REVIEW: 'Solo: A Star Wars Story' smuggles some good moments from a troubled shoot

 Alden Ehrenreich as Han Solo and Joonas Suotomo as Chewbacca in  Solo: A Star Wars Story , directed by Ron Howard.

Alden Ehrenreich as Han Solo and Joonas Suotomo as Chewbacca in Solo: A Star Wars Story, directed by Ron Howard.

The further we venture into the Star Wars universe, the more I’m reminded of the historical Age of Exploration. Like an adventurer filling in a map, each new anthology film (or Star Wars Story) takes more steps to demystify some of the most legendary pieces of the film canon. And on an intellectual level, that’s not a bad thing. If done well, every little reference that fans have memorized over the years from the original three films is fertile ground for filmmaking. How did Han Solo win the Millennium Falcon from Lando? How did Han meet Chewbacca? What exactly is the Kessel Run, and what does it have to do with units of distance in space?

On a cynical level, this motivation is part of a bigger trend. Look to the most recent Alien films by Ridley Scott, or Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049, and you see how questions that swirled for years after the original films’ releases were tidily answered, possibly defusing some of the drama that used to exist. As much as I heartily loved 2049, would it have been just as good (or even better) if Deckard (Harrison Ford) and his life after the events of the original film were completely ignored?

But if the past few years at the movies have taught me anything, it’s that when fans have burning questions about the minutiae of their favourite titles, movie studios are happy to answer them. So along comes Solo: A Star Wars Story, the second release in a lineup of planned movies from Disney/Lucasfilm, designed to fill in the gaps between the more serialized “Skywalker Saga” films. Solo takes us back to the origins of everyone’s favourite smuggler, Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich), and explains how he came to be the charming, genius pilot that Luke Skywalker runs into in the Mos Eisley cantina.

 Emilia Clarke as Qi'ra, Han's girlfriend from his days on Corellia.

Emilia Clarke as Qi'ra, Han's girlfriend from his days on Corellia.

The film opens on the planet of Corellia, a location never glimpsed in the movies before, but often featured in the dozens of Star Wars tie-in novels released over the years. This world’s primary industry is building capital ships for the Galactic Empire, and Han grew up in its streets, running scams for local gangsters. He and his girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) plan to steal some valuable fuel and sell it on the black market to fund an escape attempt. But when Han and Qi’ra are separated during the job, Han ends up being sent off-planet, putting his dreams on hold and forcing him to cobble together a way back to Corellia, and to Qi’ra.

As an origin for a fan-favourite character like Han, this is as good a starting point as any. It lines up with many of the traits we recognize: he’s a savvy improviser, a loveable rogue, he looks out for people, and he’s had plenty of experience with the Imperials. And as Han’s journey continues, he encounters people who will have a huge impact on his life, namely Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), a veteran smuggler who becomes Han’s main mentor, and Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), the Wookiee that Han rescues from an Imperial prison, forming a lifelong bond.

The film trundles along a fairly linear track, following Han from one heist to the next as he tries to stay a step ahead of his creditors, all while learning about the smuggler lifestyle and trust-no-one principles from Beckett. It’s mildly diverting stuff, though unfortunately it doesn’t have the same verve or sparkle as a true heist film, or even of something else from Disney’s catalogue, Guardians of the Galaxy. The whole thing is very capably assembled, but there’s a nagging, familiar feeling of a movie that changed hands partway through production. Which, of course, is exactly what happened.

When directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller were replaced by Ron Howard, it seems that Lucasfilm stripped out most of the rough-around-the-edges, improvisational humour that Lord and Miller were apparently working on, and what remains reminds me of a political candidate who’s undergone a branding clean-up before a campaign. Much about Solo – the jokes, the banter between characters, the drama – feels like the safer, studio-sanctioned version of something that might have been a little more memorable or quotable with Lord and Miller at the helm. Make no mistake – none of Ron Howard’s decisions felt wrong or confusing. But clearly an intangible X factor, which might have given Solo a real snap, got lost in the shuffle.

 Donald Glover as famous gambler and starship pilot Lando Calrissian.

Donald Glover as famous gambler and starship pilot Lando Calrissian.

When we compare Solo to its closest franchise sibling, Rogue One, some notable differences become clear. Despite what its detractors say about the film as a whole, Rogue One has quite a few memorable elements: Donnie Yen’s performance as Chirrut Îmwe, Alan Tudyk’s voice work as K-2SO, and some rather striking cinematography and action sequences. Perhaps all Solo is missing is the singular voice of either Howard or Lord and Miller – the mixture of both styles doesn’t let the material shine.

There are, however, a handful of exciting moments in Solo. The key one for me has to be the Kessel Run sequence, which harnesses the infinite potential of outer-space weirdness to create a set piece (involving a titanic monster and a gravity well) that lives up to the feat first mentioned in A New Hope. The other, arriving very late in the film, is in hard-core spoiler territory, so it won’t be described here. But suffice it to say that I thoroughly appreciated how it opens up possibilities for new spin-off stories.

The biggest question for fans, perhaps, is how well Ehrenreich lives up to the Han Solo name. Like anything with Star Wars, the answer will be hotly contested, but for my money, Ehrenreich is a solid choice. He doesn't try to impersonate Ford’s mannerisms, though he does echo Ford's voice. In short, I never found myself distracted by the performance or wishing for another actor to jump in, let alone a CGI recreation like the ones used in Rogue One. And if Ehrenreich gets another crack at the character with a consistent director at the helm, his interpretation of the character may get better still.

In terms of rankings, Solo feels destined to land in the hazy middle of the pack of the franchise – definitely not the worst, but lacking too many things to challenge the top Skywalker Saga films. And while it does make quick work (maybe too quick) of some of the fabled moments in the timeline, the movie still demonstrates some fundamental respect for the characters. But for all the revelations Solo makes, one mystery remains: whether it can win over the most hard-hearted, radical fans. That’s a part of the map I prefer not to explore.

Solo: A Star Wars Story gets three stars out of four.

 
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Stray thoughts

  • I wasn’t with a very vocal audience on opening night, but I’m hoping Han’s final scene with Beckett gets a good reaction.
  • I would have liked a few more moments of Han getting to know the Millennium Falcon.
  • It wasn’t clear to me whether the trench warfare scene took place on the Wookiee home planet or not. It could have been a pretty dramatic reveal to show how the Imperials were wrecking the place.