Starring: Alden Ehrenreich, Emilia Clarke, Woody Harrelson, Donald Glover
Directed by: Ron Howard
Solo: A Star Wars Story arrives in theaters with a lot of baggage. A public firing of the original directors, a divided reaction to the previous film, impossible-to-meet fan expectations, and the nagging sense that its story is not one that needs to be told all conspired against the film at every turn throughout its marketing roll-out. This supposed apathy towards the film by even long-time fans is a shame, since Solo is arguably the most enjoyable romp through the Star Wars universe we’ve seen in decades.
Despite his bevy of screentime in the series, it is odd how little we truly knew about our favorite Corellian smuggler. Winning the Millennium Falcon off of Lando in a game of sabacc, Chewbacca saving his life, and a record-breaking Kessel run are about the extent of his backstory, and has always been enough for fans to survive on. Much of Solo‘s screenplay by Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan seems to exist primarily to string these facts together into one plot, crafting a kind of intergalactic heist film with little down time between kinetic action scenes.
The film begins with Han (Alden Ehrenreich) as a young crook on Corellia, running small cons for a local crime lord with the hopes of escaping one day with his love interest Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke). When his plan goes awry and separates the two lovers, Han makes it his mission to get back to Corellia with a ship of his own by any means possible. It’s a rather simple set-up, but an effective one that showcases both Han’s lack of scruples when it comes to company and his truly sentimental core. As he falls in with a gang of smugglers in order to raise the money he needs, he unwittingly gets into debt with the crime syndicate Crimson Dawn, forcing him to assemble a team and take drastic measures to pay them back.
As far as plots go, this is the most straight-forward of the new films, but that pays off in unexpected ways. Director Ron Howard never lets a moment lag, giving the film a propulsive energy that mirrors the titular hero’s, avoiding the duldrums that plagued the middle section of Rogue One and much of The Last Jedi. While nothing here tops the final act of the former film, the sheer volume of action makes up for it. Whether it is Han escaping his home planet, or one of the several jobs Han pulls as a smuggler, Howard proves himself to be a surprisingly strong director of modern action. If these scenes were indeed in the original script, it is not hard to wonder if original directors Lord and Miller would have been able to execute them nearly as effectively.
All of this is especially aided by John Powell’s powerhouse score, which is a fantastic blend of classic melodies, the new Williams-penned Han theme, and original ideas with a more modern sound. Halfway through 2018, the score of the year may already be decided.
In between these set pieces, the plot does a surprising amount of lore-building as well. One of the chief concerns going into this film was that it would prove not only reductive to Han’s legacy, but also contain little of value to the series overall. The Kasdans allay this fear by introducing many ideas from the old Extended Universe and even the current canon EU into the film series. Crime syndicates, a fixture in many Star Wars novels, add another layer to the corruption and underbelly of the Empire era, while some major surprises in the film’s final act will please fans of the current EU offerings while opening up intriguing new story possibilities.
The break-neck speed of all of this action, quick dialogue, and location-hopping has the potentially to overshadow the actors and their performances. Some leaks from the set had specifically pointed out performances as a big problem in need of fixing, and whether or not those reports were accurate at the time, what appears in the final film is uniformly excellent. As Han, Alden Ehrenreich walks the perfect line of clearly connecting his portrayal to Ford’s while never falling into imitation. This Han is younger and less jaded than the Han in Episode 4, and Ehrenreich takes advantage to create a dynamic lead. Even more impressive, though, are Emilia Clarke as Qi’ra and Donald Glover as Lando Calrissian.
Glover is electric, perfectly channeling Billy Dee Williams’ cadence and swagger while fleshing out the character. If anything, this film will make fans love Lando even more. Qi’ra’s arc affords Clarke the greatest range of the main characters, and she nails each aspect of this complex woman’s story. Much like her contemporary Jennifer Lawrence, Clarke has proven herself to be an eminently watchable star, and her performance here will hopefully lead to more starring roles in the future. In supporting roles, Paul Bettany oozes truly threatening menace as a Crimson Dawn leader, while Woody Harrelson delivers the exact same performance he has been giving for the past decade.
Howard and the Kasdan’s have done a fantastic job creating a cast of characters with interesting stories, and then portrayed them with engaging conviction and fun. As they hop from one planet to the next, fighting against an evil group across the stars, one is reminded of the fun that the original trilogy films offered. Gone is the hackneyed execution of the prequels, the familiarity of The Force Awakens, and the dourness of The Last Jedi and Rogue One. Instead, there is a sense of genuine adventure and originality, never knowing when the plot will twist next or the next person will be back-stabbed. Its lack of scope is its one major downfall, never feeling quite as vital as the episode films do.
Given the many threads left unresolved at its end, though, the possibility of sequel with major consequences for the universe remains a possibility, and perhaps even likely. For the first time in years, though, I find myself excited for a Star Wars sequel rather than just cautiously optimistic. The “hokey religion” is strong with this one.
Solo: A Star Wars Story is in cinemas across the UK now.