Movie Review - Solo: A Star Wars Story
By Matthew Huntley
June 12, 2018
“Solo: A Star Wars Story” is a classic, both as a science fiction and “Star Wars” adventure, but unfortunately in this case, this is a shortcoming rather than a virtue. The movie is most likely to excite “Star Wars” “virgins,” if you will, instead of those more familiar with the series because it doesn't really add to the overall mythology. Granted, it doesn't really take anything away, either, and I'm sure those most versed and enthusiastic about “SW” lore will still find something to take away from it, but for me, this particular outing felt perfunctory and unnecessary.
Of the last “Star Wars” sub-movie, “Rogue One,” I wrote that it at least gave the ever-expanding franchise sympathetic, diverse characters, a thoughtful plot, and somewhat interesting “Oh, so that's how/why”-type moments. “Solo” certainly has its share of “That's how/why” pieces of information, but as far as any of them (or its characters) being terribly interesting, they're not really. We could take them or leave them. The movie also sticks to the rules of its genre and universe so rigidly there's little sense any risk is being taken by the filmmakers to explore new territory. This is all the more ironic since the titular hero of “Solo” prides himself on being such a trailblazer.
The movie is, of course, the origin story of Han Solo, the rugged, self-absorbed, blaster-toting starship captain first introduced in “Episode IV: A New Hope.” Played unforgettably with charm and a cocky, brazen attitude by Harrison Ford, Solo and his name, following the “Star Wars” phenomenon that erupted in 1977, have since become permanent fixtures in popular culture. He's easily one of the most recognizable sidekicks ever to inhabit the cinematic galaxy.
And yet, despite his popularity, I can't say I was ever too eager to find out just where he came from or be enlightened on his personal story. The four “Star Wars” movies in which he's appeared essentially told me everything I felt I needed to know. Other characters and plot threads just seemed more important by comparison. Perhaps if Jonathan and Lawrence Kasdan's screenplay for “Solo” made more of an effort to provide the hero with details that didn't merely reiterate what we could have already surmised on our own, I would have been taken aback and really gotten into the narrative, but the movie more or less takes the Han we already know and simply makes him younger.
In the movie, Solo is played by Alden Ehrenreich, and to his and director Ron Howard's credit (as well as directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, whom Howard took over for in the middle of production), Ehrenreich's performance is not just an imitation of Ford's. He does his best to make the character his own, not caring so much about capturing Ford's mannerisms and cadence, but rather the spirit of the character, and he succeeds quite admirably. Like Ford, he's charming, funny, emits confidence, and has a presence that's felt on-screen.
When the story begins, we're told by non-scrolling, blue title cards (as opposed to the traditional scrolling yellow) that it is a lawless time in the galaxy. People are enslaved and live at the mercy of rival crime syndicates. They compete for food, resources and possession of the highly valuable and sought-after coaxium, a.k.a. hyperfuel, which, among other things, can power an entire fleet of ships and propel them into hyperspace.
Amidst this chaos, a mid-20s Solo is able to finagle a small amount of coaxium and believes this will be his and his girlfriend Qi'ra's (Emilia Clarke) bargaining chip off the dark, dreary, and crime-infested planet of Corellia. Han's plan almost works, as only he is able to bypass security and catch a departing transport when he signs up to be a pilot for the Empire's Imperial Army. Though he promises Qi'ra he'll come back, their reunion will be a long time coming after Han is demoted to the infantry for insubordination.
While dodging laser beams in the swamp-ish wasteland of Mimban, he meets a band of thieves led by Beckett (Woody Harrelson), who, along with his strong-willed lady-friend, Val (Thandie Newton), and smart-mouthed alien pilot, Rio (voice of Jon Favreau), plans on stealing a ship so they can pull off a major heist atop a snowy mountain, where a whole train-cart full of coaxium is traveling in the most dangerous conditions. Naturally, Han wants in, seeing it as an prime opportunity to score enough loot so he can get to Corellia and rescue Qi'ra.
Without giving away too much of the plot away, the mountain heist (which is one of the movie's most exciting action sequences) goes fatally awry, and now Beckett and Han must team up and find another way to pay off Beckett's debt to Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany), the evil representative of the crime organization known as Crimson Dawn, whose head leader I will not reveal. As he willfully involves himself in this situation, Han discovers Qi'ra has actually become Vos's right-hand lieutenant but believes he can still win her back after he and Beckett propose a repayment plan to Vos that would have them stealing unrefined coaxium from a distant planet, with the risk being the coaxium could destabilize, explode and, of course, kill them and thousands of others.
Han also comes to learn, throughout this new mission, that the value of coaxium goes beyond its use as a bargaining chip. To some people, it is the means by which the Empire gains power and continues to persecute. Han realizes that perhaps his dreams of “flying among the stars” shouldn't come at the fall of others and we begin to see snippets of the nobler and self-less side he displays in “A New Hope.” As Qi'ra tells him, “You're one of the good guys.”
The plot, for the most part, is typical “Star Wars” stuff, replete with starship chases, laser battles, bargaining scenes in bars, “down-to-the-last-second” get-a-ways, tender moments of friendship and realization, etc., all fueled by standard-issue heroes, villains, double-crossers, and a would-be romance. It's a fair story, and it holds our attention, but it's not far removed from what we've seen time and again from this franchise. In fact, it seems the screenwriters were less concerned about creating original characters and giving them exciting things to do than they were about telling us how the “Episode IV” version of Han came to be.
We learn, among other things: how Han acquired his last name; how he met Chewbacca, gave him the nickname “Chewy,” and eventually made him his best friend and co-pilot; how Han got a crash course in reckless flying; how Han first met Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) and when he first set eyes on his beloved Millennium Falcon ship; how he learned to rotate a gun around his pointer finger; how he ended up on Tatooine and met a “big shot gangster” named Jabba the Hut; and ultimately how the Rebel Alliance began.
And while all this information is mildly interesting, it's not something we were yearning to know, and so at the end of the day, the question “Solo” had me asking was, what was the point of what I just watched? I left the theater thinking it was harmless but mediocre, serviceably entertaining but not overly exciting. These are not reactions we're used to having (nor should we have) after seeing a “Star Wars” picture.
Still, there are some good points worth mentioning. In addition to Ehrenreich, Donald Glover is outstanding as Calrissian. His performance is more in tune with what Billy Dee Williams brought to the table in “The Empire Strikes Back,” with his calculated beats, animated facial features, sly rhythm and busting self-assurance, but he nails it. We believe Glover is Calrissian and his and Ehrenreich's chemistry is one of the movie's highlights. I also liked the scene when Han first meets Chewy because we finally get to hear him speak Wookie, which is a treat.
But I'm afraid these small merits aren't worth a trip to the theater. “Solo” leaves too much to be desired, both from its genre and the established “Star Wars” franchise. When I reviewed “Rogue One,” I mentioned my only hope for these “child” stories of the greater “parent” episodes was to bring new things to light we didn't already know. “Solo” tells us some things we didn't “officially” know, but we suspected them in the back of our minds, and so it seems the talent and resources the movie uses to verify them should have been applied to a more engaging, more risk-taking adventure. The filmmakers should know we want to see the “SW” mythology expand with original characters and fresh, intriguing details, not just be made heavier with ones that are already in place.