Solo approximates the joy of a good Star Wars installment.
A long time ago, in the summer of 1977 to be exact, Han Solo proudly claimed he and his spaceship, the Millennium Falcon, “made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs.” This nonsensical turn of phrase, tossed off in the first Star Wars picture, somehow embedded itself in nerd culture. Solo: A Star Wars Story, the tenth motion picture set in the Star Wars universe, basically fills in the backstory of a beloved character and the details of that particular slice of his history.
It’s telling, and more than a bit disheartening, that Hollywood has become so thirsty for brand extension and a guaranteed audience that a single line of dialogue now warrants the premise for a multimillion-dollar extravaganza. The well of fresh material is, apparently, dry. Disney is banking on a 40-year-old boast to deliver Star Destroyer-loads of cash to its coffers.
The screening I attended, an equal mix of press and fans, may not be a representative sample of the general public. Still, every callback and wink to the original Star Wars trilogy (and in one case – gasp! – the dreaded prequel trilogy) was met with whoops and applause. It appears Solo will indeed be a smash. What that says about the hand-wringing we critics go through, time and time again, when presented with rehashed material, is a topic beyond the scope of this review.
Solo, at the very least, clears the basic cinematic bar as a competently executed work of summer entertainment. Early reports suggested a misfire, if not a fiasco. The original directors, Phil Lord and Chris Miller (The Lego Movie and 21 Jump Street), were scrapped and replaced with Ron Howard, who reshot large portions of the movie. The studio brought in an acting coach for Alden Ehrenreich, the film’s lead. George Lucas, chillingly, stepped in to provide supplementary notes. None of these developments boded well for the final product.
Solo, remarkably, carries zero baggage. It’s often fun and, here and there, is downright buoyant. Strangely enough, this imperfect film offers the fan service The Last Jedi “withheld” from true believers. I suspect Solo will, for some aggrieved viewers, scratch an itch left untouched by Rian Johnson’s vastly superior picture. Howard retains the sequel trilogy’s visual aesthetic, one that leans heavily on practical effects, while hewing to the narrative beats of a standard heist film.
The screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan (The Empire Strikes Back and The Force Awakens) and his son Jonathan, so stuffed with plot, breezes by and is peppered with fine character exchanges. The Kasdans regularly halt Solo’s forward rush for smaller moments of human interaction (even if all the characters aren’t exactly human). In an early scene, Solo escapes a scrape with a jewelry-adorned, centipede-like creature, armed only with his wits and wiles. His inevitable introductions to Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo, who replaced Peter Mayhew starting with The Force Awakens) and Lando Calrissian (here played by the great, ascendant Donald Glover) are satisfying and well-earned. Some of the film’s sharpest (and funniest) lines are spoken by the newest droid, L3-37 (voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge), an AI political firebrand.
These characters are both morally suspect and always better than they seem. Donald Glover’s Lando vamps and struts. Emilia Clarke’s Qi’ra and Woody Harrelson’s Beckett, welcome additions to the story, scheme and double-cross. Despite his modest technical failings, Alden Ehrenreich’s Han Solo beams and sparkles. But he’s no Harrison Ford.
Likewise, this film approximates the joy of a good Star Wars installment. Strong performances aside, Solo is neutered by low stakes. Before it commences with the requisite blue text – “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” – we already know how this tale concludes. Viewers were spoiled in ‘77. For every twist and turn, thrilling chase and close call, it ends at the start. A familiar saga flips back to the first page. So, here we go again. And soon enough, no doubt, again and again and again.