The Star Wars franchise is in a strange place. Its fans are divided over whether to love or hate the latest instalments. Executive producer Kathleen Kennedy doesn’t seem to have the strongest game plan set in cement. Its productions have suffered from some chaotic reshuffles: directors leaving, editors struggling to stick old and new cuts together to create a cohesive piece (looking at you, Rogue One). So Solo: A Star Wars Story, an uncalled for prequel to the galaxy’s most charismatic scruffy-looking nerfherder, had everything going against it. And yet, in keeping with Han’s refusal to listen to the odds, Solo is a blast: an enjoyable standalone that builds upon the universe created by George Lucas in visually interesting ways, featuring an incredibly satisfying performance from Alden Ehrenreich in the lead role.
Starting on the impoverished planet of Corellia, Solo: A Star Wars Story finds Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) and partner Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) on the run from criminal gangs, ready to set off on a romantic journey across the stars. Yet they become separated, leading Han on a voyage of self-discovery. This leads him on a collision course with faces familiar – the walking carpet Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and smooth swindler Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) – and new – self-conscious droid L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), dubious crook Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and his associates, Val (Thandie Newton) and Rio (Jon Favreau). Their combined efforts are required, as Han joins this disparate gang’s mission for criminal boss Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany), who desires a destructive yet valuable payload of Coaxium, Star Wars’ answer to fossil fuel.
This set-up puts the necessary pieces into place for a fun, if flawed heist film that tells a lot about its eponymous character, but forgets to flesh out its other essential players in quite the same way. To begin with Han, writers Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan clearly know the character inside out, as they have crafted a script that understands exactly what a young Han would have looked like, prior to and at the commencement of his involvement with the dark and questionable corners of the galaxy’s criminal underworld. Ehrenreich’s portrayal isn’t quite what we’re used to, but that’s a perfect fit for this film’s efforts to develop him into the Han we know: Ehrenreich’s performance is far from a mere imitation, more of a charming and plucky prelude to Ford’s stern, cynical portrayal.
And what a star-making performance it is. Silence to the naysayers, for the Force is with Ehrenreich’s work here. It’s a delicate balancing act to be asked of: maintaining the traits that fans know and love, whilst adding your own individual flair and characterising Han in a way that also speaks to his youth. Yet Ehrenreich succeeds in all three: he’s cocky and impulsive, but he’s also naïve, something of a romantic and perhaps too quick to trust those around him. All in all, he’s relatable and that in itself makes Solo: A Star Wars Story a success: it gets its hero.
It helps that Ehrenreich’s chemistry with Suotamo, cladded in the fur of everyone’s favourite towering Wookie, is electric. From their humorous and inventive introduction to one another in a fighting pit (Chewie’s label of ‘the beast’ feels appropriate for a character known for pulling arms out of their sockets), to their growing bond over the course of the film’s many action sequences and their eventual, recognisable establishment as pilot and co-pilot aboard the Millennium Falcon are brilliantly handled and expertly played. Their bond is as authentic as ever and it’s a delight to see.
The same can’t be said for the supporting characters however, who draw the short straw in terms of characterisation. Clarke is effervescent as Solo’s love interest Qi’ra and Glover is memorable as the cape-coveting Calrissian, but the supreme talents of Bettany and Newton are wasted in roles with limited screen time. Bettany’s Vos barely registers as a threat worth caring about and Newton’s Val has little to do except look flashy with a blaster in hand. But it’s Harrelson that loses out the most. His Beckett, as the mentor of Han, is somewhat of an empty vessel, existing simply to guide Han on his far more engaging character arc. I understand that it makes sense to focus on our lead hero, but some reason to care for Beckett’s investment in Han would have gone a long way.
Yet with all of that aside, Solo: A Star Wars Story is easily the most visually impressive episode to date. Firstly, there’s Bradford Young’s gorgeous cinematography: gifting the lenses of a Star Wars film to the man behind the epic vistas of Arrival is itself a gift to our eyes in turn. Versatile, kinetic and unafraid to pan, cut or pull out at moments of high intensity, it’s a stellar display from a growing talent. Then there are the practical effects. Solo remains committed to the archaic yet superior art of the costume, puppet and larger-than-life sets that made the originals so stark and memorable: it’s a feast for the eyes, a refreshingly dedicated picture that feels all too real in the best possible way. One scene, set within a sizeable yet colourful mine, features enough costumed creatures, real-time explosions and one beautifully constructed Millennium Falcon looming over the set to make even the most sceptical Star Wars fan flip out in giddy delight.
So Solo could have been a disaster, a pointless exercise in how to grab cash and go. But Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan treat the material with verve and a dedication to the mythology that cannot be dismissed as mere corporate banality. Howard’s direction is assured and effective. The effects are up to the task of meeting the high bar set by Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi. And Ehrenreich, once ridiculed as a poor choice to replace Ford, is ready to blast your expectations into an oblivion similar to the one met by the poor, unsuspecting Greedo in A New Hope. With all of these positives combined, I think it’s fair to say that I have a good feeling about Solo: A Star Wars Story, a slight yet surprisingly well-executed excursion in that beloved galaxy far, far away.
Dir: Ron Howard
Prd: Kathleen Kennedy, Allison Shearmur, Simon Emanuel
Scr: Jonathan Kasdan, Lawrence Kasdan
Starring: Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson, Joonas Suotamo, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Thandie Newton, Jon Favreau, Paul Bettany
DOP: Bradford Young
Music: John Powell, John Williams
Runtime: 135 minutes
Country: United States
Solo: A Star Wars Story is in cinemas worldwide.