Review: “Solo: A Star Wars Story”

  1. You can feel the two versions of Solo: A Star Wars Story tugging at each other throughout, the weird, Clone High-esque pop culture mashup clearly intended by initial writer-directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller arm wrestling with the more straightforward, tentpole-friendly yeoman’s work of replacement Ron Howard. Howard, being the guy with final cut after all, ultimately wins out, sturdy, reliable but unremarkable, but you see Lord and Miller popping their heads up occasionally, with jokes about Lando’s capes and Wookies not understanding holograms. The end result is a not-unpleasant Frankenstein’s monster of a movie, patchwork, a little rickety, but also with just enough of both sensibilities that the thing can’t help but win you over. Too much Lord and Miller cheekiness would have been too exhausting and derivative over two-plus hours; too much Howard get-the-trains-running-on-time would have made your eyes gloss over. Their awkward marriage turns out to be just enough of each.
  2. I’m sure there is some sort of Star Wars canon that Han Solo’s backstory is adhering to here, but it’s new to me, and not unclever. Basically, Young Han (Alden Ehrenreich) dreams of escaping his child-slave planet along with his girlfriend Kira (Emilia Clarke) and becoming a pilot but ends up stuck in the Empire’s infantry. He deserts the army and joins, along with his new buddy Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo, a former Penn State basketball player), a cadre of bandits, led by the grizzled but soulful Beckett (Woody Harrelson). They run a series of schemes to steal some McGuffin energy capsules, all in the name of getting Han back to his beloved Kira, finding himself a ship to pilot and discovering just what kind of charming rogue he really is. And don’t worry: Lando (Donald Glover) and a gaggle of Star Wars universe characters, major and minor, drop in as well.
  3. The first question any movie about a young Han Solo has to answer is “how’s the kid?” Alden Ehrenreich, so charming in the Coen brothers’ Hail Caesar!, has the unenviable task of recreating one of the most iconic roles of the last 40 years, a role that Harrison Ford not only owned entirely, but one that has been the template for essentially every action movie leading man since. That’s too much burden for any actor to handle, let alone one with no fountain of good will too draw upon, so it’s perhaps its own victory that Ehrenreich is … fine. He’s fine. It takes him a while to get going — he’s a bit too callow in some of the opening scenes, a flashback before the main action — but slowly grows into the part, his Ford-like smirk earning a bit more stature as he runs into more danger. It’s a smart decision not to turn it into a Harrison Ford impression, though, honestly, what is a Harrison Ford impression? (Have you ever seen one? Will Ferrell tried once, but Ford’s secret is that he doesn’t rouse up the energy for easy mimicry; you end up just looking drowsy.) Once Ehrenreich settles down and just starts playing a character rather than looking as if he has the weight of tens of millions of Star Wars fans staring at his every move, he acquits himself nicely. But man, what an impossible assignment.
  4. The movie’s plot doesn’t do him a ton of favors. It’s essentially just our characters running from one end of the galaxy to another to grab these energy sources that you won’t much care about, pausing occasionally to nod to Star Wars history along the way. The central love story, supposedly the driving influence to turn Han Solo into the stateless loner he becomes, never really pops, I’m afraid; Clarke, a fine actress, never quite gets a handle on the character, and their relationship feels like a sale the movie never quite closes. The better relationship in the film is actually between Lando and his Chewbacca, a rebellious robot named L3 and voiced, hilariously, by “Fleabag”’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge. L3 keeps attempting to liberate all the other robots from the enslavement of humans in a way that is original and funny, and Lando’s appreciation of her is the movie’s real love story. Glover’s fine, by the way, but I’ll confess it a bit disheartening to see his incredible fortnight — the season finale of Atlanta, the SNL hosting and of course “This Is America” — ending with him supporting a bunch of less charismatic actors while doing a Billy Dee Williams impression. It’s possible he’s actually too big for the Star Wars universe to contain him.
  5. The movie winds itself toward a satisfying conclusion, not so much with the love story as its place in the overarching Star Wars universe. Han Solo is oddly passive in his own story, but perhaps that’s the point; this is him still feeling himself out, discovering who he is and what he’ll become. This test-run Han Solo has his limits, and I find myself, after the film was over, more reminded of how much I enjoyed the real thing. (The movie also has a big reveal at the end that feels focus grouped to make sure there were hundreds of Fan Theories on YouTube within five minutes of the first showings.) But the movie has enough of Howard’s brick-and-mortar dutiful narrative propulsion, and enough of Lord and Miller’s wisenheimer revisionism, to be a mostly successful mashup. You can see how this could have turned into a disaster; it is absolutely not that. But I’m not sure this is a rich new vein Lucasfilm is mining here either. I’ve seen what made Han Solo Han Solo. I’m OK with sticking with the original recipe from here on out.

Grade: B-.

Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.