Solo: A Star Wars Story Review
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Taking its first steps into a fourth decade of cinematic expedition, the Star Wars franchise proves once again it has the mettle to survive with this thrilling spin-off detailing the early years of our favourite scoundrel, Han Solo. Played here by Alden Ehrenreich, the titular flyboy who isn’t quite at the top of his game. Having fled his home world of Corellia to avoid capture and now a deserter from the Imperial infantry, Han decides throw in his lot with a motley crew of mercenaries led by Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson). His hopes of excitement and adventure leads him to cross paths with rival gangs, the ire of crime lord Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany), the dashing Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) and, of course, future first mate Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo).
It’s the relationship between Han and his furry companion that forms the beating heart of Solo: A Star Wars Story, despite the protests of an ill-advised and rather emotionally weak romance between Solo and teenage sweetheart Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke). Han and Chewie’s early escapades are now untrodden ground thanks to the dissolution of the pre-Disney era expanded universe, and Solo does a great job of integrating elements from those stories whilst adding a fresh twist. Han may share more banter with Lando, learn more lessons from Beckett, feel a deeper connection with Qi’ra, but it’s the wookiee by his side that makes him truly whole, and early scenes bereft of Chewie feel suitably empty: there’s no-one there to expose the young smuggler’s swagger in quite the same way.
Suotamo - taking up the hairy mantle for good from Peter Mayhew - has Chewbacca’s lope and bearing down to every quizzical head tilt and disparaging sniff, and plays off Ehrenreich’s determined bravado brilliantly. The Hail, Caesar graduate himself delights in the lead role, mercifully steering clear of Harrison Ford caricature and blasting his own path through the storm of unverified rumours of an acting coach hired during reshoots to provide damage control. Crucially, it’s a performance which understands that Han Solo isn’t as great as he pretends to be. He’s a smart-mouthed klutz, and a sharp script from Jonathan and Lawrence Kasdan ensures that, despite his clear talent for swiping starships and shooting first, it’s more often than not pure luck that saves him.
Our new collection of characters are a fine bunch too, though they’re all outshone by Glover’s marvellously smooth Lando; a dream piece of casting that pays off tenfold. Phoebe Waller-Bridge (television’s Fleabag) as his frank and irritable droid, L3-37, adds another amusing android to this new era’s ever-growing roster. Harrelson deploys his trademark brand of sly wisdom with aplomb, made even more endearing when placed into direct confrontation with Bettany’s villain-of-the-week sneering. He and Clarke are the solitary weak links, with the latter not quite matching the pace of Ehrenreich’s delivery in their shared scenes (areas in which the script also feels lacking).
A slight pang of regret over the loss of original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller still remains during these lapses in energy, but generally the film still visibly bristles with their kind of zeal, albeit redirected through the prism of new helmsman Ron Howard. Howard’s no stranger to franchise spectacle, and Solo finds him on full ‘sit back and enjoy the ride’ form.
The film moves with the breakneck speed of an over-cranked podracer, zipping between planets and asteroid clusters and battlegrounds within minutes. Action sequences involving the newer, sleeker Millennium Falcon are breathlessly orchestrated, and the sheer exhilaration of seeing the very first time a TIE Fighter fails to hit the flying dustbin lid at thirty paces is worth every penny of admission. John Powell’s accompanying score bursts with irresistible fanfare, pockmarked with musical references to match the myriad of visual Easter eggs (though the binary sunset/Force theme is, for once, utterly absent from a Star Wars film).
While the script, music and general thrust of the film conveys a lightness of tone, the same cannot be said for the frame. Bradford Young’s shadowy cinematography and the plot’s penchant for diving into the galaxy’s grim underbelly makes this the most physically grounded Star Wars yet, somewhat at odds with the swashbuckling aspirations of the story.
As was inevitable with a film not gifted the Episode moniker - and therefore not laden with heavy implications for the larger Star Wars universe - Solo does feel rather disposable. It’s not about anything, but that’s sort of the point, and that’s why I had such fun with it. How great it is to have these little frivolous respites between the continuing Skywalker saga, and greater still to find them every bit as entertaining. Solo won’t disquiet the landscape of Star Wars fandom as The Last Jedi did, but it’s by no means a placation tool for Original Trilogy purists. Indeed, in its penultimate moments, an entire generation of younger fans (whose experience of a galaxy far far away has been largely ignored by these new enterprises), will feel joyfully seen.