Star Wars fans can be a surly, cynical, and often overly protective bunch. Trust me, I’m not saying that as some outside observer with his nose in the air. I myself am a proud, passionate, card-carrying member of that bunch. I adore Star Wars and it is indelibly etched into my entire life story. I have vested interests and sharp opinions on “Han shot first”, the midi-chlorian controversy, and the merits of the prequels. In other words I am a bonafide Star Wars geek.
Having defined myself, let me say I was one who had a handful of questions upon hearing of Disney’s “Solo: A Star Wars Story”. Is this a film we really need? Is it simply a cash grab or is there truly a great story to be told? Could they actually pull it off considering the iconic role wouldn’t be played by the man who made it – Harrison Ford?
“Solo: A Star Wars Story” answers most of the questions lobbed it’s way, yet I still found myself having to make some fairly big mental adjustments. That mainly comes from the casting of Alden Ehrenreich in the title role. The film’s Herculean task of selling us a new Han Solo is absolutely essential. If we can’t buy into Ehrenreich the entire movie fails. That’s a brutal responsibility that I would never have the guts to take on. But Ehrenreich does take it on and does an impressive job of respecting the character while also making it his own. And while I didn’t always see him as the lovable scoundrel from my childhood, it’s a solid portrayal that doesn’t undermine what the movie is going for.
The film is written by franchise vet Lawrence Kasdan along with his son Jonathan and I wouldn’t say their story adds a ton to the vast Star Wars universe. But fans of the character will find more than enough to connect this movie to the Han Solo mythos. It answers a lot of questions you probably never had but has a lot of fun doing it. An unbridled fanboy like me had a blast seeing how Han acquired his iconic (that word again) blaster, learning about the Kessel run, and seeing him first lay eyes on the Millennium Falcon. Cool nuggets like those are spread throughout. Only the final act reveals things that shake up the universe in a very cool way.
Ron Howard took the directing reigns from Phil Lord and Christopher Miller who were let go due to “creative differences”. Figuring out where Howard’s influence comes in is pretty difficult as the movie maintains a fairly consistent flow. It’s a bit slow out of the gate as it deals with Han’s life on the criminally-ran planet of Corellia. He and his love Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) make a vow to leave the oppressive planet together. Of course it’s never that easy. The two are separated during a failed escape and Han finds himself off-world with the smuggling crew of Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson). For Han it’s about making some quick money and going back for Qi’ra. Did I mention it’s never that easy?
The film picks up steam and uncurls into an exciting action-packed adventure. Throughout Han’s quest characters are brought in which give the story more weight. None are more welcome than Chewbacca who for the first time is treated as more than a Wookiee sidekick. For Chewie there are stakes to consider and meaningful decisions to be made. Then there is Donald Glover’s Lando who slickly captures Billy Dee Williams’ suave but slimy charisma. He’s a hoot. Both of these characters not only bring an entertaining nostalgic flavor to the overall movie, but both serve to give Han more depth and zest. Observing their growing relationships and camaraderie left my inner fanboy pleased.
As far as the new characters, Harrelson’s Beckett and Clarke’s Qi’ra, while dramatically different, both offer some interesting twists to the story. The film’s new droid (because they always seem to have one) is Lando’s navigator and companion L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) – an amusing character sure to tickle the political fancies of some while being downright bizarre to others. Also Paul Bettany shows up as Dryden Vos, a ruthless crime boss who has a history with Beckett and a connection with Qi’ra.
“Solo” certainly delivers on the action. From its speeder chases to its gun fights to its space battles, it all has a very ‘space western’ feel. There’s plenty of CGI, most of it very good, but the film also seemed to incorporate a surprising amount of practical effects. That’s always good to see. And while the movie looks good as a whole, I was a bit concerned early on. For the first quarter of the movie the muted dark color palette became an issue. I think it was intended to show an ugliness of the world it was depicting, but I found it be too dim and dreary for its own good. Thankfully it’s a problem solved once we begin seeing other locations.
“Solo” is making news for not coming out strong at the box office the way Star Wars films have in the past. While it’s still making good money, many are already trying to figure out why it is underperforming. There are a number of potential factors, but I do hope it finds a bigger audience. Howard, Ehrenreich and company craft a fun and compelling romp that carefully walks the line between Star Wars fan service and old-school action/adventure. It doesn’t hit every note the way it wants, but it certainly came out far better that I expected. I appreciated its more narrow focus, I loved Chewie and Lando, and was excited by a final act that’s sure to confuse some and exhilarate others. Count me among the exhilarated ones.
VERDICT – 4 STARS