Going it Solo
Han Solo is a great character to base a movie around. Not only was he the fan favourite of the original Star Wars trilogy, but that trilogy regularly hinted through allusions and off-the-cuff remarks that he had a very fascinating history. Solo: A Star Wars Story was then naturally inevitable, and after a bumpy start where comedy directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller were booted off the project for the safer Ron Howard, it’s finally hit the cinemas. How does it deliver on the backstory of our favourite interstellar smuggler?
After escaping the slums of the planet Corellia, Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) aspires to become a pilot so that he can return and rescue his girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke). After some time in the Imperial Navy, he joins up with a smuggler Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), who takes him under his wing, ushering him into the criminal underworld. They undertake a job for a dangerous crime lord (Paul Bettany) and along the way Han is introduced to Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), Lando Calrissean (Donald Glover), and most importantly, the Millennium Falcon.
This film hits all the beats of Han Solo’s established lore, from his experience in the Empire to the infamously insensible Kessel run to the sabacc game with Lando that won him the Falcon.
However, each of these now visually realized are just a tad underwhelming. The game suffers from being a little too long, the Kessel run is built up well to only get lost in a repeat of the fish sequence from Phantom Menace, and most unfortunately is the lack of any time spent with Han in the Empire. He spends years in their navy and infantry that we’re told about rather than shown, and it would’ve made for some really interesting development for the future Rebellion hero to have seen him working among them. The film though is much more interested in Han the outlaw.
Ehrenreich’s performance as the lead was always going to be heavily scrutinized given the iconic shadow of Harrison Ford and I think the actor was aware of this, which is why his acting is tumultuous. Most of the time he’s decent, carving out some new facets to the character, but every so often it’s clear he’s trying to mimic Ford’s performance through his mannerisms and body language -and it gets distracting. It’s made harder for him for the fact that Han is written differently than the films we know him from. He’s required to be the protagonist after all, so his behaviour has to be tweaked. Suotamo replaces Peter Mayhew well though, and the chemistry between Chewbacca and Han is one of the movies’ strengths. Their friendship feels genuine, endearing, and earned. As usual, Harrelson’s really good, and in spite of her character being severely let down by a finale that takes no notice of the constant foreshadowing in her arc, Clarke is as well. Glover is fantastic as Lando, capturing that smooth charisma that made us love Billy Dee Williams’ stylish original. Bettany does okay as a throwaway villain and newcomer Erin Kellyman is a pleasant surprise. However, Thandie Newton and Phoebe Waller-Bridge play rather pointless characters with no bearing on any significant element of the narrative or the ultimate direction of the last act.
It’s there where much of Solo’s plot falls apart. This is a movie with a lot of great set-up, but lacklustre pay-offs. Up until the last act, the film does have a conventional focus, some clumsy pacing, poorly done fan service and exposition, and a handful of jokes clearly left over from Miller and Lord’s script; yet is still creative, energetic, and intriguing. Han is taken to places both physically and personally that you’re very curious about. However late in the film, additional elements are brought in to keep Han from being morally ambiguous, and the climax itself is a little ridiculous. There are a couple twists that don’t make any sense, some far too convenient plot devices, and a strange open-endedness to an otherwise conclusive origin story.
That’s not to say Solo isn’t without merit. There is a lot to like about it. Most of the action sequences and effects are good, the world building enjoyable, and the natural humour very effective. I love seeing the Millennium Falcon in its prime, I love the Treasure Island motif in one of the films’ central relationships, and I love that there’s an explanation behind Han’s “Solo” moniker.
But I can’t say it’s good -it’s much too confused, constrained, and actually unambitious. Perhaps the biggest disappointment of all is that Solo, unlike its namesake, doesn’t take chances. In contrast to the other recent Star Wars movies, it doesn’t offer anything substantively new. It’s not as bleak as Rogue One nor as relentlessly bold as The Last Jedi; and take out the name and the familiarity of its characters, and it’s just an average sci-fi adventure flick. Generally, Star Wars movies aspire to something greater.