Solo: A Star Wars Story Review
Directed by: Ron Howard
Screenplay by: Jonathan Kasdan & Lawrence Kasdan
Starring: Alden Ehrenreich, Joonas Suotamo, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, and Donald Glover
Spoiler-free review by Allison O’Toole
The question on the mind of every Star Wars fan this weekend will likely be: is Solo: A Star Wars Story necessary viewing? For some, the answer is an automatic yes; for those who are waffling on it, I’d say that it’s… fine. It could be a lot worse than it is, but it could be better. Like the choice to hire director Ron Howard after splitting ways with the film’s original directors, the movie plays it safe. You’ll get most of what you’re expecting – some chase scenes in space, cameos, and new hives of scum and villainy – and that can be satisfying in its own way, but don’t go in expecting to be surprised.
We first meet Han (Alden Ehrenreich), in his late teens or early twenties, as an Oliver Twist-style runaway on Corellia. He and his lady friend, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) have a plan to sell stolen, refined Coraxium, a coveted material which is used to make hyperfuel. The scheme doesn’t go as planned (it never does), but Han manages to escape Corellia, and joins up with the Empire, hoping to become a pilot. He falls in with some criminals instead, led by jaded Beckett (Woody Harrelson), and along the way, Han meets Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover).
Ehrenreich is serviceable but he has big shoes to fill, especially with Ford’s last performance as Han in such recent memory. The impression of Ford’s Han Solo isn’t bad; he’s got the floppy hair and a lot of the body language down, but he doesn’t quite land the right balance of sincerity, goofiness, and Cool that made Ford’s performance (at least in the first two movies) so memorable.
Glover fares better as Lando, bringing a suave charisma to the role. He’s also mimicking Billy Dee Williams’ performance, but brings a lot of his own charm to it, making Lando absolutely a high point of the movie. I also enjoyed Jon Favreau as the voice of a fun little alien and Paul Bettany’s crime lord was a reasonably entertaining antagonist. He’s small fry within the larger canon of Star Wars villains, but he had a cool design and seemed to be having fun. Suotamo is a fitting successor to Peter Mayhew, but I’d have liked to see more time spent exploring Han’s and Chewbacca’s relationship. We know this will be one of the strongest and most important relationships in their lives, but it’s mostly treated as a given, we don’t get to see much development to get them from strangers to each other’s most trusted friends.
If you’ve been enthused by the recent trilogy’s wider range of female characters this one might feel like a bit of a letdown, although I was surprised by how much I liked Emilia Clarke’s Qi’ra. I was happy to see a female-gendered Droid for once in L3, played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, especially since she doesn’t have robot boobs, but she still has to have a recognizably “feminine” silhouette. While I appreciated the concept of a Droids’ rights activist, having the first major female Droid in the series be an “aggressive” activist feels a bit tone deaf. It’s a shame because her snark was a lot of fun and I think a lot more could have been done with that character.
Plot-wise, the movie is hampered a bit by expectations. References casually dropped in the Original Trilogy have to be addressed here (doing the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs, winning the Falcon in a game of Sabacc) and those lines originally used to add colour to Han’s backstory are used here as tent-poles for the story, with varying effectiveness.
Unlike Rogue One, fans of Star Wars will just be waiting for certain beats to be hit. When other characters mention sending Han to “the beast” it’s fairly obvious that he’s is about to meet a certain hairy friend with a penchant for tearing arms off when displeased. The film does its best to use those expectations against the audience, but there’s only so much that can be done when we know how this has to end. That said, there is one particularly fun sequence which takes place, unsurprisingly, inside the Millennium Falcon. I knew that the people and ship would have to escape, but it had me excited and on the edge of my seat.
The toughest nut to crack here, really, is Han himself. He experiences a marked growth arc over the course of the original Star Wars, so this movie is tasked with giving us an upbeat summer blockbuster where the protagonist has to lose most of his idealism. By the end of the movie, Han isn’t quite the jaded cynic we meet at the beginning of A New Hope, but we know that’s where he’s headed, and that’s a weird place to leave him. For much of the film, Han is essentially the Luke Skywalker equivalent: the naïve, young guy who dreams of bigger and better things, but hasn’t yet been worn down by experience, unlike Harrelson’s Beckett. Han is snarkier and a bit more worldly than Luke, of course, but he wears his earnest heart on his sleeve, refusing to let others be hurt and helping the underdog. Some will say this contradicts his character development at the end of A New Hope, where he has a change of heart and returns to help Luke, while others will see it as character consistency.
On the technical side, one of the bolder decisions made by the film is the cinematography by Bradford Young. Known for dramas such as Selma, Arrival, and A Most Violent Year, Young prefers to work with natural light. The resulting darkness accomplishes some dramatic tension, but lacks the strong contrast that I associate with Star Wars at its best. The movie mostly takes place in dingy dens and under overcast skies, meaning that characters aren’t often well-lit, and I found them frustratingly hard to see. The colours didn’t give me a sense of difference between the cold of a snow-covered planet, and the heat of a desert planet, and the way it all balances out made the environments feel less real and vital than they could have. It makes for a unique look for a Star Wars film, certainly, but I wonder if stronger lighting and contrast would have been more effective. It would have looked fantastic as a gritty drama, but I wanted a better view of the fun aliens and space lasers.
Ultimately this is a good summer movie – it’s flashy, fast-paced, and tighter than Rogue One. The low stakes give it a breeziness, compared to the world-shattering events that tend to rule the major storyline movies. Since this is Han’s journey to becoming a smuggler, he can’t really accomplish anything meaningful, but a smaller-scale movie isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I think Star Wars needs more “small” stories, and unique cinematography aside, most of the aesthetics help integrate the film into the larger world of Star Wars. There are some great costumes, Lando’s in particular stand out for their bright colours and patterns, and Neal Scanlan invents a few interesting new alien designs. Even the John Williams’ Han Solo theme score will have some fans transported into this world out of pure nostalgia. Those looking for something familiar and lightly fun will enjoy this more than those hoping to see new territory covered.
See it. Solo: A Star Wars Story is a fun enough film as a summer blockbuster but demonstrates how little we need more prequel films. With the prevalence of books, comics and TV shows exploring the world of Star Wars, I’d like to see films exploring the future since I think they’re a bit restrained by focusing on the past.