Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)
It’s unfortunate that production strife has become somewhat of a staple of Disney’s Star Wars revival — well, at least of its offshoot features. The trailers for 2016’s Rogue One hinted at a different, slightly darker movie before director Gareth Edwards was reportedly pressured into re-working (and even omitting) large chunks of his film — probably by request of Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, who served as a producer on said film. And Solo: A Star Wars Story is certainly no exception, original helmers Phil Lord and Chris Miller fired from production late in the game (by franchise overseer Kennedy) due to their irreverent take on the iconic space-cowboy, the moviemaking duo’s comic sensibilities rubbing screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan and his son Jonathan the wrong way.
As a result, Academy Award-winning filmmaker Ron Howard, Apollo 13 (1995), was brought in to pick up the pieces, the sliver screen veteran given the arduous task of having to retool Solo in the wake of Lord and Miller’s departure. Thankfully, none of the behind-the-scenes turmoil is evident up on screen, as Solo: A Star Wars Story is a fun and fitting tribute to the beloved roguish braggart, the film possessing a quasi-Western vibe — because, hey, nothing screams Western more than Han Solo’s legendary intro, where we first met Harrison Ford’s smarmy smuggler at the Mos Eisley Cantina in A New Hope (1977), the maverick boasting all the traits and characteristics of an intergalactic buckaroo!
Taking place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away — long before Ford’s Han Solo met the Skywalkers — our story opens with a young Han (Alden Ehrenreich) slumming it amongst thieves in the grimy starship-building planet of Corellia (during the Imperial rule), where he aspires to someday become a pilot. There, Han and his girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) live as orphans, slaving away for a nefarious crime boss, a centipede version of Jabba the Hutt known as Lady Proxima (voiced by Linda Hunt). Having just nabbed a speeder and a small vial of glowing hyperfuel called Coaxium (a rare, costly mineral that’s used for powering vehicles), Han and his lady friend attempt to flee their oppressors, the pair hoping to buy a craft, then traverse the galaxy together. Sadly, things don’t go smoothly, with the couple being separated, and Han having to enlist with the Empire to avoid capture.
Three years later and the ‘disobedient’ Han is fighting in the trenches of the war-torn planet Mimban, though the lovable rascal still hasn’t given up on his dreams of buying a spaceship and reuniting with Qi’ra. Looking for a means to get away from the Empire, Han joins a bunch of drifting bandits that he meets on the mud-spattered battlefield: no-nonsense leader Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), his close lady sidekick Val (Thandie Newton), and their four-armed pilot Rio Durant (Jon Favreau). Han also befriends a two-century-old Wookiee named Chewbacca, who’s fallen on hard times and tags along as a means to escape his enslavement — the much younger Joonas Suotamo replacing Peter Mayhew under the furry getup.
Their first job together is a slickly shot mountainside heist that sees the ragtag crew of scoundrels try to steal a carriage of Coaxium from a rollercoaster-like locomotive, the daring mid-air raid one of the most tangible sequences from the Disney-assembled Star Wars vehicles. After a split-second decision by Han leaves the crew high and dry, they find themselves debted to the ruthless Dryden Vos (a wonderfully hammy Paul Bettany), the dashing leader of an emerging criminal faction known as Crimson Dawn. To try and make amends for the blunder, Beckett and his team visit the power-hungry Dryden on his ultra-modern space-yacht, where a funky-looking singing duo (one of which is in a fish bowl) are entertaining guests. To his surprise, that’s where Han bumps into a now-glamorous Qi’ra, who informs him that she’d become one of Dryden’s top lieutenants, Solo soon making the gangster an offer to makeup for their recent slip-up. And so, the crew head to the mining planet of Kessel to loot a batch of raw Coaxium for Dryden, which will require the team to race to the Outer Rim planet of Savareen to refine it before they’re blown to bits. But first, the crew must acquire a ship fast enough to get the job done.
With director Ron Howard cut from the same cloth as Star Wars founder George Lucas, Solo plays like an actual extension of the Universe, perhaps moreso than any of the other Star Wars titles under the Disney umbrella, this origin tale paying reverence to Episodes IV, V and VI without ever coming across as fan fiction. Sure, there are subtle nods to Lucas’ original pictures, as well as the prequel trilogy, but none of these are forced — so, no arbitrary C-3PO/ R2-D2 appearance. Moreover, the narrative co-written by Lawrence Kasdan — who penned The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983), and arguably knows the character of Han best — fits seamlessly into canon, the film giving us a Western-style backstory that feels right on the nose, honoring the gunfighter’s recklessness, unpredictability and charm. Oh, we also get a shower scene involving eventual BFFs Han and Chewie. If that wasn’t enough, the rip-roaring soundtrack by composer John Powell, How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014), provides plenty of nostalgic moments, the score incorporating many of John Williams’ iconic melodies, as well as a new version of the Han Solo theme.
Like all good Wild Wild West yarns, there’s an action-packed train robbery (filmmakers substituting the dry American West for the snowy mountains of Vandor), several Mexican standoffs and even a slave uprising, with a scene-stealing navigator droid that goes by the tag L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) leading a revolt in the treacherous mines of Kessel, a region controlled by a shady organization known as the Pyke Syndicate, who exploit forced labor on lifeforms such as Wookiees and droids. As one would expect, visual effects are top-notch, so too are the practical creature FX, with a large number of oddities spread throughout the adventure, including a Lovecraftian space-squid that had me grinning from ear to ear. Sadly, a lot of the monsters are hard to spot with the dark, murky cinematography by Bradford Young, Arrival (2016), erasing faces and details, this muddy filter nullifying a lot of the production’s good work.
In addition, viewers are also treated to a handful of epic space opera beats — this is Star Wars, after all — the highlight being a dogfight between a pack of angry TIE fighters and the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy (the Millennium Falcon), which takes place inside the perilous Maw Cluster (located near Kessel), an unstable and mostly unnavigable gathering of black holes surrounded by dangerous anomalies such as stellar debris and plasma clouds, this Outer Rim territory where Han eventually makes his iconic ‘Kessel Run’ in under 12 parsecs.
With that said, however, proceedings do unfold in a semi-predictable manner, bar a spine-tingling third act reveal — a scene that felt truly surreal — which opens the floodgates for many, far more exciting narrative possibilities. It’s a shame that nothing in Solo is as bold or daring as this single fleeting moment, despite the cast and crew’s sheer visible effort.
While early rumors of Alden Ehrenreich, Hail, Caesar! (2016), had me worried (chiefly the stuff about Lucasfilm assigning him an acting coach), the charming 28-year-old does a pretty solid job as Solo without ever trying to imitate the great Harrison Ford, Ehrenreich sorta making the lived-in gunslinger his own (one can even project the later Han on him). And look, while I’m sure many a diehard fan will have an issue with the fact that Ehrenreich’s Han is not the Han of old, the guy certainly deserves credit for his work — even if this ‘new’ Solo does take a bit of getting used to.
Ehrenreich’s co-star, however, Game of Thrones’ Emilia Clarke is a little ‘meh,’ the pair sharing next-to-no chemistry or spark, Qi’ra baring too much of a resemblance to other similar-looking British actresses from the newly minted Star Wars films — i.e. Daisy Ridley from The Force Awakens (2015) and The Last Jedi (2017) to Felicity Jones in Rogue One (2016). It doesn’t help that not much is known about the doll-faced love interest/ possible femme fatale either. And okay, I know that Thandie Newton is also British, but no one’s gonna get her mixed up with Felicity Jones.
And what of Childish Gambino’s Donald Glover? Well, the instant those first stills were released, I knew that Glover would be the perfect fit for the caped Captain Lando Calrissian, who was played by Billy Dee Williams back in the original trilogy. Here, we meet the magnetic Calrissian during a high-stakes game of Sabacc, where Glover’s deceptive raconteur offers Han a chance at winning a shinny Millennium Falcon, the pair bonding over their mutual love for trickery. With swank, swagger and sophistication, along with a Screamin’ Jay Hawkins-esque wardrobe, Glover more than convinces that he will someday age into the smooth Billy Dee Williams. Joining Lando is a self-made navigator droid, L3-37 (voiced superbly by Phoebe Waller-Bridge), his feisty mechanical partner keeping energy up in the movie’s later part. Elsewhere, Woody Harrelson, Zombieland (2009), looks to be having a ball of a time as the seasoned outlaw Beckett, while it’s great seeing Warwick Davis — who first appeared in the Star Wars series as Wicket the Ewok — in a cameo as Weazel, the same guy he played in The Phantom Menace (1999), who’s now a marauder working for the masked Cloud-Rider Enfys Nest.
A film worthy of the Star Wars namesake, Solo: A Star Wars Story is an enjoyable, light-hearted deep space escapade, one that’s buoyed by a charismatic central performance, the film jam-packed with impressive action, some decent laughs and real heart, wonderfully realized by the talent both on and off camera — it’s a movie that knows what it wants to be. As a long-time Star Wars fan, I went into Solo thinking, ‘I’ve got a really good feeling about this,’ and came out the other end smiling, thrilled with the knowledge that the saga is still in good hands. Let’s hope it keeps moving forward at Lightspeed.
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Mr. Movie