Solo: A Star Wars Story (Ron Howard, 2018) 3 out of 4 stars.
What does it say about Solo: A Star Wars Story that the most interesting character in the film is one with no previous connection to the series? She’s a young woman named Qi’ra (pronounced Keera), played by the ever-appealing Emilia Clarke (Daenerys Targaryen on HBO’s Game of Thrones), whom we first meet in the company of the titular character, then meet again after a cinematic ellipsis of three years, during which time she has acquired a mysterious past, a wrist tattoo, and cryptic motivations. If the folks at Lucasfilm decide to stay in this time period of a “galaxy far, far away,” I hope they give Ms. Qi’ra her own spin-off. She’s worth it. Han Solo, on the other hand …
Actually, he’s fine, just not nearly as interesting. Played here by Alden Ehrenreich – so delightful in the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar! – he’s still finding his place in the universe, though already a rebel (in the James Dean, rather than political, sense). Unfortunately, he has yet to develop the bravura cocksure insouciance that made Harrison Ford so appealing in the original Star Wars. He’s also, at just under 5’10”, over 3 inches shorter than Ford, which matters, since his physicality is simply less dominant. That said, Ehrenreich is otherwise a capable actor, and holds his own.
As does the script, for the most part. We begin in medias res, with young Han and Qi’ra, partners in desperation in “a lawless time” (as the opening titles inform us), engaged in a scheme to escape the hellhole of a planet where they’ve grown up as orphans/prisoners. Things don’t go quite as planned, so Han, with nowhere to run, and with dreams of being a flyboy, enlists in the armed services of the nascent Empire (yes, that Empire). It’s his only option.
Flash forward three years, and Han is now a grunt in the middle of a war. Catching sight of some sketchy characters on the periphery of the conflict, he guesses they are not legit (they are smugglers, it turns out), and decides to throw in his lot with them, though they rebuff him time and again. Stubborn, Han persists, even after being thrown into a pit to fight a horrific creature that turns out to be a filthy and heavily matted Chewbacca, everyone’s favorite Wookie, whom Han befriends in their mutual escape. Now with the smugglers – which include Woody Harrelson (Wilson) and Thandie Newton (Maeve on HBO’s Westworld) – Han is finally moving towards becoming the man we know. They even let him pilot their ship.
After an exciting, if ill-fated, high-tech train heist – the smugglers try to boost some coaxium, a highly volatile ore that powers space flight – Han and the gang end up beholden to the Crimson Dawn, a crime syndicates in cahoots with the Empire, with a menacing Paul Bettany (Journey’s End) in charge. It’s here we meet Qi’ra again, and though she waxes circumspect about how she got there, she and Han quickly renew their past flirtation. Soon, she joins the crew as they head off in search of more coaxium. First, though, they need a new vessel.
Which brings us to Lando Calrissian, played by Donald Glover (FX’s Atlanta) with the perfect combination of self-regard, charisma and machismo – with some genuine bravery thrown in – that we remember so well from Billy Dee Williams’ turn in The Empire Strikes Back. Indeed, his presence does Ehrenreich no favors, reminding us what the nominal star lacks (Harrelson’s grizzled charm also doesn’t help). After a gambling match gone awry, they all pile into Lando’s Millennium Falcon (a muted version of John Williams’ Star Wars theme playing upon Han’s first glimpse of the ship we know will one day be his). And off they go.
I won’t list further plot details as a play-by-play, but it’s relatively well constructed and good fun, far less messy than The Last Jedi (which still had its appeal). We meet a cool new droid, witness well-staged fights – both on the ground and in space – and enjoy witty banter. It’s a rousing-enough odyssey, and though it could be a little shorter (it clocks in at 135 minutes), mostly holds our interest throughout. Director Ron Howard (Rush) delivers serviceable goods, with occasional moments of genuine narrative delight, ensuring that this long-running intergalactic series will continue, for better or for worse, into the foreseeable future.