‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’ Reveals Origin of Han Solo With Swashbuckling Spirit
“Star Wars” now enters the biopic zone with “Solo: A Star Wars Story.” Part heist movie, part fandom snack, this is a valiant attempt at giving Han Solo a backstory. It approaches the premise from the idea that all rebels, especially the ones with an ego, have left something behind. The iconic galactic smuggler first made famous by Harrison Ford is here played by Alden Ehrenreich, who may not be the perfect twin to Ford (who could?), but he at least gets some of the poses right. This is not one of the best “Star Wars” movies, but it isn’t a failure either. It works as a little adventure with winks at its classic predecessors.
The story begins a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away of course, as Han (Ehrenreich) and love interest, as well as partner in crime, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) are chased through the smoky streets of a mining planet. They are accused of trying to swindle a local crime queen, Lady Proxima (Linda Hunt). Barely escaping with their lives, the pair are then tragically separated at a departure station when the authorities catch up with them. But Han manages to run off and to disappear enlists in the armed forces of the dreaded Empire. They give him the last name “Solo” because he is alone. Three years later and he’s on the battlefield, amid fire and carnage. He meets a gang of smugglers posing as soldiers led by Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and Val (Thandie Newton). But before he can join them he’s accused of desertion and thrown into a pit where he meets the Wookie Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo). The two strike a friendship and run off with Beckett and Val’s gang. But a planned train heist goes horribly wrong and soon they’re all left owing to a brutal crime boss, Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany). To Han’s shock, he finds Qi’ra now living with and working for Vos. Desperate to rekindle their connection he offers Dryden a new mission to attain the precious cargo lost on the failed heist. Dryden agrees and taps Qi’ra to go along as his eyes and ears. Now they just need a ship and Qi’ra knows who has a good one, the smooth-talking gambler Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), owner of the Millennium Falcon.
“Solo” arrives after a bumpy production which began with the original directors, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, leaving and being replaced by old pro Ron Howard. A director of films both big and small, Howard has made a decent space heist movie. What truly matters here are the characters, first because these are fresh interpretations of iconic figures and also because the film has to justify itself. With Disney now committed to churning out a new “Star Wars” movie every year, it would be easy to ask when the whole process will result in overkill. But because “Solo” is one of the side stories being made in-between the ongoing, gigantic “Episodes,” it stands on its own as a popcorn entertainment tugging at nostalgia. It lacks the visual majesty of 2016’s “Rogue One,” but has a rambunctious energy to it.
The screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan (who wrote “The Empire Strikes Back”) and son Jonathan Kasdan tries to aim for the feel of some classic crime movies, with a bit of the western genre thrown in. We even get the standard moment where thieves sit around a camp fire in the middle of nowhere, sharing their hopes and demons. Because the main characters are now younger personifications, the movie has fun making them naïve and fresh. Han is a sarcastic punk. Lando is all vanity, flirting while gambling and hiding a winning card in his shirt sleeve. In keeping with the times, a new droid has been added to be Lando’s co-pilot, L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), a radically independent droid who fights for her fellow robot’s rights while expressing proud feminist positions. In the movie’s funniest scene she explains how she is certain Lando is in love with her, but it just wouldn’t work out because the feelings are not mutual.
Visually Howard doesn’t go for majestic CGI sequences, but he still gives us some memorable sights. The opening scene is an exciting, “Bonnie and Clyde” chase through the gritty streets of a mining planet, full of smoke and industrial decay. Dryden Vos travels in a sort of giant luxury craft, where alien creatures sing jazz while drinks are served. The early war scenes where Han is a soldier have a World War I meets sci-fi feel, with trenches mixed with giant Imperial machinery. These moments are even tinged with slight political commentary, as commanders urge their men to “fight for your Empire” and Han telling his superiors, “this is their planet, we’re the hostiles.” The first train heist has suspense but the best action scene is a grand escape from a planet through a maelstrom featuring giant creatures ready to chomp the Millennium Falcon.
If the movie has any weaknesses they are in Ehrenreich’s performance and the story’s tendency to get clunky. Ehrenreich never feels fully comfortable in the role and can be stiff when he should have more brash. Donald Glover by comparison, truly relishes in being Lando, throwing charm around like dice and walking with the swag of a self-made hustler. He does manage to evoke the tone of Billy Dee Williams in the original role (although topping the original is understandably an impossible task). The best performance is by Paul Bettany, who looks delighted to be playing pure evil. More than anyone he brings the vibe of crime and mafia-style business to the movie. Emilia Clarke, for it is she, brings her mature sweetness meets strong personality from “Game of Thrones” to a role that lacks slightly more pull. For most of the movie she just seems to have the sole purpose of being a love interest for Han, but the character lacks more insight (as does Han). The ending leaves open the possibility of a sequel, but for now she remains very cardboard. Other funny story touches feel like new holes. For example Chewbacca is apparently over 100 years old, which makes one wonder why he still cares about Han so much by the time “The Force Awakens” takes place. This Wookie must have quite the track sheet of friendships and heist crews. However the scene where he and Han meet is great and adds a nice depth to their overall relationship. On the other hand Lando comes from nowhere, he is simply there as a character, not a person. But he is an entertaining man without a past.
In another movie the questions just cited might prove more irksome, but because “Star Wars” is such a part of our cultural consciousness, we enjoy revisiting these characters and hearing all the in-jokes. The music score by John Powell has moments of beauty, and it’s hard to resist when he incorporates those timeless themes by John Williams. This is primarily a movie to be enjoyed by the hardcore fan base (or at least those who haven’t joined the bizarre “Last Jedi” backlash). Near the end, when Han tells Chewie about some big-time gangster on Tatooine he hears they can do business with, there are claps and cheers, because everyone the room knows what he’s talking about. If you are one of those who don’t, then maybe you’re not the audience for this movie.
“Solo: A Star Wars Story” opens May 25 in theaters nationwide.