*** out of ****
Rated PG-13
(for sequences of sci-fi action and violence, some language and suggestive dialogue)
Released: May 25, 2018
Runtime: 135 minutes
Director: Ron Howard
Starring: Alden Ehrenreich, Emilia Clarke, Woody Harrelson, Donald Glover, Joonas Suotamo, Paul Bettany, Thandie Newton, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Jon Favreau, Lily Newmark, Linda Hunt

Streaming now on Netflix

(Click here to listen to Charles Elmore and I talk about Solo on The Bad and the Beautiful podcast.)

You thought The Force Awakens was fan service? Solo: A Star Wars Story – now that’s fan service. (Not to mention: Lucasfilm is seriously trying to retcon those gold dice from The Last Jedi into the overall Star Wars mythos.)

J.J. Abrams’ Episode VII was maligned by some as playing to the most obvious nostalgic denominators of the Star Wars saga. A sizeable contingent of critics and fans dismissed it as a warmed-over New Hope rehash.

Well, for roughly the first third of the second Star Wars anthology entry, The Force Awakens holds Solo’s proverbial beer as this origin story of the scoundrel smuggler props itself up on winking references, line quotes, and too-familiar scenarios. The end result is fine so far as it goes, but that’s little more than big budget fan film mediocrity.

But then something unexpected happens. Subtlely but surely, Solo: A Star Wars Story evolves into its own. The fan service drops the cheap geek-pandering nods in exchange for deeper, richer moments that lean straight into the behaviors, flaws, bonds, and sentiments that have made these characters and this franchise so beloved, even iconic.

And when Han finally makes that storied Kessel Run that we all know is coming, it’s much more than a requirement checked off of an obligatory fan list or even a spectacular set piece. It’s Han Solo’s defining moment.

There are no Jedi to be seen here – nor are their mystical powers, hokey religion, or ancient weapons – but the Force is (eventually) strong with this one.

It wasn’t, however, during the much-publicized production turmoil, a process that saw original directing duo Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (The Lego Movie and the 21 Jump Street series) struggle to strike a consistent tone. After four months they were fired and Oscar-winning veteran Ron Howard was brought in to right the ship (his shoots and reshoots account for a reported 70% of the final cut).

While it’s guesswork to try and peg exactly which is his 70 and their 30, broadly speaking the less it becomes Lord and Miller’s film and the more it becomes Howard’s, the better Solo gets.

A movie that begins by coasting on its canon starts to offer up cool surprises and crafty turns of its own, creating a world – and possibly a tangential saga – that exists in the lawless margins of an Imperialized galaxy, with new characters that (like Abrams’ reboot) stand distinctly and equally alongside the classic ones.

Yes, most of our initial curiosity swirls around Alden Ehrenreich’s Han (he captures the cocky charm if not the dry effortless swagger) and Donald Glover’s Lando (he’s so perfectly smooth I expected him to pop open a Colt 45), not to mention Chewbacca (who’s elevated from loyal sidekick to having a full supporting arc for the first time), but it’s two of the new ladies that emerge as the most fascinating. And one’s a robot.

The cast highlight may very well be Qi’ra, played by Game Of Thrones’ very own mother of dragons Emilia Clarke. She’s a strong presence here, too, but of a completely different sort. Showcasing a range of intellect, savvy, cool, and resolve, Clarke’s Qi’ra takes control of situations with a much more nuanced approach, even demure, while also revealing a conflicted vulnerability, all wrapped up in a formidable persona.

The robot is Lando’s co-pilot L3-37, voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who takes no guff and speaks her hard-drive, with an activist’s passion for social justice (A.I. and otherwise). The best part: who knew there could be such a thing as SJW comic relief? The bond between her and Lando is strong, with actual chemistry that is both banter-y and real, leading to a surprisingly poignant moment.

The men fare well, too, especially Woody Harrelson as the veteran high stakes thief who lures Han into that dubious profession. What’s nice about his Beckett is that he’s not an older mirror image of what Han would become; rather, he’s a singular character unto himself, carefree yet hard-boiled, with less of a conscience. His influence certainly nurtures Han’s future cynicism, but he also brings out Han’s shrewd on-the-fly ingenuity. In the role of the big baddie, Howard troupe alum Paul Bettany exudes the right level of sinister as Dryden Vos (replacing The Wire’s Michael K. Williams who wasn’t available for the extensive reshoots).

The script by Lawrence Kasdan (co-writer of Empire, Jedi, and Force Awakens) and son Jonathan have fun exploring the darker, seedier corners of this galaxy far, far away, from inventive set pieces that they and Howard have constructed (heists, blaster battles, and galactic dogfights) to character scenes that resonate across the emotional spectrum. They even offer up one blind-siding, gasp-inducing surprise.

The visuals, on the other hand, are often a drawback. The color palette is a bit too murky, and the oft-used handheld Steadicam makes it even messier at times (as does the excessive cutting). It all works in terms of the underworld we’re in, but the net effect is just another modern-looking blockbuster with monochromatic color treatments, at times dark and desaturated, rather than something that feels like a Star Wars movie.

It’s shot digitally, too, rather than on film, and devoid of classic Star Wars editorial transitions (screen wipes of various sorts), plus John Powell’s music score is a pale generic backdrop that only comes alive when repurposing John Williams cues. These aesthetics were grandfathered in during the directorial transition (many by necessity), a further sign that Lord and Miller were never the right fit.

If future installments deliver on the rich possibilities of where this one leaves off, it’ll be a credit to the new Solo series that the original trilogy will feel as if something’s missing by not having alluded to these events more (not that they could have, but the point stands).

By the end, not only has Solo delivered a fun, exhilarating, at times unexpectedly moving Star Wars experience, but the riveting character-based intrigue it earns down the final stretch leaves you expectant for more, much more, of what this first Solo episode so cleverly sets up.

Starting out it doesn’t look like much, but with some special modifications that Ron Howard made himself, Solo’s got it where it counts.

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