“SOLO: A Star Wars Story” harbors only a few of the qualities that its titular character is known for: It is charming, witty and confidently made, but it lacks the sort of risk-taking and rough edge that we’ve come to expect from Solo himself. A film about Han Solo should strive to be like Han Solo, but the newest “Star Wars” anthology film comes short of achieving this.
At worst, “SOLO” is a two-hour-and-15-minute elaboration on things that we already knew about Han Solo, who isn’t nearly as interesting a character as Harrison Ford led us to believe in the original trilogy. At best, it is an exciting experience, thanks to great turns from Alden Ehrenreich and Donald Glover, and its sweeping, action-packed visuals.
Ehrenreich offers a fine iteration of Han, though the film is less of a character study and more of a straightforward action-adventure disguised as an origin story. Perhaps the character’s mysterious vibe in previous installments lent itself to his allure; his reckless nature and reticence in speaking of the past made him seem worthy of a two-hour feature. “SOLO” pulls back the curtain on its hero and reveals, well, not much.
The film is certainly engaging, but audiences might struggle to find a part of the narrative where something entirely new is offered. After all, isn’t the objective of the anthology spin-offs to expand the universe?
This is not to say that “SOLO: A Star Wars Story” is a complete rehash of past installments, but many of the film’s core elements were pulled from the Lucasfilm bag of trusted tricks. A film that takes place beyond the central “Star Wars” stories shouldn’t feel compelled to intertwine these narratives so deeply; this was an opportunity for the filmmakers to run wild with the prospect of unexplored territory, but too much of the final product was anchored to the canon established by the Skywalker saga.
If Lucasfilm wants to capitalize on this franchise, it certainly makes sense to release films like “SOLO” and “Rogue One,” both of which take place on the periphery of a central narrative. Yet a better film would have been one that simply exists in this universe, with its lone connection serving as a launchpad — and not an anchor –– to the trilogies and “The Force Awakens.”
With all of this in mind, it’s important to address the issues that plagued “SOLO: A Star Wars Story” during production. Directors Chris Miller and Phil Lord, known for comedies like “The Lego Movie” and “21 Jump Street,” were brought on to helm the film.
Months into filming, they were fired and replaced by Ron Howard, with rumors swirling that an amateurish work ethic was to blame. Other sources close to the film claimed that Ehrenreich’s performance wasn’t up to standards, and that an acting coach was brought on set to refine his chops. If the latter rumor is true, you certainly couldn’t tell during the film, where Ehrenreich puts on a terrific show despite the story’s limitations.
As for the directorial issues, I couldn’t help but wonder how the film might have turned out if Miller and Lord were allowed to see it through. There is nothing egregiously wrong with director Ron Howard’s cut, but its reluctance to push beyond the margins of Han’s story does not make it particularly memorable.
“SOLO: A Star Wars Story” unravels neatly: Han (Ehrenreich) is an aspiring pilot from the industrial planet Corellia, which is filled with drecks, criminals and outlaws. He and his girlfriend, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke from “Game of Thrones”), seek to flee the resource-hungry ruling gang to whom they are in debt. Han manages to escape; Qi’ra does not, so he vows to return for her.
Cut to three years later: Han is a trained pilot with the Imperial Navy but has been expelled for insubordination and subsequently joins a gang of crooks consisting of Beckett (Woody Harrelson), Val (the criminally underused Thandie Newton) and, after a brief introduction, Han’s trusted Wookiee pal, Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo, reprising his role from previous installments).
Han still holds a candle for Qi’ra, who we learn has escaped Corellia but now runs with creepy crime lord Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany). Upon reuniting, this leads to all sorts of tension between her and Han, as they embark on a mission to steal Coaxium for Vos. This is done with the help of the fabulous Lando Calrissian, played with smooth-talking bravado by Donald Glover.
Although most of the film’s characters are introduced after Han has left Corellia, the story is most interesting when it briefly explores the galaxy’s criminal underworld, which brims with outlaws, hustlers, warlords and crime bosses.
“It is a lawless time,” an intertitle asserts chillingly after the customary “Star Wars” title crawl. With this statement, the film appears to be offering something new to the “Star Wars” canon, though we quickly venture beyond the grittiness of Solo’s home planet and into familiar territory.
As the film progressed, the purpose of Han’s relationship with Qi’ra grew increasingly unclear. Part of this stems from the fact that Han is an iconic character already known for being one half of a beloved pairing. Certainly, a romantic subplot always draws in an audience, and Qi’ra’s character plays an integral role in the plot — just not as a romantic lead.
This role overshadows the sinister truth of her character; she is someone who will do whatever it takes to survive in a “lawless time,” regardless of what Han might believe he knows about her. This is reinforced by Beckett’s arc, as he teaches Han about the dangers of placing trust in the wrong people (or in anyone at all).
Qi’ra’s air of mystery and deceit was miles more fascinating than the romantic subplot. In fact, the love story was negligent and uninteresting in such a way that it bloated the narrative.
The film tends to answer questions that diehard fans will want to know about, and that casual fans like myself hadn’t even thought to ask. The script unfolds as though the writers had a list of frequently asked questions about Han Solo and checked boxes off this list as they wrote the movie.
How did Han Solo get that awesome name? Check. How did Solo become a pilot? Check. How did he acquire Lando’s beloved Millennium Falcon, how did he meet Chewbacca, how did he make the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs? Check, check, check.
The movie spends so much time answering these questions and checking these boxes that we don’t really learn anything new about Han at all — in fact, Qi’ra and Lando’s arcs are the ones left curiously unresolved, giving Lucasfilm a lot of wiggle room for additional spin-offs.
Ultimately, “SOLO: A Star Wars Story” is exciting and fun upon first viewing. “New” information offered by the film will fill in some gaps left by the original saga, but the film is an inessential addition to the “Star Wars” universe and wholly forgettable (especially when Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s scene-stealing droid is offscreen).
The anthology films should be an opportunity for filmmakers to take the reins and expand “Star Wars” to places not yet ventured. With this unremarkable installment, that opportunity was wasted, making it a disappointing standout in a franchise that became a cultural phenomenon for its willingness to go beyond the pale.
If you’re interested in “SOLO” as a fun blockbuster, enjoy. If you’re there for a great “Star Wars” film, “SOLO” leaves something to be desired.