'Solo: A Star Wars Story': I have an ambivalent feeling about this
It’s a pretty small galaxy after all. “Solo: A Star Wars Story” is so content treading familiar ground, it comes precariously close to being a flimsy collection of callbacks to more beloved movies, in a quest to be beloved itself. It clunks along on a predetermined path, defining a character we already know, a self-involved egotist who becomes an unlikely hero when he reluctantly embraces a cause greater than himself.
In this spinoff from the serialized “Star Wars” narrative - you know, the movies with Roman numerals in the titles - we’re privy to the early days of Han Solo, the smirking smuggler and charming scoundrel who became an icon, and launched Harrison Ford’s superstar career. The 20-something Solo is played by Alden Ehrenreich, whose work here is best described as charismatic mimicry. He’s got the superficialities in spades: the untrustworthy, but alluring smile, the wry tone, the unflappable, feathery hair that looks great when still, but even better during a scuffle.
It’s a performance of significant swagger. Substance, however, is in shorter supply. Screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan - a “Star Wars” veteran who co-scripted “The Force Awakens,” “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi” - and his son Jonathan Kasdan explain and depict more than they explore and define. Throwaway bits from the original trilogy become major plot points in “Solo”: Here’s how Han Solo met his shyster buddy Lando Calrissian. Here’s how he acquired his treasured spaceship, the Millennium Falcon. Here’s how he became a legend for making the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs. Here’s how he met his work wife, Chewbacca.
Speaking as someone who has a couple dozen pieces of “Star Wars” collectible paraphernalia within his peripheral vision as he writes this sentence, this is reasonably enjoyable stuff. But “Solo” settles for being just good enough, which isn’t quite enough, if you get my drift. Following the exhilarating challenge of 2017’s “The Last Jedi” (“Episode VIII” for you chronologists), it feels thin and staid. A more direct comparison to the other spinoff, 2016’s “Rogue One,” is apt - it stoked our nostalgia with a few brief Darth Vader appearances, staged the franchise’s most complex and satisfying action sequence, and dared to introduce a bevy of new characters, then kill them off once we became invested in their well-being.
“Solo” doesn’t take many risks beyond possibly not fulfilling the expectations of fans who, for the past 40 years, have been imagining the colorful, high-stakes backstory of their favorite space pilot. The plot is mostly a lumpy hodgepodge of misadventures for Solo to navigate. The opening scenes, set on Solo’s grungy home planet of Corellia, find him hotwiring and stealing a speeder, mashing face with a girl, and squirreling his way out of a scrape: so far, so good. The girl is Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke, of “Game of Thrones” fame), and Solo loves her. Via cumbersome, declarative exposition, we learn that he yearns to escape the planet with her, and pursue his dream of being a great pilot. He’s wide-eyed and optimistic, not yet the skeptical Solo we know.
What with one thing and another, he and Qi’ra are separated, prompting Solo to skirt the fringe of conventional galaxial society and morality, working towards their reunion. He compulsively enlists in the army of the Empire and finds himself smack in the middle of a hellish battlefield, a development that should be more of a harrowing rite of passage for the character, but ultimately isn’t much more than another set piece.
During his tenure in the infantry, Solo finds himself quite literally chained to Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), survival spurring their codependence. Eventually, they fall in with Beckett (Woody Harrelson), a seen-it-all serial scammer planning to steal a military vessel and go AWOL with his crew, which includes flimsy characters played by Thandie Newton, as Beckett’s lover Val, and Jon Favreau, voicing a chattering, four-armed chimplike alien. The plan is to stage a railroad heist and snatch some valuable fuel for a generic mob boss with ugly red facial scars, Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany), and walk off with a hefty payday.
The subsequent action sequence involves shootouts with stormtroopers and space pirates, high-flying near-misses, and all that. It and the Kessel Run sequence are solid kinetic centerpieces for the film, even though Ron Howard’s direction lacks the distinct visual dexterity that anchors this recent round of “Star Wars” films. (Howard famously joined the film mid-shoot, after original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were ousted, reportedly for burdening the film with too much comedy.) The effects are dazzling, and the art direction and set design are colorful, even peculiar at times, but the movie has little distinction in tone or style compared to the grit of “Rogue One” or the poignancy and crisp comedy of “The Force Awakens.”
“Solo”’s most significant source of entertainment derives from Solo’s persistent bickering with Chewbacca, and from Lando, who’s played as a man of many capes with smarm and style by Donald Glover - the kind of stuff that tickles diehard fans’ erogenous nerd zones. And yes, in line with franchise tradition, there’s a scene-stealing robot, Lando’s loyal co-pilot L3-37 (voice of Phoebe Waller-Bridge), a passionate droids-rights activist and source of smart, potent comic relief.
Somewhere in all this is Ehrenreich, who’s asked to repeat about a dozen different phrases, rendering Solo a sincere cypher in need of a script with more snap and depth. He grins and hangs on tight; it’s really all he can do. The dialogue, which consistently and shamelessly references the “Star Wars” films we know by heart, hits us in the nose like a brick of limburger (e.g., “I hate you.” “I know.”). It’s diverting, and only sporadically memorable. Yet it’s difficult to dislike the film, which is a cheery, well-meaning visit to the galaxy far, far away that’s so, so near our hearts. Color me conflicted.
‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’
MPAA rating: PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action/violence
Cast: Alden Ehrenreich, Joonas Suotamo, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke
Director: Ron Howard
Run time: 135 minutes