Director: Ron Howard
Stars: Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke
“Everybody stick to the plan. Do not improvise.”
So says Woody Harrelson’s smuggler Tobias Beckett (the least Star Wars-y named character to appear in Star Wars yet), and its a line that rings with considerable pathos for what might’ve been.
It’s no secret that Solo originally fell into the hands of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (The LEGO Movie, 21 Jump Street), who ultimately parted ways with the project thanks to their fondness for experimentation. The young creative duo might just’ve had the right energy to pull this one off, but if you’re under the scrutiny of both Disney and LucasFilm, it seems you’ve gotta stick to the plot. There is no room for innovation here.
Obviously no one told Rian Johnson that.
So enter Ron Howard, who has never made a truly interesting film. Or, if that’s a little harsh, definitely hasn’t managed to come close in at least 20 years. He’s a hired hand and a very safe choice. He’s been around the block. He’ll bring in your movie. He’ll do it without rocking the boat or causing trouble. Trouble is, this is an arguably wholly unnecessary Han Solo back story movie. And Han Solo was everyone’s favourite precisely when he was causing trouble.
So you’ve got a very conservative helmsman in charge of a character synonymous with rebellion. Suddenly safety doesn’t seem like the best choice. I had a bad feeling about this…
I wanted to have a good feeling. And Solo offers such optimism, sporadically. It belts out of the gate. We meet Han on a dismal little planet where it turns out he had a love interest long before Leia. Emilia Clarke takes time off from riding dragons and capsizing the Terminator franchise to play Qi’ra, the first woman to steal Han’s heart. The two of them are separated not long after we’re acquainted. Han makes it off into the big black. Qi’ra doesn’t. He makes it his life’s goal to rescue her. To achieve this he falls in with a motley crew of smugglers led by the aforementioned Beckett, who are in turn hired hands for scar-faced bad guy Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany).
A heist movie builds itself. Following an initial blunder, Han, Beckett and co. agree to make good on a deal in order to keep their heads. This means throwing themselves into great peril and performing something called a Kessel Run, whatever that means.
And yes, along the way we tick boxes on a number of Han Solo ‘firsts’. How he met Chewbacca (Joonas Suotama). How he met Lando (Donald Glover). His first flight in the Millennium Falcon etc, etc. A wealth of fan service is provided, including that Kessel Run. Surely that all adds up to a great, fun movie, right?
Would that it were so simple. As they mount up, these exercises can’t help but feel as though they didn’t really need to be elaborated on or else they add little additional depth or dimension to the character. Star Wars is a world of imagination and fanaticism. Many of these things, even those barely alluded to in the other movies, have become lore already. It transpires that a lot of that magic comes from filling in the blanks yourself. It’s part of how we become connected to fictional heroes; how we personalise them. Watching these histories getting filled in isn’t actually all that exciting. It’s too tidy, too limiting.
Solo is built as a rollercoaster ride with plenty of action and adventure. A train heist bit (actually pretty good), a car chase bit (fair), some grab-n-go action and even Han showing off his piloting skills. On paper this adds up to a fun-filled romp. But when set in motion the machine falters. The dynamism is absent.
Some of that is undeniably because, well, we know a lot of the outcome. Placing Han and Chewie in peril used to work… but an origin story is hampered by our knowledge. Stakes such as “do it or you die” carry no weight when we know they’ll make it to A New Hope and beyond. Suspense only remains for the new characters, and the level of attachment engineered is iffy.
There’s no Jar-Jar here, but neither are there standouts. Harrelson can autopilot stuff like this… so he does. Clarke… ought to stick to dragons. The likes of Thandie Newton and Phoebe Waller-Bridge are, sadly, wasted. Erin Kellyman brings great promise to a late-game character named Enfys Nest, but barely gets a look-in. Here’s hoping she makes more of a mark in future endeavours.
Which brings us to Donald Glover. It’s already been announced that his Lando will be getting his own spin-off. While the work he does here is fine it is also, fittingly, unremarkable. Still, he shows capacity to bring the charm and so that one could still be worth waiting for… depending on the talent that joins him.
It won’t be Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. But here’s hoping it isn’t Ron Howard. While Solo doesn’t quite collapse into Lucas-prequel levels of disaster, it’d have done well not to remind us that those movies exist. Nothing here feels new, which for the biggest fantasy saga in the galaxy, is something of a problem. What Solo cries out for is a little innovation.
Still, it does feature the sexiest shower scene of the year so far.