Not that long ago, in a studio not too far away…
Turmoil has engulfed the once peaceful and proud Lucasfilm franchise. It is a period of [not so] civil war as a small band of separatist fans, feeling betrayed by “The Last Jedi”, lay siege to the latest “Star Wars” offering. Meanwhile, there is unrest within the production and Supreme Leader Kathleen Kennedy has very publicly dispatched Phil Lord & Chris Miller in the hope that Ron Howard can restore peace and prosperity to the franchise.
On the planet Corellia, the Empire relies on slave labour to meets its insatiable demand for ships and soldiers for the Imperial war machine. Two young slaves, Han (Alden Ehrenreich) and Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) plan to escape their bleak lives and explore the galaxy but when they are separated during their desperate escape attempt, Han vows to return to Correlia for her. Falling in with a band of intergalactic criminals, Han and his new friend Chewbacca must rely on their courage, wits and riding their luck, to find a way back to rescue Qi’ra.
In a very real sense, “Star Wars” find itself between a rock and a rancor. After “The Force Awakens”, I was happy but I wanted something new from “Star Wars”, especially after “Rogue One” so seamlessly slotted into the original trilogy aesthetic. I want something new, dammit! So along comes “The Last Jedi” and made me feel weird and uncomfortable as it struck out in bold, new and unexpected directions (although I’ve since come to appreciate and adore the creative and character decisions the film made). “Solo”, by contrast, very much returns the saga to its comfort zone although it does, at least, try to expand the mythology by portraying events on the periphery of the high politics of the Empire versus the Rebellion.
“Solo” is very “Star Wars”-y, from the impractical and improbable vehicle designs (hey, let’s create an interplanetary starship with an open-air balcony section and let’s use a train when anti-gravity and flight is cheap and ubiquitous), to the various nods and namechecks to the franchise’s storied history. Even Emilia Clarke’s trademark wooden delivery of dialogue evokes the prequels and lends everything an authentically Lucasian air.
The film presents us with a plethora of new action figures characters to covet love but the biggest surprise is that beyond the title character, his loyal Wookiee sidekick and his best frenemy Lando, most everyone else is disposable, offering some real emotional stakes depending on how wisely your emotional investments are made.
Flying in the face of the unkind production rumours, Ehrenreich is actually pretty good as Han Solo and while he doesn’t channel Harrison Ford in the same way Donald Glover channels Billy Dee Williams he definitely captures the essence of Han Solo (the hexagonal gun belt buckle helps enormously for some reason) and the easy camaraderie and chemistry between him and Chewbacca (easily the best character in the movie) is strong enough to pull the ears off a gundark.
Despite being the most expensive “Star Wars” movie ever made, some of the sets and locations look decidedly cheap, especially Savareen where the settlement has a sparse and ‘assembled the day before’ look that feels more akin to a lavish episode of “Blake’s 7”. That’s not to say there aren’t spectacular visuals on offer, just that much of the film looks good enough to make the movie’s final planetfall look disappointingly frugal.
There are some genuinely impressive set pieces but the script (which really, really obviously wanted an opening crawl but wasn’t allowed one) is slightly overstuffed and in a real hurry so there’s no time to savour anything before you’re whisked off to the next place or thing to look at. Nothing really gets a chance to breathe and it’s so clumsy in its desire to canonise explanations for notable original trilogy goofs like the 12 Parsec Kessel Run that it only superficially addresses the origins of Chewie’s ‘life debt’ to Han and other character beats which would benefit from a bit more time to resonate. It does, however, unambiguously settles one of the (post-Special Edition) saga’s most contentiously debated points, and not in the creator’s favour.
If the “Star Wars” saga has lost anything, it’s the irrevocable surrender of its most underappreciated asset: its rarity. With a new film every year at least, there’s nothing the franchise can do to keep the lustre of scarcity and must now compete as ‘just’ another multi-billion dollar franchise. By that criteria, “Solo: A Star Wars Story” delivers exactly what it promises, a genuinely “Star Wars” story about the origins of Han Solo. Did it need to be told? Absolutely not, but it’s more than fun enough to watch that its unnecessariness is unlikely to bother you at all and, perhaps the real measure of how successful it is, I kind of want a sequel to this particular side-strand (especially after the surprise cameo appearance near the end) before it inevitably has to conclude with Han suggesting he and Chewie go get a drink in a bar he knows in Mos Eisley. There are flashes of greatness, the occasional clunky bit but most of it is solidly good, and far better than its troubled path to the screen would lead you to expect. Ron Howard, you’ve done it again.