MOVIE REVIEW: Solo: A Star Wars Story
SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY-- 3 STARS
To borrow a cliched term, the character of Han Solo created by George Lucas for the Star Wars franchise needs no introduction. Embodied to a level of legend by Harrison Ford for nearly 40 years, Han Solo is the 14th ranked hero of all-time by the AFI (American Film Institute), the 7th coolest hero in pop culture according to Entertainment Weekly magazine, and IGN’s second greatest Star Wars character after Darth Vader. So, no, seriously, he needs no introduction and that’s the trouble with Solo: A Star Wars Story. A character as iconic and universally loved as Han Solo does not need a newfangled and souped-up backstory to raise him up any higher in any realm of lore or fandom. Frankly, he doesn’t need the help and neither did Darth Vader back in 1999 (different rant for a different day).
Succeeding frequently with several exciting and well-conceived action sequences and a bevy of rich supporting characters to enjoy, Solo: A Star Wars Story still has an inescapable ceiling. Directed by a respected safe veteran in Ron Howard, rescuing this film from loudly reported production woes, this prequel seeks to chronicle a background of how our favorite smuggler, thief, and scoundrel came to be. On this writer’s ledger, the first two of those three traits register emphatically from the movie.
We meet the lawless twenty-something Han (Alden Ehrenreich of Hail, Caesar!) on his native Corellia crashing and talking his way out of felonious trouble alongside a devoted gal by the name of Qi’ra (Game of Thrones sovereign Emilia Clarke). The two have come into possession of a refined fragment of coaxium, a powerful highly sought-after hyperfuel (and movie MacGuffin). Its street value is enough for the lovers to buy a ship and escape Corellia’s Imperial shipyard slums. Their dream escape is foiled and the two are separated, with Han submerged for three years as a “mudskull” grunt in the Imperial Navy.
Along the way, Solo encounters a band of criminals posing as Imperial officers, led by the shady Tobias Beckett and his steely companion Val (the competent Woody Harrelson and Thandie Newton heavy-lifting for Ehrenreich). Gravitating to the mentorship, Han deserts the uniform and joins their crew in order to fulfill a debt owed to a malicious Crimson Dawn crime lord named Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany, replacing Michael K. Williams in reshoots) that involves stealing even more coaxium. This new lifestyle spins our braggart pilot in a new direction, one with paths waiting to be crossed, introductions destined to be made, friendships fit to be forged, rivalries to stoke, and achievements primed to be unlocked.
LESSON #1: LUCK’S GOT NOTHING TO DO WITH IT-- Time and again, the continued characterization of Han Solo is that of a guy who seemingly escapes every obstacle and challenge with panache, even if several of them were self-created by poor choices. He gets labeled lucky, but it’s really his secondary decision-making and improvisation that leads to his success. Simply put, he overcomes mistakes with dedicated skill more than luck. As Solo often laments, put a little trust and faith in that prowess.
LESSON #2: LISTEN AND PAY ATTENTION-- This verbiage of Lesson #2 would go a long way for Han Solo to not need so much of Lesson #1. None of these key biographical events occurring were going to come easy, especially with Han’s unstoppable smile, ignorant mouth, and magnetism for danger. True to his age and arc, Han has yet to figure out how to shut up and observe, but he will and that learned lesson will guide the trust factor as well.
With those qualities in mind, the burden lands on Alden Ehrenreich to fulfill the charisma of the title role and the mandatory narrative and audience attention that comes with that spot. Try as he many, Ehrenreich frankly doesn’t have it or at least not enough of it. This is where the essential scoundrel trait of Han Solo is insufficient, even after an entire film that pledged character development. Dare I say it, he’s too nice and too easily a do-gooder here. Even if this movie was originally meant to be a comedy from its initial directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller of The LEGO Movie fame (I'd like to see that cut), an amplifying portion of drama is lacking. The Han Solo we observe starting in A New Hope feels like a Rick Blaine of a galaxy-sized Casablanca whose rescuing act of heroic redemption is a payoff for the ages. The hints and attempts of charm and swagger are there, but nothing from Ehrenreich hits with unmistakable authority. That can’t happen when your role is the title on the poster.
Instead, the supporting characters steal scenes left and right from the lead. Emilia Clarke makes for a fetching and enigmatic moll, lifting the film’s vibrancy with her very presence and outshining her love interest. Even greater, Donald Glover is absolutely superb as a young Lando Calrissian, evoking ever-present coolness behind the bright colors, decadent capes, stroked facial hair, and raised eyebrows. Serving beside Lando, Phoebe Mary Waller-Bridge’s hilariously pushy and feminist-ish droid L3-37 continues the benchmark that a Star Wars film would not be complete without an endearing all-star droid. Give those two their own movie. They are an example of untapped and unexplored potential, not the second best character and top hero of the whole darn cinematic universe.
Thank the holy Jedi Force ghosts Solo: A Star Wars Story zips with spirited amusement. The look and feel of the film, from the impressive creature and costume designs on down to the matchless special effects and sturdy John Powell musical score, add environment and flair to excellent thrills. Solo: A Star Wars Story is never not a worthwhile big screen experience. 3D is not necessary, but spring for at least a large and loud digital screen. Most of all, the illustrious action skillfully serves the larger franchise and furthers potential background stories for expansion. The proper world-building and foreboding hints are there with a surprisingly light amount of fan service. That said, be ready for a bold springboarding twist that will reverberate like a jump to lightspeed without a seatbelt. The fun factor cannot be questioned.
LESSON #3: KNOWN FATES TAKE AWAY FROM THE SUSPENSE-- Finally, let’s spell out an irrefutable dilemma with any prequel film in existence (The Hobbit trilogy comes to mind) including Solo. Because the audience knows certain characters have documented futures, there is a perceptible, if not even enormous, storytelling loss in the peril department. The edge of one’s seat becomes a little more relaxed and more than a bit farther away.
No matter what happens to Han Solo, Chewbacca, Lando Calrissian, and the Millennium Falcon in Solo, they’re going to be fine and, in equal measure, since a large majority of the side characters present are never mentioned in the films later down the timeline, you might as well put a red shirt of Star Trek doom on each of them. Foregone conclusions like that are not spoiler alerts. Those are plain facts. Ignoring this conundrum is pure gullibility.
The common rewind counterargument is “well, it’s about the journey… blah, blah, blah.” Sure, but then the impact of said journey better be damn important or move us to pieces. Rogue One’s suicide mission achieved that. Even the maligned George Lucas prequels built Obi-Wan Kenobi as much as, if not better than, they built Anakin Skywalker. Solo: A Star Wars Story is missing a certain level of that compelling juice and that goes all the way back to its frivolous purpose. With the rumors of a desired trilogy on the table with Ehrenreich’s contract, this intergalactic space opera still has a limit. Welcome to most rambunctiously entertaining unnecessary movie you may ever like or love.