Synopsis – During an adventure into the criminal underworld, Han Solo meets his future copilot Chewbacca and encounters Lando Calrissian years before joining the Rebellion.
My Take – It’s been 41 years since the first film of the Star Wars series hit theaters, and till date the billion dollar series remains the biggest film franchise of all time, with every new release bringing in their own set of hype and hoopla. As a fan of series, I too welcomed the Disney‘s idea of producing spin-offs, films which would be stray from the main Skywalker based story line, and give us a chance to explore the universe a lot more. While the 2016 release, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, was a pretty solid film, like most fans, I was skeptical when a Han Solo based prequel was announced, mainly as Harrison Fords‘s character is such a cultural icon that no-one can emulate it. After all, the idea of watching anyone but Ford play Han Solo just seemed wrong, no matter if it was penned by Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan.
Plus, adding to that, as it’s quite well-known by now, how the film went through a troubled production. Starting with the replacement of original hired directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, months into principal photography, only to be replaced Ron Howard, a veteran, who hasn’t made a good film for some time now, followed by hiring of an acting coach for the film’s lead Alden Ehrenreich, who apparently was unable to do the basics, along with rumors of the script being a mess and toss in a late promotional push by Lucasfilm, it’s safe to this film was meant to be a disaster. Thankfully, it’s far from it!
Sure, it’s by the numbers when it comes to the plot and doesn’t even stand a chance again the original films, but on its own its a solid popcorn film that is refreshing and fun enough with enough nods to make Star Wars fans and non-fans happy. The film features a colorful cast of compelling characters and delivers a consistent, well-paced, often very funny story about how Han got his start in intergalactic crime and banditry. Of course, being a prequel, Han’s a little younger, a little dumber, and a little blander in this outing, but watching him interact with the other characters was a treat. Like Rogue One, this one too serves as connective tissue between the Original Trilogy and the Prequel Trilogy, with some subtle nods to the Sequel Trilogy.
Set about ten years before the events of Episode IV: A New Hope, the story follows Han (Alden Ehrenreich), a reckless young street thief on the industrial planet of Corellia. Along with his street-smart girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clark), the Han works in a gang led by Lady Proxima (Linda Hunt), and to save enough credits to buy a ship and get off the planet. However, fate has something else in store, as Han ends up joining the Empire army with hopes of becoming a pilot, but ends up getting kicked out of the Imperial Flight Academy for having a mind of his own, and is instead shipped off to muddy planet, Mimban, to serve in the infantry. It’s here were he comes across a team of undercover thieves, Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), Val (Thandie Newton), and the four-armed alien Rio Durant (voiced by Jon Favreau), who are performing a heist on the marshy planet amidst a battle.
Impressed by their attitude, Han ends up deserting a cause he never believed in, and joins Beckett’s ragtag pirate crew, but not before freeing the mighty Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), a Wookiee enslaved by the Empire from his chains. Together, they head off to meet Beckett’s boss, the notorious cutthroat Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany). Aboard the crime lord’s star yacht, Han is reunited with Qi’ra, now Vos’s lieutenant, and picks up another job, one that will bring Han into contact with the smooth, sophisticated Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) and his fast ship, the Millennium Falcon.
The plot is pretty straight forward and very small in comparison to the original series. Yes, there are risks, there are stakes, and there are consequences, except they’re not at the behest of the galaxy. There’s no looming threat waiting to destroy all hope and light. Sure, the Empire rules the galaxy with an iron fist, and there’s poverty, slavery, and corruption aplenty, but no one’s really trying to solve any of that here. There isn’t anything resembling a Death Star, Darth Vader doesn’t make another appearance, and you won’t hear a single maudlin speech about the Force. Instead, you get narrow escapes, unlikely losses, welcome alliances, and Jerry-rigged solutions, all with a rogue’s gallery of characters who never forget how far this galaxy can go.
That’s a relief in the sense that things are allowed to operate on a micro level and the narrative can be a little more self-contained. The characters aren’t on a crusade to fight evil or save the world. These are more like side players and it’s satisfying to see other parts of the galaxy far, far away being explored. They’re a crew of likeable yet morally questionable individuals trying to get rich as they evade the law and competing gangs, making the film with lowered stakes a lot more room to have fun. Like the key characters in Rogue One, these seemed more like regular, relatable people than the lofty heroes we usually see in Star Wars films.
Working more as a rollicking mix of heist flick, war film, western and Indiana Jones-style adventure, the film handsomely runs our titular hero through one episode of fan service after another, setting up big action set pieces to make sure that everything you know about Han Solo from Episodes 4-6 finds its genesis here. The script, by Star Wars veteran Lawrence Kasdan and his son Jonathan, dutifully checks off a number of required boxes: Where is Han from? (The gloomy planet of Corellia.) Where did he get his spaceship, the Millennium Falcon? (He won it from Lando in a barroom card game we now get to witness.) And how did he meet his shaggy copilot Chewbacca? (It’s a long story.) Every character has a distinct personality and the bad guys’ motives aren’t black and white. This results in unpredictable plot twists and at the end of the film you might find yourself rooting for completely different people than before.
There’s banter, there’s jokes, there’s fun and elaborate capers, and for a change, even the film’s villain, Dryden Vos, gets in on the fun. Sure, for a story about a pilot, it didn’t feel like there was very much space flight in the film, but what’s there is visually really exciting, particularly in one scene that sees the Falcon navigate around a black hole. Yes, as an action film, it’s a smashing success, as the special effects here are as good as you’ll find any Star Wars outing. The different sweeping sci-fi landscapes to which the characters journey throughout the film are varied and detailed. The streets of Corellia, where the film starts, are particularly interesting. This is one of very few examples of an urban setting in Star Wars, and it’s dark, cramped, dirty, and fascinating to look at. Certain chase scenes early on in this film look very clean and crisp and offer good sequences of action. That train scene that is shown in every commercial is as awesome on screen as it is in the trailers.
The sequence is an incredible piece of action and was definitely the high of this film action wise. The film is also loaded with Easter eggs for the fans – all respectfully done and non-intrusive to the story. Director Howard and cinematographer Bradford Young (Selma, Arrival) have created a wholly unique film that feels like classic Star Wars while expanding on the visual language of the series in spectacular fashion. There’s plenty of good to be found here, but there’s also some bad. Director Howard covers a lot of ground with the kind of hyper-efficiency we can expect from a visual storyteller with his experience and with the film bringing in the focus on the crime syndicates, the film seems to take place after Revenge of the Sith but before Rogue One? The film never clarifies, which is strange given that it struggles so hard throughout the rest of the film to time Han’s journey within a very specific place in Star Wars lore, the result being the sense that the film is both trying too much and not enough. The film itself is probably about 20 minutes too long and has one too many predictable twists.
The film also implies that Lando and L3 have a much-too-close, even physical, relationship, which makes Lando ultimately losing his friend and droid lover to Han and Chewie, subjugated for the rest of her “life” to them, one of many threads the film never bothers to tie up. In the end we get an inconsequential little adventure that is a fun enough way to pass a couple of hours but not the visual epic that the Star Wars brand usually provides. I am sure this will sit quite low in peoples Star Wars rankings.
Coming to the performances, which for obvious reasons are the highlight of the film. It was always going to be tough to have a fresh-faced actor step into the iconic role Harrison Ford inhabited for nearly 40 years, but Alden Ehrenreich does a great job of capturing the spirit and the swagger of the character. Ever since it was first announced he’d be taking on the role, the guy’s been trapped in a net of ugly press, but Ehrenreich is fantastic. Ehrenreich looks nothing like Ford, but he does manage to project a bit of the man’s engaging sarcasm and gift for smooth gab, and he contributes his own style of cool, too. On top of every terrific interaction with Lando, his scenes with Chewbacca are particularly good. It helps that he’s surrounded by such an enigmatic cast, one in which characters can naturally co-exist together and stand on their own if needed.
Woody Harrelson never disappoints and his country-fried charisma is an organic fit for the galaxy’s seedy underbelly. Once again Emilia Clarke has shown us how great of an actor she is, and for me, Qi’ra was one of her best performances yet. Raven-haired here, Clarke is charismatically seductive as Han’s love interest, a mystery woman whose secrets will obviously play an important part in sure-to-come future installments of the story. Paul Bettany was also great as the films antagonist but his short screen-time was a bit of a bummer. Thandie Newton makes the most of her screen time, so does Jon Favreau’s chimp-like Rio Durant, while Chewbacca, played by Joonas Suotamo, is fantastic and a real highlight of the film. But the man who really steals the show is Donald Glover. Donald Glover brings Lando Calrissean back into the fold, nailing the velvet cadence of Billy Dee Williams, while also adding a subtle comedic exuberance that revels in being young and on top of the galaxy. His android pal L3-37, played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, is also a welcome addition to the Star Wars droid factory, entertaining with a personality that avoids being another 3PO and achieves a complexity that adds to the franchise’s lore in big ways. On the whole, ‘Solo: A Star Wars Story‘ is an entertaining summer blockbuster with enough factors to please both fans and non-fans of alike.
Directed – Ron Howard
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 135 minutes