It's messy and more than a little overlong, but Disney's latest Star Wars prequel manages to coast by on just enough charm to work.
In Disney’s grand experiment to give us one or two new Star Wars movies every year until we die or the universe expires from heat death, it’s inevitable that we’d start to see origin stories of our favorite characters. Spinoffs for everyone from Yoda to Obi-Wan are reportedly in the works, a prospect which inspires no small amount of dread from even the most die-hard Star Wars fans. After all, what’s the point of telling a story we already know the ending to? If we’ve learned anything, it’s that Star Wars prequels are a dicey proposition, even if they have “Episode” in the title.
Solo: A Star Wars Story is but the second installment in their series of non-episode movies (the first being the gritty, but uneven Rogue One), telling the tale of how everyone’s favorite smuggler and scoundrel, Han Solo – here played by Hail, Caesar! scene-stealer Alden Ehrenreich – came to be the colorful character we know from Harrison Ford’s time in the role. Turns out, he started life as a kind of Dickensian boy-thief on the grimy planet of Corellia, with dreams of stealing away from the planet for a better life with his girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke).
Suffice to say, circumstances force the two to separate, Han signing up for a thankless job as an Imperial grunt – a waste of his considerable flying talent and his predilection for not following orders. Years later, he breaks away with the help of an unscrupulous criminal gang led by Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and starts his life of crime – getting wrapped up in a heist involving the Kessel Run, and his old flame Qi’ra.
Along the way, of course, he begins to adopt the many mannerisms and affectations we’d come to know in the original trilogy, Solo taking great, if not obnoxious, pains to set up every little thing we know about him. How did Han get his last name? We find out pretty early. Where did he get that cool-looking blaster? They show us that too. How did he and Chewbacca (Joonas Suotomo) meet, and how did he win the Millennium Falcon from Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover)? You know that you’ll find out. While some of it works, the rest of it feels like overkill – Wookieepedia-level fan service that grinds the story to a halt and robs it of tension.
That being said, when it works, it really works. Star Wars is a rich, vast world full of crazy, interesting stories, and Solo allows us to spend more time with the ruffians and criminals of the universe, exploring the shades of grey that exist in a film franchise often far too concerned with splitting the morality of its characters into light sides and dark sides. Here, almost everyone’s a criminal – “trust no one,” Beckett helpfully informs Han early in their capers – prone to double-crossing and backstabbing even after spending most of the movie learning to trust them. It’s a valuable lesson both Han and the audience have to learn, and screenwriters Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan (the former having written both Empire Strikes Back and Force Awakens) understand our yearning for a tighter story centered not around galaxy-shattering movements, but on simple heists and mobster machinations.
At the center of it all is Ehrenreich, who does an admirable job of trying to affect a passable Harrison Ford. Honestly, the actor works best when he’s doing his own thing, smirking and bullshitting his way out of trouble without doing a Ford impression – at times, the zippy energy of the movie around him threatens to swallow him whole, but he makes for a capable lead. Most effective is his budding friendship with Chewbacca, both Ehrenreich and Suotomo affecting a wonderful chemistry that captures the pair’s dynamic quite well. From the moment they meet, they’re two lost souls who find a surprising kinship with one another, providing a much-needed anchor for all of Solo’s space-faring posturing.
If Ehrenreich is too much of a damp squib for you, might I suggest feasting your eyes on Donald Glover’s suave-as-hell Lando? He’s charming, handsome, and wears a hell of a lot of capes, and he steals every scene he’s in (which, to be fair, isn’t many). Same goes for Phoebe Waller-Bridge as the acerbic, revolution-minded droid L3-37; between this and Rogue One, it’s a safe bet that everyone’s favorite characters in these spinoff films will be the sassy droids.
For what it’s worth, I see why Ron Howard took over this production. As much as I would have loved to have seen Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s swing-for-the-fences, anarchic comedy version of the story. Howard’s direction clearly smooths their rough edges, focusing the story so it can hold up as an effective space Western about scoundrels learning the extent to which they must take responsibility for their actions and allegiances. It’s no great shakes, but Howard shows a deft hand with action (see the Kessel Run and a hover-train heist early in the film for some exciting scraps), which shines through despite Bradford Young’s hopelessly murky cinematography.
While it doesn’t hold a candle to any of the non-prequel ‘episodes,’ Solo works far better than it should for an origin story no one asked for, directed by someone who took over the production halfway through. It’s still overlong (seriously, the movie comes to a natural end and then it feels like another hour goes by), and the universe-building grows more than a little tedious after a while. But if you allow yourself to surrender to its fast-paced heists and winning performances, and forget for a moment that every plot point is designed to put the puzzle pieces of a pre-existing movie in place, it’s a cracking little space adventure about the dregs of the galaxy.
Solo: A Star Wars Story smuggles its way into theaters May 25th.