When I wrote about Rogue One, the first of the Star Wars anthology films, one of my main takeaways about the picture was how much it broke from the previous movies in the Star Wars universe. It was thematically dense in a way we had never seen in a Star Wars movie, and it only tangentially relied on callbacks to the earlier films to connect us to the series. Much of the credit for that innovative feel was probably due to The Walt Disney Company (which now owns and produces all things Star Wars) introducing fresh blood into the franchise. Neither director Gareth Edwards nor writers Chris Weitz or Tony Gilroy had ever been involved with any Star Wars project prior to Rogue One. The new anthology entry, Solo: A Star Wars Story, is like the anti-Rogue One, but I don’t mean that in the strictly pejorative sense that you’re probably expecting.
Solo is the origin story for one of the most beloved characters in the original trilogy: smuggler, wiseass, and all-around scoundrel Han Solo. Because of this, you might assume – without ever seeing a single frame of the movie – that Solo would be an exercise in looking back instead of forward. You would not be wrong in that assumption.
In addition to the movie focusing on an established fan favorite, Disney hired a writer – Lawrence Kasdan, working in collaboration with his son, Jonathan – who has a long history with Star Wars. The elder Kasdan helped pen The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, and he did a rewrite on the initial script for The Force Awakens. The fresh blood on Solo, directing team Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, were jettisoned by Disney after “creative differences.” To replace them, Disney brought in Ron Howard. The experienced director has never been involved with Star Wars before, but he’s a close friend of George Lucas, and the two worked together on the movie Willow.
It would have been interesting to see what Lord and Miller, the creative talent behind the wildly entertaining The Lego Movie, could have done with Solo. The creative differences that reportedly drove Disney to cut ties with the directors involved Lord and Miller trying to make a comedy, and Disney wanting them to add comedic touches to an otherwise standard action/adventure-focused Star Wars movie. Ron Howard obliged Disney’s wishes. If we now have enough movies to identify what could be called “boilerplate Star Wars,” Solo is it.
At the same time, Solo is damned entertaining. You can feel the Kasdans checking the necessary mythology boxes with their screenplay, but they do so by surrounding those obligatory moments with fun and exciting stuff. I can almost picture Lawrence Kasdan reliving past glories as he sat down to pen Han meeting Chewbacca, Han seeing the Millennium Falcon for the first time, and even how our hero got that impossibly cool yet ridiculous last name. Everything you might want to see if you’re a big fan of the original trilogy – including a certain space route that one character describes during Solo as “impossible to run in less than 20 parsecs” – is here.
Not all these elements are a complete success. Composer John Powell lifts entire sections of John Williams’ original score for A New Hope to accompany the climactic space chase. Powell also works overtime to make sure we’re always feeling the right emotions. The insistent and pervasive music during a poker game between Han and rival-turned-ally Lando Calrissian is the most egregious example. But as easy as it is for me to recognize how often Solo leans heavily on the success of what’s come before it, I couldn’t help but get chills at exactly the moments Ron Howard and Disney desired. I am, after all, a Star Wars fan.
There’s no doubt that Han Solo resonated with audiences the way he did back in 1977 because of the performance of Harrison Ford. The actor, especially in the early days of his career, personified cool when he made characters like Solo, Indiana Jones, and Rick Deckard iconic. Whoever stepped into the role for this film was sure to feel the pressure of Ford’s legacy. Alden Ehrenreich – whom I first discovered through his magnificent performance as Hobie Doyle in 2016’s Hail, Caesar! – took on the thankless task.
The actor became the focus of the rumor mill himself during filming when reports came out that Disney wasn’t happy with his efforts at mimicking Ford. Gossip writers reported that the studio hired an acting coach to work with Ehrenreich between takes. The actor has recently pushed back on these claims. Whether or not they are true, it’s easy to see in his performance that the pressure to re-create Ford’s interpretation of Han Solo might have gotten to Ehrenreich. There is nothing effortless about the performance. While he does a good job at making you think about Harrison Ford when he’s on screen (although, oddly, the mile-wide grin plastered on his face for much of the movie put me more in mind of a young Dennis Quaid than Ford), it feels a bit too calculated. You can see the gears turning in Ehrenreich’s head to be Harrison Ford for every second.
Not to pit them against each other like they’re gladiators who are dueling for my favor, but Donald Glover has the almost exact opposite quality in his performance as Lando Calrissian, the role originated by Billy Dee Williams in Empire and Jedi. Glover incorporates subtle shades of the smooth charmer that Williams brought to life 35 years ago, but he makes the character his own. His talents are just right for those touches of comedy that Disney wanted to bring to the story. There’s a big laugh when Lando turns to Han after our hero has endangered both of their lives and deadpans the line, “I hate you.”
The biggest success of Solo is something I realized in the moment, but that I probably won’t fully appreciate until the next time I see the dynamic between Ford and Williams again (which might be a while, I rarely revisit the original Star Wars movies anymore). In a battle scene towards the end of the movie, Lando’s droid navigator, L3-37 (L3 for short), is hit by a laser blast. Lando charges into the incoming fire to rescue L3, and Han must in turn rescue Lando. In that moment, I saw the events that formed the bond between the two men that is present in Return of the Jedi. These guys went through the fire together, and Kasdan, Howard, Ehrenreich, and Glover made me believe it.
Why it got 3 stars:
- Solo is a fun adventure, but it relies a little too heavily on what's come before it to make it unique or special. Add that to Ehrenreich's clumsy performance, and Solo's good qualities just about balance out the bad ones.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- The scene where Han gets his last name made me think of religion origin stories, where disciples have to go back and create a story to fit the details that came with their beliefs.
- Cinematographer Bradford Young crafted a dark and dirty world in Solo. I'm not as down on it as other critics have been, but it is a peculiar choice for what is ostensibly a kid-friendly crowd-pleaser Star Wars movie.
- Speaking of kids, my screening of Solo was packed with them. I saw a lot of dads my age who were introducing their little ones to the franchise they've loved for their whole lives.
- Let it be known: I never need Wookiee subtitles ever again. Han understanding Chewie and replying in English, without the audience ever knowing exactly what Chewie is saying, is a great gag. Please don't ruin it in the future.
- The women in this movie are almost beyond an afterthought. I would love to read a dissertation on the agency of the character Thandie Newton plays in Solo versus Maeve, her take-no-shit-from-anybody character in Westworld. The same goes for Emilia Clarke. This is oversimplifying a little, but her character essentially exists to give Han Solo a quest.
- There is a nice counterpoint to all that with the droid L3, a bot whose calls for droid equality are essentially calls for feminist equality. English actress Phoebe Waller-Bridge voices L3, and she is a highlight of the movie.
- Next to Solo, the amount of death in A New Hope seems quaint by comparison.
Close encounters with people who don't know how to act in a movie theater:
- I mentioned lots of kids, but there wasn't a lot of disruption. They were all on their best behavior. I don't know if they were enthralled by the story, or just overwhelmed by the special effects.
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
I've never been a huge horror movie fan, but I've warmed to them considerably since I started writing about and seeing more movies. It Follows, Don't Breathe, Get Out, and It have all hit my radar in the last couple of years, and I've enjoyed them. Hereditary, starring one of my favorite actors, Toni Collette, is the new horror film from film distributor A24. They've been behind some of my recent favorites like A Ghost Story, Moonlight, and The Florida Project.