Prequels and Star Wars have a tension filled relationship. Which is understandable, considering the reception of the prequel trilogy. Still, say what you want about Episodes I, II & III – and plenty of people have – but they at least followed a story that had some potential. To see the rise and fall of Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader sounds like an intriguing idea. There’s a clear structure one can see for how this would go down, though the execution of it has lead to plenty of enraged debate for nearly two decades. By contrast, Solo: A Star Wars Story doesn’t really have much of a progression it can take hold of for its titular character Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich). Knowing the progression he goes on during the original trilogy, Han Solo needs to stay a selfish smuggler in order for the later journey to make any narrative sense. He can’t learn to be a selfless individual here only to learn the same thing as he surprises the audience by helping Luke destroy the Death Star. Sorry for spoiling a 41 year old film, but the point still stands; a young Han Solo movie has no real right to exist. So, does Solo: A Star Wars Story end up beating this inherent critical stumbling block in concept or not?
Quite frankly… no. Writers Lawrence & Jonathan Kasdan along with director Ron Howard – well, final director Ron Howard – constantly struggle to walk the line between keeping Han a rogue and the hero the film ultimately needs, but never quite settle on how to do so. Solo: A Star Wars Story gives us so much of his back story, a child slave on the planet Corellia who ended up joining the Empire’s military as a young lad and teaming up with Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) to become a smuggler. All very early in the film. Yet, none of it really earns much of a right to exist or add on what we already knew beyond filling unnecessary gaps. “Oh, that’s why Chewie owes Han a life debt!” “Oh that’s how he got that last name!” “Oh that’s how he became so good with using a blaster!” Great… but did any of this make Han Solo a more complete version of what he already was; a scoundrel with charm? No. It’s just there to give us context for what we didn’t need.
If anything, it deflates what used to be a mysterious background one could project for themselves based on Harrison Ford’s actions and George Lucas/several other people’s words. It all turns Han into a misunderstood loner hero rather than a plucky and selfish charmer we met at the Cantina on Tatooine. We’re front loaded with answering questions and tying up loose ends really early into Solo to the point where when we finally get the halfway decent heist film that lifts up the second half, it’s too late. We’ve been inundated with a barrage of underwhelming revelations that seem to take a face value sensibility to moments that feel like they should be charming nods and winks. If Solo was far more self contained an adventure that didn’t aim to expose Han’s past, it would probably be a far more engaging character. The onset snafus that occurred with original directors/current executive producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller shouldn’t have much weight on the film overall, but one can tell during any of the larger comedic set pieces fall flat and awkward in that first half. Not really helped by the way cinematographer Bradford Young puts an a grey filter to disguise the shiny surfaces in order to vaguely remind people of the rich grime aesthetic of the original trilogy.
None of this is really the fault of Alden Ehrenreich. A talented young actor who is capable of delivering his own infectious charms in films like Hail Caesar, Ehrenreich is really trying hard to avoid doing a flat out Ford impression while still sprinkling in some of the delivery that made Han one of the more iconic cinematic characters of the 20th century. It’s an impossible task to be asked to replicate an iconic persona at his absolute prime as an actor in a prequel film and Alden handles it about as well as he can. Yet, that leash still looms high with how much the script for Solo desires to make us remember the Han we knew and loved even if Alden wants to make his own. A constant tug and pull that damns an earnest if doomed task from the start. There are effective moments for Han here and there. As unnecessary as it is, the meet up with Chewie made watchable thanks to a physical chemistry that Ehrenreich and Suotamo have as the space duo. Yet, Chewie’s own struggles with trying to get his people out of slavery and earn a score bring to light the major downturn of Solo. One flaw so crucially fatal that it turns the lead into an albatross around the film’s neck; Han is the sun this universe revolves around, yet the planets and asteroids that sweep into its path are far more interesting than he ever can be.
One of these characters is Han’s mentor of sorts Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), a thief who has seen plenty of action. You can see why he would be curious to the initial spark of spunk in Han’s eyes, but with the history clearly shown through his actions in the world of smuggling and some pretty big moments with his significant other Val (Thandie Newton), one slowly starts to lose the actual thread of connection between him and Han as things roll along, especially when a heist film of sorts like this hinges on ambiguity rather than a lack of believability in either trust or distrust rather than what feels like ambivalence between the two. Same goes for Han’s Corellian gal Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke). Clarke is given the task of attempting to be a galactic femme fatale for Han to seek back after an escape gone awry, who later has gone through some changes and being under the thumb of a generic space gangster Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany) that makes one pine for the authentic weirdness of Jabba the Hutt as he acts like far more of a modern hot trigger gangster than anything authentically of the Star Wars galaxy. Qi’ra could have been far more of a damsel love interest and even has worrying shades of this early on. Yet, when her loyalties become more murky and her ability prowess as a femme fatale come to play, there are shades of a far more interesting character. One who’s journey could have made for a great Star Wars story all its own. Yet, we mostly see her as an accomplice and source of will-they-won’t-they tension to tease for more Solo films as Han sashays into a room.
Such sashays are irrelevant once Han meets Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), a fellow smuggler who exudes far more charisma and has enough intriguing characteristics that ooze out of corners during his scenes to make everyone in the theater internally scream “Why wasn’t this a Lando film?!” The real difference between Lando and Solo is simply that while we do know the ultimate big turn of Lando, he’s far more of a blank slate to add things onto. This includes fun details like a closet full of elaborate capes or his sly attempts to cheat at cards with smooth nonchalance. Glover gives the unbridled confidence needed for Lando without feeling too much like an overt impression as much as a general sly mood from which anyone would be mulled over by. Similar credit deserves to go to Phoebe Waller-Bridge as L3, a droid with fierce aims at spreading independence for her kind. She’s feisty, intuitive and spunky in ways no other droid character has ever been in this series. The two have far more of a believable rapport than anyone else in the film that makes us quiver even further in demand for a Lando spin off movie involving these two. But don’t worry. Han is there to… be Han. So you don’t have to worry about all that pesky “potential” off to the sides being squandered.
It may seem like I hate Solo, but the frustration really lies with the fact that there are wonderful bursts of energy and creativity on occasion. Most of these characters do get moments to spotlight their potential. Mainly in a scene involving a rather famous moment from Han’s past that surprisingly packs a lot of character beats, elaborate fight choreography and more than a few bits of heist staging into a chaotic but highly entertaining sequence of events. It’s the one time where all the people in this ensemble truly bounce off each other incredibly well and give the illusion that this will continue to the remaining runtime. Yet, by the time that sequence ends, the spectacle of Solo A Star Wars Story really begins to wear thin. There’s some shenanigans in the third act that elicits minor thrills, but nothing even really culminates that well. Set pieces like the big train heist are fine on their own, but the lack any kind of weight not just because we know where the characters will ultimately go, but because we’re centered around a character who constantly meanders between referencing what we know and teasing a progression that can’t take place given who the character is makes this a rather forgettable effort. Something even a few Rebellion teases and a curious surprise cameo couldn’t fix.
It’s a tough spot to be in. Almost as if Disney and Lucasfilm shouldn’t have put themselves in that place to begin with. Solo A Star Wars Story obviously wants to be a romp through the galactic underworld of the Star Wars galaxy. One that is teased with some rather impressive creature effects and a few hints to other potential spin offs. Yet, even for being something more light, there’s isn’t too much new going on. There’s a bit of an upgrade in terms of the tech of the original trilogy, but not much of an expansion on details about the criminal underworld or some of these new characters to make itself stand out. These are similar problems that effected the previous Star Wars spin off feature Rogue One. Then again, Rogue One actually dared to focus on new characters who weren’t what we traditionally saw in this galaxy far far away. Some are better than others, but at least it tried to build more focus on people we weren’t familiar with. Which is a far more noble effort than Solo, a film that has the potential to explore new avenues and fun side tracks in this universe yet leans on the familiarity of its titular character revealing more about his past like Tiny Tim on a crutch. Keep in mind that I’m not against referencing moments from the original trilogy or exposing more about the people we knew and loved from this series. However, if those references don’t do much to shed intriguing new light on that subject, what’s the point in going back? Why are we peeling back a layer of Han’s past? It turns out… for very little.
Rating: 2 out of 5 Dice Rear View Mirror Hangers