lot of behind the scenes turmoil, most notably on Solo: A Star Wars Story, where the originals directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller were fired for “creative differences” and replaced with Ron Howard, who reshot approximately 70% of the film. Typically, troubled productions produce troubling results, so a lot of curiosity has surrounded this spin-off about a young Han Solo.

Perhaps the most important aspect of this film is that the main character is Han Solo, an iconic role from an iconic actor, Harrison Ford. Han and Indiana Jones are two characters who are synonymous with Ford, and stepping into his shoes for this role is an unenviable and impossible task which falls on the shoulders of Alden Ehrenreich, a promising young actor I loved in Hail, Caesar. As promising and talented as I think Ehrenreich is, he never feels totally comfortable in the role. He bears only a passing resemblance to a young Ford, and most resembles Ford only when he is shooting his blaster. There was probably a conscious choice made to avoid attempting to do a Harrison Ford impression, rather a decision was made to make him a younger version of the character who has not yet had the life experiences that define the scoundrel we all loved back in the original trilogy.

Some of what Han experiences in this movie does some of the work to shape him into the character fans are introduced to in A New Hope, but the door is also left open for a sequel or two here as well. What we do get, though, is essentially a pirate tale. Han gets out of a dead-end existence on the planet Corellia, a shipbuilding world, but leaves behind a girlfriend, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) he promises to come back for. Enlisting in the Imperial fleet, he eventually joins up with a gang of criminals trying to pull a job in the middle of a war, led by Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), quickly abandoning the Imperial life for the possibility of a big score.

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It’s also when he crosses paths with Chewbacca, which is a nice enough moment as far as those things go. Chewy is one of the standouts of the film, and it’s also the first time in the Star Wars films where subtitles are used to show someone talking to Chewy, though it’s only in those initial moments between Han and Chewy. A botched train heist as a result of interference from an outside group of marauders known as Enfys Nest puts Beckett’s crew on precarious ground with the crime lord Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany), who gives them one last chance to make good on their agreement or else. Working for Vos is Qi’ra, the woman Han left behind on Corellia.

Of course, the one thing a Han Solo origin story was bound to contain is the story of the famed “Kessel Run in 12 parsecs.” And to do that, you need the other essential elements of a Han Solo origin story: the Millennium Falcon and Lando Calrissien. The younger version of Lando is played by Donald Glover, and it’s a real standout performance by Glover, who embodies the spirit of Billy Dee Williams far better than Ehrenreich does Harrison Ford. Lando’s co-pilot on the Falcon is L3-37, a droid voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge with a sassy personality and an android liberation streak in her. L3-37 also winds up playing an important role in the evolution of the Millennium Falcon, which has a slightly different look to it in this film.

Their injection into the story gives a notable boost to the proceedings in more ways than one. The plot kicks into gear and the picture, which to that point was mired in muted tones, gets a wider color palette to work with. Getting to Kessel involves navigating a space maelstrom; some of the best visual shots of the film, including a shot of an imperial destroyer in the maelstrom.

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Solo is essentially a pirate movie, with these criminals that Han is eager to fall in with attempting to take advantage of a galaxy where there is some chaos. I’m guessing this film takes places sometime closer to Revenge of the Sith than A New Hope in the Star Wars timeline. The Empire’s presence in this film is akin to the British empire on the high seas when piracy was at its glorious peak, there is plunder to be had and ships to outrun.

Overall, though, the film feels a little inconsequential and light. It also exposes why prequels and origin stories are typically fool’s gold. Even if Solo were a highly competent and utterly entertaining film, it would slightly undermine the original source material it is based on. As it is, Solo is entertaining enough and has some very good moments, but it is hampered by some flaws and odd items (the emphasis on Han’s dice, which I honestly never noticed in the original trilogy, is finally explained here, though I don’t know why it had to be a thing to begin with). The inherent problem with prequels and origin spinoffs is that they removed the mystique of beloved characters. As is so often true, less is more, and the more of Han’s backstory that LucasFilm chooses to fill in for us, there is a devaluing of the character that is bound to occur, especially since main characters have to be the heroes of their own narratives, whereas before they grew into the heroes we loved.

Solo is not a total disaster, which was my fear heading into it. It has moments when it is an enjoyable ride on the fastest ship in the galaxy. There’s nothing that makes you look around and say, “What a piece of junk,” but at times it does seem like someone disengaged the hyperdrive. Two films into the anthology of Star Wars spinoffs, my recommendation for LucasFilm and Disney would not be to focus these spinoffs on beloved characters as much as introduce new stories and characters in this universe with the Empire or the characters we know and love on the periphery. Solo: A Star Wars Story hints at the possibility of future films focused on the slightly less scruffy-looking nerf herder, but if this film ultimately ended up flying solo I wouldn’t be devastated.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars