Starring: Alden Ehrenreich, Emilia Clarke, Woody Harrelson, Donald Glover, Paul Bettany, Thandi Newton, Joonas Suotamo and Phoebe Waller-Bridge
Written by: Lawrence Kasdan and Jonathan Kasdan
Directed by: Ron Howard
Studio: Lucasfilm (Walt Disney Studios)
Run Time: 2 hrs, 15 min
Once upon a time Star Wars consisted of three movies and a few made-for-TV efforts that we’ve all collectively agreed never happened. That meant the whole of the franchise rested on the back of that first trilogy. Every warm, fuzzy feeling from every fan on the planet could be found within their running time; as movie-going experiences went, that made them almost sacred.
But times have changed, and we’re living in a new reality. The disappointment most people felt in the prequels demonstrated that George Lucas wasn’t perfect, and with the whole franchise now exploding into yearly movies, TV shows and ancillary entertainment, a certain amount of letdown is inevitable. The Star Wars series has practically become a genre unto itself – much like James Bond, which set the pace for this style of filmmaking – and that means that not every new movie is going to be a game-changer. Some are merely going to be reliable entertainment… and some are going to flat-out stink.
The problem is that there’s still a huge difference between an engaging bucket of popcorn and a waste of everyone’s time, which has been blurred by the franchise’s status at the top of the pop-culture heap. Star Wars won’t always upend our every expectation like The Last Jedi did, or move the property in a new direction like Rogue One did. And that’s not a bad thing, provided it still delivers the goods on that galaxy far, far away
Solo probably won’t top anyone’s list of their favorite Star Wars movies, and if you’re looking for any surprises, you’ve come to the wrong place. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a whole lot of fun: predictable fun, safe fun and utterly mainstream fun, to be sure, but fun nonetheless. Stunning and profound revelations about the past of everyone’s favorite smuggler are thin on the ground, but hey: you wanna see how the Kessel Run went down?
That’s the bargain Solo offers: detailing the early years of its title character (Alden Ehrenreich, taking over from Harrison Ford) without throwing a lot of curve balls at us. Long-time fans won’t have any problem checking off the beats: his first meet-cute team-up with Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), the aforementioned less-than-twelve-parsecs jaunt, and that infamous sabacc game where he won his beloved Millennium Falcon from noted card shark Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover).
Director Ron Howard sandwiches those moments between a larger plot involving – what else? – a debt to a noted crime lord (Paul Bettany) and a series of near-impossible feats required to pay him off. It also gives Han an irascible mentor (Woody Harrelson, having a blast), a gal-pal-turned-possible-love-interest (Emilia Clarke), and even a destiny involving something better than hauling illegal freight for scumbags. None of it really challenges our expectations, and Solo relies on nostalgia rather than innovation to keep eyes on the screen.
And yet if you accept the fact that things will look and feel exactly, precisely the way you expect them to, the film still has a lot to offer. Co-screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan has a not-insignificant claim to the character (he helped pen Empire, Jedi and The Force Awakens), and brings a lot of enthusiasm to these early chapters of his co-creation’s journey. This Han is a lot more cocksure and a lot less able to back up his bluster, and Solo provides him with plenty of wretched hives of scum and villainy to run for his life in.
The underworld components actually form some of the movie biggest strengths. We’re very accustomed to the firm moral boundaries of the Star Wars universe, with sharp lines drawn between the light and the dark. Solo dives deeply into the grey areas, where people are neither good or bad, but whatever mix of the two has allowed them to survive thus far. Howard find potent material just by showing us how the rules work at the street level of the Empire, and ensures that the cast captures the same vibe. Bettany gets the best of it, and his quietly sociopathic gangster is one of the best reasons to tune in, but Glover and Clarke feel right at home too… to the point where they almost overshadow the leads at times.
And here and there, something more interesting bubbles to the surface. The thorny question of droids’ rights, for instance – sentient beings kept as slaves – gets a very effective subplot, as does the notion of how a larger evil like the Empire fosters countless smaller evils like graft and corruption. Here, Solo provides some quietly solid ideas to back up its by-the-book development, as well as engendering a distinctive identity separate from previous Star Wars movies.
It comes down to expectations, and what you’re willing to demand from this entry solely because of the pedigree it holds. Solo can’t compare with the greatest Star Wars movies, but to call it a failure because of that is far too limited. This is the franchise’s comfort food department, showing us a good time with some old friends that neither challenges nor disappoints. Considering the alternatives, that’s worth its share of praise.