“Uh, we had a slight weapons malfunction, but uh…everything’s perfectly all right now.”
While it never quite justifies its reason to exist, Solo: A Star Wars Story offers enough pulpy fun and galaxy far, far away entertainment value to diminish any bad feeling one may have had about it heading into release.
Solo – both the movie and this new iteration of Harrison Ford’s classic character, now played by Alden Ehrenreich – skates by on charm, breezy irreverence, and a just-right degree of Star Wars fan service. But while it gets the trappings and appearances right, Solo never delivers on the promise of finding out why Han became who he was in A New Hope. It just explains how he got his stuff.
One of the most memorable aspects of the character from the original trilogy was the way in which he believably evolved from an out-for-himself scoundrel and mercenary to a hero of the Rebel Alliance worthy of Princess Leia; this origin movie delivers no such satisfying arc of redemption or fall from grace. (Imagine if Casino Royale hadn’t quite seen the evolution of James Bond all the way through to its bitter end.) Its story holds precious few surprises and the title character ends this film as pretty much the same person he was when we met him at the beginning — without quite becoming the person Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi found and pulled out of a wretched hive of scum and villainy on Tatooine.
It’s a good thing, then, that the movie remains at least entertaining enough to keep one engaged through all the rote story beats of learning how Han Solo acquired the Millennium Falcon or met Chewbacca and Lando Calrissian. It’s amazing how much just playing Star Wars music can make almost any roughly assembled scene work on a visceral and emotional level — and Solo seems to know that, relying on sentimentality and a shorthand understanding of this universe and its legacy characters to paper over its narrative defects.
The plot takes a bit too long to find its footing, not truly rousing to life until the beginning of its second act when Han encounters Chewbacca and Lando Calrissian. Han’s Dickensian youth just doesn’t carry as much weight as the storytellers might have imagined. It was clear from the moment we met the fully-formed Han Solo in Episode IV that this was a rough-and-tumble hustler; literally seeing where he came from doesn’t tell us much more about Han as a character than we already knew, so why spend so much time on it?
The new characters introduced here are inconsistent, from the trope-riddled crew of crooks Han falls in with to the gangster he runs afoul of and the love interest he pines after. Woody Harrelson is fine but unsurprising as Tobias Beckett, playing firmly into type here as the grizzled mentor and shady thief who takes Han under his wing. The role is not dissimilar from those Harrelson previously played in the Hunger Games franchise or Zombieland. Thandie Newton is cool as his second-in-command and lover Val, but she’s more an attitude than a character.
Jon Favreau amiably voices the crew’s sight gag crewmate Rio, while Paul Bettany does what he can with one-note bad guy Dryden Vos. Emilia Clarke is never sympathetic nor femme fatale enough to really work as Han’s would-be flame Qi’ra. The movie flirts with the idea of her being a darker character (“a survivor”) but it never fully commits to that arc, making for a frustrating and disappointing resolution to her and Han’s storyline.
Of the new characters, the one who truly shines brightest — and damn near steals the show — is the fiercely independent droid L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), whose acerbic personality and cutting wit is even sharper than Rogue One’s K2SO. Her bond with Lando in particular is both hilarious and daring and will surely provoke many conversations.
Ultimately, Solo: A Star Wars Story depends on — and just manages to work as an escapist romp because of — its legacy characters. They’re the real reason why anyone wants to see a movie where so many outcomes are already known. Alden Ehrenreich overcomes a lot of skepticism to make this incarnation of Han Solo both recognizable and also his own. He captures the wry wit and gunslinger swagger, mirroring enough of Ford’s mannerisms to be familiar yet he also manages to not simply be a mere mimic by lending the character a dopey sweetness and vulnerability not always evident in Ford’s version.
Likewise, Donald Glover charms as the cape-wearing gambler Lando Calrissian, delivering on the promise his casting held for so many fans of both the actor and the Star Wars icon he’s assuming. Glover captures the duplicity and bravado of the best-dressed rogue in the franchise, while also revealing a surprisingly tender side at one key point in the film. Lando hangs out in a gambling den for a good chunk of the film, a setting that also allows for a showcase of the film’s many cool, new alien designs.
And, finally, Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) might get his biggest and best role yet in the franchise, now a true supporting character in his own right here rather than just Han’s sidekick or glorified pet. Chewie has his own goals to reach in this story instead of just being in service of the other characters’ agendas, and he even gets one of the movie’s biggest laughs.
Solo: A Star Wars Story features some ably executed action scenes, with the key one being a train heist about midway through. This extended sequence calls to mind the westerns, serials, and World War II movies that all helped inspire George Lucas’s original Star Wars. The film also continues the franchise’s renewed interest in practical effects, making this once again feel like a lived-in world populated by “real” creatures and “working” vehicles and droids.