Director: Ron Howard Starring: Alden Ehrenreich, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover, Woody Harrelson, Paul Bettany, Thandie Newron, Jon Favreau, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Joonas Suotamo Running Time: 135 minutes
As we settle into the reality of Star Wars as a tentpole Disney franchise, with a new film every single year and a television series in the works, it’s understandable that Kathleen Kennedy and co. would want to solidify the appeal of the spinoff films by featuring one of the property’s most popular characters. Once Solo: A Stars Wars Story finishes cleaning up at the box-office, they can start to plot a whole line of films to put the spotlight on your favourite characters from across the Galaxy. Lando Calrissean? Why not, says Kathleen Kennedy, that Donald Glover is so hot right now. Boba Fett? Maybe, if it will finally shut you fans up about him. That one lad in A New Hope that looks like the devil? Okay, maybe not him. Han Solo though, ‘everyone’s favourite’ from the original trilogy, was supposed to be the safe bet, and the exec’s adamant desire to keep it that way was partly what led them to axe original directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, apparently too madcap and wacky in their ambitions for the film. They were replaced with the experienced, steady hand of Ron Howard, who reshot almost everything and presented a friendly face behind a marketing campaign nervously encouraging the somewhat sceptical viewing public that yes, they do need to know Han Solo’s origins. What Howard, veteran screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan and the rest deliver is indeed the safe bet, in a film that’s far too middle of the road to be essential viewing. What we have here is one square unit of Star Wars movie, mostly milquetoast with a few rough edges born from the inelegant ‘creative differences’ and perhaps a meeting too many in the boardroom. If you’re looking for any noteworthy insights into Han Solo as a character, you’re not likely to get them here. If you’re looking to know where he got his apparently iconic blaster though, this is the film for you (somebody hands it to him).
Like Rogue One, this film avoids the iconic opening crawl and John Williams score to kick off. However, what it does is provide pretty much the same thing, not in scrolling yellow, but the blue font of ‘A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away’, which might be an apt sign of the indecision that drags Solo down. As that text explains, young Han is living on the mean streets of the planet Corellia. It’s a lawless time with the Empire’s focus on the bigger, eviler picture and gangsters rule all, with Han and the Bonnie to his Clyde, Emilia Clarke as Qi’ra wheeling, dealing and stealing for local crime boss Lady Proxima, with dreams of getting their own ship and escaping it all. Circumstances separate the young lovers and Han, determined to get back to her, loses his way. A failure in pilot academy and a lost recruit on the Empire’s battlefield, he ends up forcing his way into the plans of a den of thieves, a trio of villanous scum made up of Woody Harrelson as leader Beckett, Thandie Newton as Val, a partner in crime reminscent of Firefly‘s Zoe and um, Rio, a space monkey voiced by Jon Favreau. Beckett’s crew is later sent out on a big score to steal Hyperfuel by Dryden Vos, the cruel leader of the crime syndicate Crimson Dawn, played with angry relish by Paul Bettany. The job reunites Han with his sweetheart Qi’ra and to get the job done, the young pirate also crosses paths with Lando Calrissien (Donald Glover) and everyone’s favourite mode of space transport, the Millenium Falcon. And perhaps Han befriends another familiar face along the way? I think you know who I mean…
Seriously though, a buddy comedy about the unlikely friendship that blossoms between a Han and Chewbacca (not Devil Face) would be a fine recipe for a film, and their scenes are stronger than most in Solo. Alden Ehrenreich, written off from the instant he was cast as Han by some for the fatal flaw of not being Harrison Ford, actually nails the cocky criminal’s ‘no idea what I’m doing’ vibe and like Ford, pulls off the noteworthy feat of having chemistry when paired off with a 7 foot dog-bear-man in a suit who can’t speak English. They form a bond, it’s fun to watch them together and even if it’s not a totally ‘necessary’ tale, “how did Han and Chewie meet?” is at least more interesting than some of the truly groanworthy things that are explained in this prequel. The rookie rogues are a better match than Han and Qi’ra. Romance has never been a Star Wars strongpoint and Clarke is given too little to do for too long, mostly smiling fawningly in fantastic costumes. Natalie Portman shakes her head knowingly. By the time her character gets going it’s hard to care, an awkwardly rushed shift of gears in a film that spends way too long pottering along aimlessly.
Apart from one awful reveal that’s up there with anything from the prequels, there’s nothing outright outrageous in Solo: A Star Wars Story, but that’s probably because there are so few risks being taken. It’s a bland and superficial mashup of things we recognise and new things that aren’t memorable enough to make an impact. Harrelson and the other supporting players are all doing a fine job but their characters are two-dimensional and fail to uncover anything about Han Solo that can’t be figured out from seeing him in that Mos Eisley cantina in A New Hope. The look of the film is disappointingly uneven, great costume work (the capes!), middling action, beautiful leads, a variety of muddy and samey planets. Howard isn’t one for the personal touch and some scenes are backlit and washed in dark blue so strongly by cinematographer Bradford Young that it can become difficult to follow.
Maybe it’s asking too much for a Disney blockbuster prequel to have a ‘personal touch’, but this is a heist movie starring one of the most beloved names in popular culture, shouldn’t it be a bit more fun than this? Only occasionally does a sense of joy pop up from what was first a troubled, then workmanlike production. In isolation, certain scenes provide a quick hit of nostalgia. Glover’s performance as Lando is a goofy exaggeration of charisma and a comedic highlight that could have been in the film more. Ehrenreich is funny too, and strong enough as a lead that one hopes he doesn’t catch too much of flack for this Star Wars Story’s shortcomings. Rewatch the original trilogy and remember just how often Solo is the butt of the joke.
Without getting drawn into what might have been had Lord and Miller stayed on, it’s unfortunate that Solo: A Star Wars Story feels more comfortable when it’s kidding around. For about 5 minutes 3/4s of the way through, what feels like some of their footage (and that’s speculative) kicks in during what should be a big action scene. It’s tonally bizarre but also kind of one of the few moments where the shackles feel like they’ve come off. Sadly every time that looks like it might happen, the lore and the future film setups and the studio demands come in and let the air out, an ominous groan from the back of the Falcon just as we were gonna punch it into hyperdrive. Is it a disaster? No, there’s probably enough here to entertain casual viewers and not much to really provoke the ire of the diehards. But that’s partly the problem, there’s not much in general and a lack of innovation or excitement makes it hard to recommend this particular Star Wars when you know another one and another one and another one are coming. As fan service goes, Solo: A Star Wars Story ticks plenty of boxes, but when you’re ticking boxes it’s hard to think outside of them.(2.5 / 5)
Solo: A Star Wars Story is in Irish cinemas from 24 May.