October 2023

Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)

DIRECTOR: Ron Howard

CAST: Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover, Thandie Newton, Paul Bettany, Joonas Suotamo, Erin Kellyman, Phoebe Waller-Bridge (voice), Jon Favreau (voice)


And now for something completely superfluous…Solo, a movie no one was clamoring for, telling the backstory of Han Solo that we already got the gist of from his introduction in A New Hope over forty years ago, lends credence to fears that Lucasfilm is beginning to scrape the bottom of the barrel in its quest to not only continue the “main” ongoing narrative but also expand into stand-alone “anthology” films.  Solo follows Rogue One in this subcategory, but unlike Rogue One, it fails to offer virtually any memorable moments or do anything fresh or interesting with its Point A to Point B telling of a backstory that didn’t need a whole movie to flesh it out in the first place, especially one as rote as this.  Equal parts a bland origin story and a generic heist flick, Solo is moderately entertaining but fails to justify its superfluous existence.  Unlike last year’s disappointing The Last Jedi, this stand-alone “take it or leave it” side entry doesn’t do anything to damage the overall narrative, but nor does it add anything.

Years before the events of A New Hope, young Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) is a small-time scammer on his dismal Corellian homeworld, dreaming of amassing enough ill-gotten gains to buy a ship and escape his grim existence with his girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), then when he makes a narrow escape from authorities but Qi’ra doesn’t, he vows to someday come to her rescue.  To this end, he has brief stints in the Imperial Navy and infantry, and falls in with a gang of pirates including his mentor Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), Beckett’s lover Val (Thandie Newton), and wisecracking alien Rio (voiced by Jon Favreau), and manages to forge a budding friendship with enslaved Wookie Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo).  But when their latest heist job is sabotaged by rival pirates the Cloud Riders, led by the masked Enfys Nest (Erin Kellyman), it leaves Beckett and company in deep debt to sinister crime lord Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany), and things get more complicated when Han finds his long-lost love Qi’ra now on Vos’ arm.  To settle the score with Vos—and maybe win Qi’ra back—they need to pull off another heist to score a big payday, which necessitates an alliance with suave gambler Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), owner of a certain ship called the Millennium Falcon.

Like Rogue One, Solo has a predetermined outcome.  Obviously Han is never truly in danger, since he’s in four more movies set later in the chronology.  Unlike Rogue One, Solo doesn’t feel like there’s enough backstory to tell, and the movie often feels like it’s going down an obligatory checklist.  Han starts as a criminal on Corellia: check.  Han gets the name “Solo”: check.  Han meets Chewbacca: check.  Han meets Lando: check.  Han wins the Millennium Falcon in a card game: check.  Han makes the Kessel Run in twelve parsecs: check.  One is left mildly surprised that Jabba the Hutt or Boba Fett don’t show up (though there’s an obvious reference to the former).  There’s not as many Easter Eggs as Rogue One, but the holographic board game onboard the Millennium Falcon makes an appearance, Beckett at one point wears the same disguise that Lando wears in Jabba’s palace in The Return of the Jedi, and more of the Imperial probe droids from The Empire Strikes Back pop up.  There is also an eleventh hour cameo that will bewilder those who only watch the movies and have not followed the tie-in animated series Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Star Wars: Rebels (SPOILER WARNING: for anyone wondering, yes the not-so-dead-after-all Darth Maul is again physically played by Ray Park, while his voice is provided by Sam Witwer, who voiced him on Star Wars: The Clone Wars).

Considering Solo‘s tumultuous production history, there was plenty of room for skepticism before its arrival, which unfortunately it has not overcome.  Original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were fired by Lucasfilm head honcho Kathleen Kennedy over “creative differences” with Kennedy and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan (who previously wrote The Empire Strikes Back, The Return of the Jedi, and The Force Awakens) shortly before completion of principal photography, leaving Ron Howard (who at one point had been slated to direct the prequels before George Lucas took over directing duties himself) to reshoot two-thirds of the movie.  The world may never know what Lord and Miller’s version of Solo might have looked like—reportedly Kennedy, Kasdan, and star Alden Ehrenreich were concerned about their overly zany comedic approach—but Howard has done little to liven up the proceedings (in this respect, Solo reminds one of another Howard production, 2015’s In the Heart of the Sea, which was listlessly flat and dull despite obviously wanting to be a rousing seafaring adventure).  Production values and special effects are mostly fine (though we’d expect nothing less from a Star Wars film) if nothing really that special, although the briefly-seen Lady Proxima, a huge worm-like crime boss voiced by Linda Hunt, looks a little silly, like something out of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop.  Something also feels a little “off” about Chewbacca; I’m not sure if it’s the suit, or the different body language of Joonas Suotamo, who shared the role with Peter Mayhew in The Force Awakens and has now taken it over completely with The Last Jedi and Solo).  When it comes to action sequences, they’re generic and undistinguished, including a train heist, another heist at a mine, the Kessel Run chase, and a climactic confrontation on Vos’ yacht.  The ending is rather underwhelming and anti-climactic; when the end credits roll, there’s a feeling of “is that all?”, and not enough has really happened to earn the closing triumphal Star Wars theme.  Fans peeved by George Lucas’ completely unnecessary alteration of the Han/Greedo confrontation in the “special edition” re-release of A New Hope can at least know Ron Howard has no such problem with letting Han shoot first.

The lack of anything memorable extends to the characters, who with perhaps one or two exceptions are terminally bland.  Unfortunately, that exception is not Alden Ehrenreich, who fails to recall Harrison Ford’s Han Solo.  Ehrenreich ended up with the role over a slew of high-profile names vying for the part, but whatever made an impression in his audition doesn’t come across onscreen.  I’m reluctant to be too harsh on Ehrenreich, who is not a terrible actor in his own right—in fact, he was one of the highlights of the Coen Brothers’ farce Hail Caesar—and was in the tricky position of trying to step into the shoes of an iconic character inextricably associated with another actor, but while it wasn’t a big deal for me to accept, say, Chris Pine as Captain Kirk or Tom Hardy as Mad Max, it’s hard to get there with Ehrenreich as Han.  Ehrenreich’s lack of resemblance to Ford might have been easier to overlook if his performance did more to make up for it (Pine and Hardy mostly succeeded at doing their own thing as Kirk and Max without trying to be William Shatner or Mel Gibson), but he lacks Ford’s charisma and swagger and it’s hard to feel much about him that says “Han Solo”.  Were he an original character, Ehrenreich might have been adequate, but as it is, he feels like an imposter who doesn’t have “it”.  On the other hand, it’s significantly easier to accept Donald Glover’s sly, cheeky Lando as a younger version of the character originally played by Billy Dee Williams.  It’s a nice little homage, even if Lando feels a bit shoehorned into the movie.  Woody Harrelson is disappointingly bland as the generic “sketchy mentor”; recently Oscar-nominated for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Harrelson feels like he’s picking up a paycheck here.  Emilia “Mother of Dragons” Clarke is the bland semi-love interest with ambiguous loyalties about whom we can never get too intrigued because we already know she doesn’t end up with Han.  Thandie Newton, whose afro makes her look straight out of a ’70s blaxploitation flick, isn’t around for long, and Paul Bettany tries to be menacing but he’s kind of just “there” (there’s not much of a “villain” in Solo, with Vos too underused to make much of an impression and Enfys Nest ending up an uneasy ally).  Jon Favreau provides a little comic relief as the voice of a four-armed, monkey-like alien (albeit one who recalls Guardians of the Galaxy‘s Rocket a little too much), but the other CGI “comic relief” character, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s droid L3-37, who has an ambiguously “close” relationship with Lando (who is implied to have indiscriminate sexual appetites), is far less successful than Alan Tudyk’s K-2SO in Rogue One (her “droid rights activist” subplot is as eye-rollingly ham-handed social commentary as the Canto Bight section of The Last Jedi).  As usual, Ron Howard’s brother Clint Howard makes a cameo, as do Anthony “C-3PO” Daniels (showing his own face, not in a robot suit) and Warwick Davis, who played the main Ewok Wicket in Return of the Jedi and has had bit parts in the series ever since.

It’s hard to say whether Solo will appeal more to Star Wars aficionados or to casual viewers.  The latter might be less concerned with the Harrison Ford-shaped central void, but even to casual viewers, Solo is a bland and generic middling space adventure that offers precious little memorable and comes across like an obligatory cash grab slapped together by the studio to milk the Star Wars brand name to the last drop, not because it was a story that needed to be told or even had enough story to tell in the first place.  If this kind of scraping the bottom of the barrel and stretching the material thin to pad out the franchise with superfluous “anthology films” is the future direction of Lucasfilm under Disney’s control, then Star Wars fans have the right to be concerned about oversaturation and sucking the brand dry.  Star Wars movies used to be an event.  Solo barely merits a shrug.

* * 1/2