I have done my best to keep this review spoiler-free and will tag any potential spoilers with **.
The last few years have been good to Star Wars fans. The Force Awakens sparked new life in the fandom, Rogue One reminded us of just what about this story inspires in us, and The Last Jedi brought bittersweet new beginnings to the franchise. The latest episode from the franchise–Solo: A Star Wars Story–differs from others in recent history in that it takes one of our favorite characters, the coolest guy in the galaxy, and immerses him in a history that’s only barely hinted at in the original trilogy. It’s a risk–a big one–because Han Solo is part of the most iconic trio in movie history, and his original portrayer, Harrison Ford, is one of the biggest box office draws in Hollywood. Ever.
So, does Solo beat the odds and become a new integral piece of the Star Wars Cinematic Universe?
While the premise of Solo is mostly an origin story, it frames itself as part-adventure thriller (a la Indiana Jones) and part-hero’s journey, and as such it kind of writes itself into a corner. The Han Solo that audiences fell in love with 41 years ago is unapologetically not a hero and not a team player, even though he eventually (begrudgingly) does the right thing…but mostly because it benefits himself monetarily or because people he cares about are in danger. There’s a word for this: Byronic hero. We love Byronic heroes (Jane Eyre’s Mr Rochester is a famous example, as is Ironman/Tony Stark), but their origins must be treated differently from that of a hero’s. The hero’s journey is a series of marked adventures as the Hero leaves their home and embarks into the unknown (Episode IV, A New Hope, is a good example because Luke is definitely a Hero). Solo attempts to give Han a heroic entrance into…his life of smuggling?
Though the plot is not without flaws, it is still enjoyable. There are plenty of CGI action sequences and tricky piloting of the Millennium Falcon to make the film worth watching. The performances of Donald Glover as Lando Calrissian and Paul Bettany as Dryden Vos were perhaps my favorites of the film. Glover, in particular, carries his scenes with magnetism and plenty of swagger, and he does so with the most epic of capes.
Han, played by Alden Ehrenreich, does not really meet Lando’s standard for swagger. This, in part, can be attributed to Han’s young age in this story, but for most of the film Han’s silent–almost stoic–presence is a far cry from Harrison Ford’s bumbling intercom conversations with imperial personnel or his pitchy screaming as he runs away from stormtroopers. Han’s charm always stemmed from the fact that it seemed effortless, and his “cool kid” reputation from the fact that he didn’t care what other people thought if he didn’t care about them. And can we talk about Harrison’s facial expressions as Han Solo? Freeze frame any given moment of Han in action in the original trilogy and take in how truly expressive the man was. Unfortunately for Ehrenreich, it’s nearly an impossible standard to live up to.
If you’ve noticed that I’ve not mentioned Q’ira…that’s because I don’t have much to say. Emilia Clarke is beautiful and is convincing, but the character is a decidedly stereotypical femme fatale. Even her costumes pay homage to the film noir genre’s Ann Blyths and Mary Astors. Clarke is an effective actress, but the writing gave her limited opportunities to do much other than fulfill a archetype (and yes, I know that adventure stories are nothing but archetypes but c’mon…it’s 2018, get a little creative with how you portray them).
Another challenge that Solo faces is making the story relevant and congruous to everything else we know about the Star Wars universe. While I didn’t notice any inconsistencies in the story (although, confession: I enjoyed a double gin and tonic while I watched the film), the plot didn’t capitalize on any opportunities to really enrich the universe either. The Empire is acknowledged, and we actually see battlefronts, but you don’t really get a sense of the oppression or tyranny that the Empire represented. The ‘evil’ exists in Solo much like the boogeyman exists under a child’s bed, and the image of the Empire’s power looms distantly in the background in the shape of imposing Star Destroyers.
It’s this distance from engaging with the original canon that keeps Solo from joining its predecessors as a cinematic juggernaut. It’s almost as if in its endeavor to be its own film/possible trilogy, it has forgotten that it’s supposed to be Star Wars.
It may seem that I didn’t enjoy the film, but the truth is that I did, and I’m just a big Star Wars nerd who enjoys a good debate over who shot first (the correct answer is Han.) So, when the Solo allows its characters a moment to just be, I see what drew me to the universe in the first place. Even if the Kessel Run is not everything I expected, there’s a certain rightness that settles in when I hear Han and Lando bickering, or when I see Han and Chewie in the Falcon’s cockpit. In fact, if for no other reason, see this film for Chewie. When he’s at Han’s side, you know that at least is as it should be.
P.S. Oi, Star Wars, if you’re looking for another origin story film to produce, I’ve got an idea.