Solo: A Star Wars Story
Alden Ehrenreich, Joonas Suotamo, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover
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…the Old West with the serial numbers filed off and a light dusting of spaceships, droids, and Wookiees.
Of course producer and co-writer Lawrence Kasdan made Han Solo’s origin a Western. After fleshing out the Corellian scoundrel with his writing on The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi (and breathing life into Lucasfilm’s other big franchise by scripting Raiders of the Lost Ark) Kasdan went on to write and direct 1985’s Silverado and 1994’s Wyatt Earp, two old school, classical oaters packed full of gunslingers, bad men, desperadoes and outlaws. His love for the genre is palpable. So while Solo: A Star Wars Story is nominally set in the seedy criminal underworld of that long ago, far, far away galaxy we’ve all become so familiar with over the past four decades, it’s really just the Old West with the serial numbers filed off and a light dusting of spaceships, droids, and Wookiees.
And that’s a good thing! While we get a couple of epic scale scenes, including a land battle inspired by World War One-era trench warfare (or perhaps Warhammer 40,ooo) and a space chase that includes a tangle with a vast, Lovecraftian beastie, Solo‘s narrative parameters are notably more modest than what we get in the core Star Wars flicks. This isn’t a story about saving the galaxy or vanquishing evil; rather it’s a fairly picaresque tale of a callow youth becoming a man, more or less, with a bit of adventuring and lesson-learning along the way. Our end goal here isn’t to change the world, but to put Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich, giving good Solo without doing a straight-up Harrison Ford impression) and Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo, replacing the now-elderly Peter Mayhew) in the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon, and it’s no spoiler to say that, yes, that’s where we wind up, and we have a lot of fun getting there, spending a bit of time in the industrial slums of Corellia, a brief stint taking the Imperial shilling in the armed forces before our man Han hooks up with gunslinging gang leader Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson having too much fun) and learning the outlawry ropes.
The thread that ties young Han’s escapades together is lost love – our boy pines for his old flame Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke, not quite up to the task the script requires of her), the girl he loved as a gutter rat back in the day and who he finds again in the orbit of terrifying crime lord Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany, mixing camp and menace to good effect). Vos provides the potentially deadly pressure that sends our ragtag team off to steal a lucrative score from a spice-mining operation on the planet Kessell lest they feel his considerable wrath, and another piece of the Han Solo legend slots into place.
Solo‘s chief problem is that it so often feels like its checking boxes off a list, filling in the details of the Han Solo story already sketched out in the pre-existing films (and novels, comics, games, etc to varying degrees of canonicity. So: rescuing Chewbacca from slavery? Check. Meeting Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) and acquiring the Millennium Falcon? Check? The Kessel Run? Check.
There are few surprises in Solo and that’s fine – in fact it’s something of a relief to have an almost spoiler-proof blockbuster on our hands for once. The film doesn’t deal in twists, but does throw in the occasional reversal, and these proceed from well-established character motivations, rather than being shoehorned in for the sake of shock. What the film trucks in isn’t surprise, but anticipation – the delicious thrill you get as a viewer when the penny drops for you ahead of the film’s characters, and it feels like it’s been a while since we had that sensation served up to us. One element aside – and that exists purely to set potential, nigh-inevitable sequels – Solo eschews “mystery box” storytelling in favour of good old-fashioned fun.
And what fun it is! This is after all, the movie where lifelong Star Wars fan Donald Glover gets to be Lando in all his cape-wearing, smooth-talking glory, and effortlessly steals almost every scene he’s in – it’s hardly a shock that there’s already talk of a Calrissian-centric spin-off. This is the movie where Woody Harrelson gets to spin a blaster pistol in each hand as he leads his team on an honest-to-God sci-fi train heist, a near-perfect marriage of Western tradition and modern tentpole spectacle (and never mind that Joss Whedon’s Firefly kinda did it years earlier and on a fraction of the budget). This is the film where Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s sardonic, robot-rights expounding droid sidekick gets to inadvertently start a slave uprising in the middle of a heist.
Hell, this is the movie where you get to see Han and Chewie pilot the Millennium Falcon together for the first time. All pretence to critical distance aside, if you’re of a certain age and cultural disposition, that’s a moment that lands like a punch.
It’s not perfect, though. While the one-liners and banter generally land, the more straight-up attempts at comedy tend to fall flat, and Jon Favreau’s comic relief alien pilot is just painful. The simple fact that Ehrenreich isn’t Ford, and that this Solo is not quite the Solo of old, takes a little getting used to and, let’s face it, may be an insurmountable hurdle for some. Poor Emilia Clarke simply doesn’t have the acting chops for the character she’s been given, and drags things down a couple of notches simply by defaulting to being Emilia Clarke in almost every scene she’s in, which is a shame. Qi’ra is central to Han’s character arc in the film, but the complexity required to make their story really land is simply absent due to Clarke’s limitations as a performer.
Still, in many ways Solo feels more like Star Wars than any of the other new generation episodes and, in what may be a first for a prequel, more readily lends itself to expansion and extension as well. With any luck we’ll spend a lot more time bombing around the galaxy with Han and his hairy co-pilot, getting into and out of scrapes by the skin of our teeth. In the meantime, this is what we’ve got, and it’s an absolute blast.