Dir. Ron Howard
Starring: Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover, Joonas Suotamo, Thandie Newton, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Paul Bettany, and Jon Favreau
Solo: A Star Wars Story comes out to muted expectations, which is odd when you consider it’s a Star Wars movie. They’ve been a Christmas event movie since The Force Awakens. I’d drive an hour to see them every year on an IMAX screen, making a day of it with dinner at a restaurant afterwards. For Solo, I went to the local multiplex after work. It may have been rumours of the troubled production, or the fact that it’s not been long since The Last Jedi, but this one just didn’t feel as special going in. Star Wars has lost some of its shine. Which is a shame because Solo is a whole heap of fun.
Solo follows Alden Ehrenreich’s young Han Solo, before we knew him as the smuggling scoundrel in the first Star Wars movie. He starts off as a street rat, doing cons for a small crime ring. He finally finds a way out, but leaves behind the woman he loves. He vows to return to rescue her. That journey takes him from being a troop for the empire to falling into organised crime when he meets Woody Harelson’s Beckett. Along the way we meet familiar faces from the Star Wars universe, such as Chewbacca, and Lando Calrissian.
I probably had the lowest expectations I’ve ever had for a Star Wars movie going into Solo. The rumours of on-set dysfunction, with Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller being fired, and Ron Howard being bought into replace them near the end of initial production. Howard gets the directing credit here, and whilst it’s rumoured that they re-shot 70% of the movie, it’s almost impossible to tell which bits were directed by Lord and Miller. It’s a film that, against the odds, works. I found it a fun, action packed adventure movie. Removed from everything that surrounds it, it’s just a pure, good time at the movie. Which is what you want from Star Wars, right?
Howard does well at creating a tone that blends different genres. Mixing elements of Westerns, heist movies, and film noir together to create an engaging look at the underbelly of the Star Wars universe. It also gives us our best look, away from the animated shows, of how the Empire operates in the galaxy. The action is all well done, but it’s the smaller moments that Howard excels at. Han’s first meeting with Chewie is tense, funny, and a little scary. It’s incredibly well directed. Howard was seen as a safe pair of hands when he came aboard, but I think that does him a disservice. He’s a director who knows how to make a film, and story work. He knows how to hit all the right beats, at the right time, in the right way. It’s a skill that’s often overlooked, but is essential in creating a satisfying time at the movies.
The other point of conversation going in was the casting. Could anybody replace Harrison Ford as Han Solo. Alden Ehrenreich bares slight resemblance to Ford, and sounds nothing like him. It doesn’t matter. He smashes this performance. In a smart move by him and the writers, this isn’t the Han Solo from Star Wars. This is the story of how he becomes that Han Solo. There are fan service moments like seeing him get his gun, and finding out, maybe a little too on the nose, how he got his name, but these moments are few and far between, they aren’t really the point of the movie. Ehrenreich plays Solo with the same swagger and cockiness as Ford, but undercuts it with an unsureness. He has the charm, but lacks the cynicism of Ford. He’s naive, and enthusiastic. The fun is in finding out what made him the pessimist. The iconic Star Wars line “I have a bad feeling about this” is turned on its head when Han says “I have a good feeling about this” and that is the key to this Han Solo.
The rest of the cast all do fantastic work too. Woody Harrelson is great. Donald Glover is terrific, and Emilia Clarke shines in a role reminiscent of 40s/50s femme fatales. Paul Bettany’s villain was the only role which felt like it was under-written. Bettany does his best to imbue him with a manic menace, but the villain here is the biggest disappointment. It stems from the biggest problem with the film, and that’s the fact that the stakes never feel high enough. We know how it’s going to end. We know what happens next. The momentum of the film carries it swiftly to the finale, but it’s a subdued, anti-climax to what has come before. The film comes to a halt right when it should be going into hyperspace. It does have a last act reveal, but rather than being a shocking revelation, it felt like fan pandering. Similar to Rouge One, it’s as if the studio are too scared to branch out into the unknown, and are keeping their anthology movies as close to the main saga as possible.
Solo is just a great time at the cinema. A refreshing side adventure to the main Star Wars story, which is filled with fun action, iconic characters, and a fantastic cast. It’s a space craft that has been deftly steered away from the asteroid field by Howard, and is thrown into hyper speed by Alden Ehrenreich’s performance. It stumbles at the finish line, but what has come before is more than worth the trip.