Of all the Star Wars characters, there may be none as beloved as Han Solo, the scoundrel and smuggler who found his heart and along the way became a hero. Now that Lucasfilm and Star Wars is under the umbrella of Disney and new films being made yearly, it was only a matter of time before the scruffy-looking nerf herder headlined his own film. Along the way, however, Solo: A Star Wars Story was heavily reported on for its behind the scenes turmoil which saw Ron Howard taking over for the directing duo of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller because of “creative differences,” as well as a number of other unsubstantiated claims aimed at the departed directors and its star Alden Ehrenreich. Solo is simply a fine Star Wars movie, one that feels light and inconsequential but works because of its breezy pace and stellar cast. As to be expected, though, Solo: A Star Wars Story features plenty of fan service and nods to the past while taking fans to a dirtier corner of that galaxy far, far away.
Solo opens up on the world of Corellia, a planet where young children are forced into a life of crime under the nefarious boss Lady Proxima (voiced by Linda Hunt). Han (Ehrenreich) and his love Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) have devised a plan to get off the wretched planet, which leads to a chase across the dingy streets en route to a ship hub with flights departing. But Han and Qi’ra are separated and the young scoundrel promises to return and save her. Shortly after the separation, we’re provided the valuable knowledge of just how Han gained the last name Solo in one of the film’s more ludicrous moments. The first twenty or so minutes of Solo are kind of rough as the film doesn’t hit the ground running.
Eventually Solo finds its footing once Han is introduced to Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and the two team up with Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and his gang of thieves. Han and Chewie aid Tobias, his girlfriend Val (Thandie Newton), and the four-armed ape Rio (voiced by Jon Favreau) in stealing a shipment of coaxium, a valuable hyper-fuel. It’s a fun segment that sees this ragtag team pulling off an elaborate train heist with the Empire and a competing gang of thieves looming in the shadows. And as Tobias provides Han with a number of lessons on how to survive as a thieving scoundrel in an uncaring universe, Ehrenreich begins to bring forth the charms and settle into the iconic role so closely associated with Harrison Ford.
But everything is really just a set up for a daring heist that Han will orchestrate once Tobias and his gang of thieves find themselves in debt to the nefarious gangster Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany), leader of the Crimson Dawn. Tobias and Han will have to pull off a daring, near-impossible heist of the volatile fuel coaxium. Dryden assigns his top lieutenant to accompany the gang of rogues; that lieutenant just happens to be Han’s long lost love Qi’ra. Before they can pull of this scheme, they’ll need a faster ship, a journey which leads them to the boastful gambler Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) and his trusty and sassy droid L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge).
The combination of Glover’s Lando and Waller-Bridge’s L3-37 inject quite a bit of scene-stealing fun to Solo. L3 is really unlike any droid before in Star Wars, a bit of a sentient activism comes from the feisty bot and provides some much-needed comic relief. It’s the character dynamics that come through in the screenplay by Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan that help Solo simply glide by on its charms. There’s the strong bond between Chewbacca and Han that grows over the course of the film, as uneasy alliances with Lando, Tobias, and even Qi’ra exist to provide Han with that “trust no one” sensibility that’s present in the original Star Wars trilogy. And as the film goes on, Ehrenreich becomes more and more comfortable and convincing as the dashing rogue.
Not everything works so well in Solo, especially the film’s few women characters. Thandie Newton’s Val doesn’t get nearly enough screen time to register much of an impression. Emilia Clarke’s Qi’ra is played close to the vest, a little too much withheld about her past after she’s separated from Han at the film’s start. There’s a lot of information withheld about these missing years though it’s heavily implied that weren’t exactly pleasant. If you’re expecting resolution to any of these aspects you’ll be waiting for a potential sequel. Oddly, the best female character in Solo is the droid L3-37, who will be an instant fan favorite.
Also hampering the film is the fact that Dryden Ros is a big nothing of a villain. To his credit, Paul Bettany chews the scenery in his few scenes as the film’s cruel gangster. The British actor can turn on the charms and quickly shift gears into menace, but the film doesn’t give the character any real depth beyond Bettany’s inspired but limited turn.
There’s an emerging problem for these Star Wars standalone films – for the second consecutive film the only new characters to leave much of an impact are the droids. I’d say that Solo is far more enjoyable than Rogue One as it’s far less serious than the initial Star Wars standalone film. Unlike Rogue One, Solo is much more subtle about its rampant fan service. There are, as expected, plenty of nods to the original films but just not as in your face as the last time around, and these nods usually integrate more into the character and action than simply blatant references. For the most part, there aren’t many spoiler-ish surprises within Solo with one notable exception, a major reveal late in the film that might really tickle some die-hard fans or, like me, inspire an underwhelmed shrug.
The cinematography of Solo by Bradford Young gives the film a look unlike any Star Wars film before. That being said, though, it’s important that I emphasize that this film should not be seen in 3D, as Young’s dimly lit cinematography, which in many regards is similar to that of the legendary Gordon Willis, will be obscured by the dimming effect caused by 3D projection.
With all the behind the scenes turmoil of that occurred during the production of Solo: A Star Wars Story, everyone involved should take a huge sigh of relief that the film works as well as it does. It’s not a great Star Wars film but it’s entertaining enough that most of the film just flies by because its pacing is brisk and the cast immensely charming that they’re able to elevate some of the film’s weaker moments. Ron Howard brings a journeyman’s touch to the direction of Solo, never really wowing the audience but never letting the film get out of hand. I’d happily watch Alden Ehrenreich take on the blaster and grin of Han Solo in a sequel should it happen. The rising star who should’ve gotten an Oscar nomination for Hail, Caesar! takes the iconic character and makes it his own. I really suspect that after everyone’s seen Solo: A Star Wars Story, the demand will be for Donald Glover to have his own Lando movie, and it’s perfectly understandable as the multi-talented Glover is an absolute blast in the role. Solo is an uneven at times and pretty minor journey into that galaxy far, far away, but it has enough moments of simple fun that it steers clear of being an all-out disaster that many feared. It’s aim isn’t always true, but this Han does shoot first.