This is a spoiler-lite review, meaning I discuss the basic shape of the plot but none of the twists or big surprises.
Here are we in a pop culture landscape increasingly dominated by old ideas, whether it be sitcom revivals on TV, surging ticket sales for nostalgic rock tours, yet more old movies being adapted into Broadway musicals, and a summer blockbuster schedule again packed with sequels, reboots, revivals, and whatever the heck Skyscraper is (a Towering Inferno meets Die Hard rip-off?). To be a pop culture fanatic in such an age is to learn how to cut through the bullshit and tell the difference between that which you must see and that which you can happily ignore. Solo: A Star Wars Story, sad to say, falls into the “ignore” pile.
This is the least essential Star Wars movie I’ve ever seen. That doesn’t mean it’s the worst, although it’s certainly close in my book, but its contribution to the canon is miniscule in comparison to the prequels or even Rogue One, which at least gives us force sensitive characters and explains away one of New Hope’s biggest plot holes. By comparison, apart from one surprise cameo Solo doesn’t take many chances. It rarely dazzles and only intermittently entertains. You walk away from it having gained no real, new profound understanding of Han Solo, who is stuck being the least interesting character in his own movie. Chewbacca, Donald Glover’s 70s cool version of Lando, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s mo-capped “Equality now!” droid L3-37 steal the spotlight through superior writing, acting, and the fact they’re simply the more compelling characters.
The story, credited to Lawrence and son Jonathan Kasdan, tracks Han’s evolution from a street hustler stuck in a kinda Fagin’s army – except here Fagin is a bejeweled, aquatic creature with a light sensitivity – to a smuggler with his own ship and Wookie. This version of Han is roughly nine years away from his Mos Eisley meeting with Obi-Wan, Luke, and the droids, meaning he’s close enough to the character we already know that his transition from a romantic dreamer into a hardened cynic is never as dynamic as the film thinks it is.
At the start, Han (a never fully convincing Alden Ehrenreich) is an already-talented pilot with plans of whisking away his girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke, better served here than she ever was in Terminator: Genisys) and leaving their life of servitude behind in pursuit of love and adventure. A long chase scene and tense border crossing later, Han is left separated from Qi’ra, vowing to someday return and rescue her, no matter the cost. This leads him into briefly serving the Empire, but after three years of that and no closer to returning home to rescue Qi’ra he runs into Chewbacca for the first time (I won’t spoil how as it is one of the best moments in the film). They quickly glom on with a group of smugglers led by Woody Harrelson’s Beckett – a very non-Star Wars-y name, btw – and anchored by an underused Thandie Newton.
What proceeds from that point forward, at least in terms of character, is kind of like a movie length version of that Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade’s opening sequence with River Phoenix as a young Indiana on the run from tomb raiders. Beckett is the “You lost today, kid, but you don’t have to like it” guy, the enemy turned impressed mentor, and Alden Ehrenreich’s Han is very much the River Phoenix Indiana picking up all the traits we commonly associate with the Harrison Ford version. Except Phoenix was playing a much, much younger version of Indiana. Not so much with Ehrenreich and Han.
Plot-wise, Solo’s apprenticeship with Beckett plays out as a series of heists, an endless game of trying to appease a high-ranking member (a scenery-chewing Paul Bettany) of something called the Crimson Dawn crime syndicate. Of course, as with any good heist they have to first put together a team, which is how Lando and L3-37 enter the story and how Qi’ra re-enters the story (the idea of Han needing to go home to save her falls away surprisingly fast). They fail, they die, but the universe keeps on trucking, which counts as low-stakes in a Star Wars movie.
Director Ron Howard, subbing in at the last minute for Phil Lord and Christopher Miller and reportedly refilming most of the movie with just a week to prepare, does a workmanlike job with the heists, particularly one atop a moving train which changes its axis at every turn. These sequences are never particularly exceptional, but by modern blockbuster standards, they’re certainly watchable.
That might be the best word for Solo: “watchable.” It takes forever to get going, never fully comes together, and, maddeningly, never fully finishes its story since this is clearly meant to be the start of a new Han Solo trilogy. But, it’s not exactly terrible. It’s in no way a truly memorable blockbuster, but it’s a watchable one with adequate action and a decent twist or two. This is what a micromanaged Star Wars movie looks like, and the end result is something perfectly fine but also perfectly skippable.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Think of it as Blah: A Star Wars Story.
RANDOM PARTING THOUGHTS
- Favorite scene: Qi’ra gleefully trying on one of Lando’s many, many capes like a little girl playing dress up because, seriously, who could resist?
- We learn how Han got his last name and I found it almost as eye roll-inducing as Phantom Menace’s “the force is just midichlorians in your bloodstream” crap.
- Solo oddly splits the difference on the Rogue One “Where’s my opening crawl!” controversy. Rather than pull a Rogue One and abruptly start the story right after the iconic “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”, Solo treats us to a couple of lines of text establishing where Han lives and who he serves. However, this text doesn’t crawl down the screen to John Williams-scored fanfare but instead flashes by without much ceremony, not unlike Blade Runner, Running Man, or the countless other 80s movies which start with blocks of unnarrated text on the screen. I found the effect slightly off-putting.
- Bradford Young’s cinematography in this film is uncharacteristically dark and grimy for Star Wars, but it does lend certain scenes, such as one on a darkened battlefield, a surprising amount of heft.
- John Powell’s music compositions are serviceable but never really feel like Star Wars. Everyone’s just following John Williams lead, of course, but Michael Giacchino was far better at that on Rogue One than Powell is here. Powell also does the Creed thing of refraining from using any of the franchise’s iconic scores until the film feels like it’s earned it. So, for example, the Star Wars theme is held back until when Han and Chewie first pilot the Millennium Falcon together. It’s a frustrating, but sometimes rewarding waiting act.
- Spoiler: After Solo, you’ll never look at the Millennium Falcon’s navigational maps the same again