- Solo: A Star Wars Story
- Directed by: Ron Howard
- Written by: Jonathan Kasdan and Lawrence Kasdan
- Starring: Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke and Donald Glover
- Classification: PG; 143 minutes
Early in Solo: A Star Wars Story, our hero is trapped in a noisy, dark and hopeless ground battle in which soldiers in heavy helmets crawl through gunfire to climb some insignificant hill hidden in the smoke. At this early juncture, those skeptical of Disney’s US$4-billion takeover of Lucasfilm may already be groaning: more Second World War references, more serious-minded reinterpretation for our times, more evidence of diminishing returns.
But Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) deserts the Imperial Army soon after and takes flight with a trio of colourful train robbers intent on diverting a shipment of some highly valuable fuel as it winds its way through high, snowy mountains.
The fourth Star Wars movie since Disney bought the franchise in 2012 and relaunched it with The Force Awakens in 2015, Solo is the simplest and most satisfying offering yet. A prequel that explains Han’s backstory, Solo is freed from all the genealogical complications and thematic grandeur of the sequel trilogy that Disney is now two-thirds through, and suffers none of the gloomy revisionism of Rogue One, a previous prequel movie released at Christmas in 2016. There’s no dark side here, no Jedi knights, no Force, just a solid adventure story about pirates, outlaws and rogues. The Star Wars franchise is always reaching for legend; the Solo episode is happily content with genre.
And that’s faithful to the character that Harrison Ford created so memorably in the first Star Wars movie, now known as A New Hope, back in 1977. The original Star Wars trilogy is a quest story about an aspiring knight and a noble lady, but Han is the lower-class character, the lovable bad boy always more at home flying his beat-up aircraft or sauntering into the Mos Eisley cantina than conferring with a Rebel Alliance war cabinet or accepting one of its medals. Of course, the sexual tension between him and Princess Leia was based on class.
But Solo is Han before Luke and Leia and any of their trappings: It tells the story of how he teamed up with Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo takes on the hairy role), where he found the Millennium Falcon, and when he came across Lando Calrissian (a wickedly good Donald Glover enjoying himself immensely).
With a script by the father-and-son team of Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan, the story reprises the old theme about honour – or lack thereof – among thieves. “Assume everyone is going to betray you and you wouldn’t be disappointed,” Woody Harrelson’s wiseacre tough guy, Beckett, tells Han, in one of the script’s more obvious lines. As Han travels to meet Beckett’s evil paymaster, Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany), and discovers that Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), the sweet girl he left behind on a bad planet, has become Vos’s mistress, the story segues into a complicated series of crosses and double-crosses.
Ron Howard, hired late in the day to take over the film from directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, calmly steers the famed Falcon through racing action, twisting plot and quippy dialogue: The industry press reports that Mr. Lord and Mr. Miller, best known for 21 Jump Street and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, were too fond of improvising for the tastes of Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy. Certainly, it is not Mr. Howard’s impression that is he directing comedy, even if there are enough one-liners and deadpan delivery to elevate the Kasdans’ otherwise workaday dialogue.
Still, the veteran director, who keeps the action chugging along at a satisfying pace, does have a light touch. One of the things that is attractive about Solo is the way in which its reinventions of the Star Wars staples feel cheerfully fresh rather than reverentially diminished. Need a funny droid and feeling a bit tired of the English butler or the cute cylinder? Okay, this one is tall, female and angry; gleefully voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, L3-37 just happens to be planning a droid rebellion. Need a friendly new species or two? The scrappy four-armed pilot Rio, with a friendly nasal voice provided by Jon Favreau, offers charm without layering on cuteness.
And after all those ice-cold Star Wars villains, Mr. Bettany’s Vos seems almost human, an unpredictable sociopath rather than the personification of evil. On the heroine front, on the other hand, Solo maintains Disney’s strong conviction that what the franchise really needs are firm British women in the lead: as the reclaimed Qi’ra, Ms. Clarke pulls off the sweet inscrutability crucial to playing a complicated figure.
One of the difficulties with Solo is that, as you and I both know, none of these characters is going to hang around long because it’s only Han and Chewbacca who can meet Luke and Leia. Certainly, the film suffers from at least one too many sorrowful death scenes and a couple of false endings before it can leave Han free and clear. In that role, Mr. Ehrenreich is a softer, sillier version of the cocksure Han than the one Mr. Ford created 41 years ago, but then the character is younger and the final developments in Solo should certainly provide some hardening material.
In the meantime, the heavy Star Wars legacy sits lightly on Mr. Ehrenreich’s shoulders in a Disney-Lucasfilm movie that is finally having fun.
Solo: A Star Wars Story opens May 25, with select evening screenings May 24.