Disclaimer: The following article contains spoilers for Solo: A Star Wars Story. Readers who have not yet seen the film should proceed with caution.
Each piece about the film in the meanwhile seems obliged to mention both its turbulent production history and struggle in the box office stakes (as does this piece, now), but for the bums-on-seats, all that matters is the creative quality of the product which follows the iconic words ‘A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…’.
And against all odds, Howard – or more properly, long-time Star Wars screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan and his son and co-writer Jon – have crafted an incredibly solid addition to the canon. Not only does Solo succeed in inking and colouring the previously sketched backstory of everyone’s favourite Corellian smuggler, it also gently opens a series of other doors, revealing glimpses of the galaxy’s criminal underworld which are just begging to be expanded upon.
In the long run, this turns out to be the film’s saving grace, not least because Han Solo’s revealed backstory itself is structurally very similar to the Legends tales of the last 40 years; serving in the Imperial forces, rescuing Chewbacca from captivity/servitude and winning the Millennium Falcon from Lando Calrissian in a game of Sabacc. And it’s not that this isn’t all great fun, but long-time Star Wars fans will find few surprises in the newly finalised telling. Although it feels like a harsh statement, it’s probably not unfair to say that the Han/Chewie/Lando aspects – while they’re the glue which hold the pieces together – are the film’s least interesting ones.
No, Solo‘s real revelation comes in the form of the Crimson Dawn crime syndicate, ostensibly headed by Paul Bettany’s Dryden Vos, who manages to inject enough venom into his performance that it feels like a spiritual successor to his lead role in 2000’s Gangster No. 1. When we first meet Vos, he’s removing one of his energy-cord daggers from the torso of a regional governor, the Imperial position in which 1977’s Grand Moff Tarkin put so much bureaucratic faith. As the body slumps wordlessly to the floor, we know instantly what level of practical power is wielded by this gangster, as well as his apparent freedom to flaunt it.
Bettany’s performance is aided in no small way by Emilia Clarke as Han’s childhood friend (later, love-interest) and now Vos’s lieutenant, Qi’ra. The Game Of Thrones mainstay’s portrayal isn’t quite the femme fatale audiences might have been expecting from the character, but nor is it the fierce warrior or wilting wallflower archetype, either. Clarke cuts her own swathe through the GFFA as likeable, but untrustworthy; Qi’ra is sincere in her intent, even though she’s clearly holding something back.
And all because Crimson Dawn is only the tip of a galaxy spanning and void-cold criminal iceberg. In Solo, we get the big-screen debut of spice mines of Kessel (last seen in Star Wars: Rebels), now controlled by the Pyke Syndicate (last seen in Star Wars: The Clone Wars). Meanwhile, back at ‘ground level’, the nuts and bolts of outlaw life are carried out by smaller, less formal gangs. The collective we meet first is headed up by Woody Harrelson’s Tobias Beckett, orchestrating a heist of Imperial-owned Coaxium fuel with his demotions-expert and partner, Val (Thandie Newton), and trusty getaway-pilot Rio (voiced by Jon Favreau).
Given how quickly Beckett’s team ‘evolves’ when things go south, it’s anyone’s guess as to the volume of previous membership in this band. That the line-up shifts with relatively little fanfare is testament to the ultimate lack of job security in the heisting game (although the phrase ‘a job for life‘ still seems to apply, at any rate).
And yet, we still haven’t covered how Alden Ehrenreich plays an interesting and amiable younger Han, by no means delivering an impersonation of Harrison Ford, but keeping enough ticks and mannerisms from the older actor that there’s never any doubt as to who the character is. Donald Glover’s Lando Calrissian is a little more overt in its homage, but then it wouldn’t be Lando any other way. And Joonas Suotamo dons with wookiee-suit for the third time, wearing Chewbacca’s character itself with the same level of practiced ease. It’s remarkable how effortlessly Joonas has become part of the family.
Rounding this all out is John Powell’s score (with a helping hand from John Williams, naturally). The pieces are flowing, dynamic and generally a great accompaniment to the action, although Powell’s work really comes into its own when the percussion or choral sections are in-play.
And at the top of the tree, established all-rounder Ron Howard does an admirable job of keeping the urgently paced set-pieces on track, although it’s clear that his heart is in the action-driven scenes more than their dialogue-heavy counterparts, especially those segments involving chasing-and-racing, where our characters put the pedal to the floor and burn off some of that precious hyperfuel.
But most importantly, everything which occurs between the ‘long time ago’ and ‘directed by’ cards feels intrinsically part of the series continuity. Even ‘that‘ holo-moment. In fact, especially that holo-moment, with the threads of different eras and media projects wound together to pull in a new direction. Whether we’ll get a direct sequel to this movie is up for debate; whether we haven’t seen the last of the criminal underbelly in the GFFA is undoubtable.
After the high-stakes drama of Rogue One and introspective guilt of The Last Jedi, Solo isn’t an entry in the saga which will be blowing viewers’ minds, which is both its weakness and its key strength. In fact, the film’s overall absence of emotional punch is representative of its eponymous character’s lack of family structure, and his cynical attitude in-the-making. But Solo underlines Rian Johnson’s idea sometimes, the greatest heroes really can come from nowhere…