Solo: A Star Wars Story may have been doomed to fail from the beginning. Prequels, in general, are tricky propositions. The entire concept is intended to shed new light on existing characters while also providing extensive back story. This is difficult to pull off with films possessing a large fan base, but pulling it off transforms into a literal herculean effort when it comes Star Wars fans. While a small part of the difficulty lies in the 41-years the characters have existed in the minds of fans, the other, larger hurdle is the increasingly loud section of the fan base that possesses great disdain for the sci-fi franchise they adore. Add in some behind-the-scenes controversy involving the ouster of the initial directors deep into shooting and you’ve got yourself an absolutely unpredictable and volatile situation. In the end, Solo grossed over $392 million globally – compared to The Last Jedi‘s $1.3 billion+ – with many pointing to all the problems mentioned above. But, what if, in minding the behind the scenes, real world issues, audiences missed out on a film that got back to the core tenants of the original franchise and on an opportunity to see a straight popcorn “space western” adventure that just so happens to involve four of the most beloved icons in all of science fiction.
Before Han Solo (Harrison Ford) was the mythic pilot that farmboy Luke (Mark Hamill) and monk warrior Obi-wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) hired to help them save a beleaguered princess (Carrie Fisher), a young Han (Alden Ehrenreich) was a bandit, a thief, and a scam artist trying to survive on the streets of Corellia. When his attempt to escape the planet with his girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) results in their separation, Han does everything he can to become a pilot so he can come back for her, even partnering up with a small band of hired crooks – Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), Val (Thandie Newton), and Rio Durant (voiced by Jon Favreau) to pull a risky job for crime boss Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany). When the job becomes more complicated than any of them imagined, this newly formed team of thieves must convince hustler Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) to let them use his ship, the Millennium Falcon, to get them out from under Vos and, maybe, just maybe, get them freedom.
As mentioned previously, whether an audience wants a prequel or not is rarely taken into the equation when plotting or planning a film like Solo. A large challenge for the film was taking the most mythical thing about Han – the Kessel Run – and putting it front and center as an action set piece. Though the run is only briefly mentioned in the original 1977 release, audiences made it a larger and more grand concept. Expectations being high, it’s a great relief that the final product results in a pretty wild ride that lives up to the legend, all while being distinctly Han. If replacement director Ron Howard (Apollo 13) can make the Kessel Run feel true, then rest assured that everything around it is equally clever and fun. Audiences just want a strange space adventure to go on with their friends and, on that, Solo delivers. Additionally, though it does get a little awkward in the delivery at times, the script by first-time Star Wars writer Jonathan Kasdan and his father, returning Star Wars series scribe Lawrence Kasdan (Episode V, VI, and VII), even manages to expound on little details like the origin of Han’s last name (an aspect seemingly unimportant, yet incredibly significant for a character who outwardly proclaims solitude, yet craves a family), where Han obtains his signature weapon, or why Lando seems to mispronounce Han’s name. These little things make Solo a fun sandbox film to experience.
Where the fun drags lies within the pace of the film. Sure, it bustles along, but it’s in such a rush, relying mostly on previous films to carry development, that it rarely allows time for the characters to develop past either what’s known or what’s told to us. The audience is barely introduced to Qi’ra before she’s separated from Han, so, when she returns, we don’t care as much as Han does. We care because we’re invested in Han, but, again, that’s only because of the films before. With so much reliance on the past films to carry some of the more meaty portions of the film, the majority of Solo rings hollow due to the lack of characterization, leading to a lack of audience investment. However, given the fact that Solo is intended as nothing more than zero-calorie delight, upon which it delivers, the experience is still absolutely rewatchable.
Without question, the cast of Solo is the single best part of the film. No matter how little time the audience gets to spend with this mix-mash group of murders and seemingly immoral bandits, watching them engage with each other is undeniably delightful. Ehrenreich has the most responsibility as he takes over the role made famous by Harrison Ford, but, as explained by Ehrenreich in the Solo: The Director & Cast Roundtable, Ford himself reminded Ehrenreich that George Lucas is the creator of Han, not Ford. So as long as the performance is true to the character, Ehrenreich will be fine. Ehrenreigh does this with seemingly great ease, embodying a more naïve version of the infamous scoundrel instead of simply a more youthful one. Joonas Suotamo returns from The Last Jedi as Chewbacca, offering a presentation, in conjunction with the script, which feels organic and fresh. Glover, though new to the Star Wars franchise, carries the burden of playing Lando, the future sexiest man in Cloud City, with aplomb; planting seeds of who the man is at his core, as well as who he will become, in only a few choice scenes. Clarke as Qi’ra is strong and fierce. Yet, despite a compelling performance, the character’s initial outing makes little impression. This isn’t because of anything Clarke does, but is a casualty of narrative speed. Another victim of the script is L3-37 (voiced and mocapped by Phoebe Waller-Bridge), a fun, engaging, and pivotal character in multiple ways who is meant to contain incredible significance in Solo, but ends up being mostly one-note. Unlike the last two characters, Tobias, Val, Rio, and Dryden are given ample time for the audience to get to know them. The chemistry between each of them and the rest of the cast, is enormously fun to watch. Considering the rumor that Solo is intended as the first in a trilogy, it’s a shame that the script moves as quickly as it does, because this cast delivers performances that make the audience want to live with these characters for longer than the time that they’re given.
Full credit goes to the stunt and effects team working on Solo. Everything these characters go through or engage with feel tangible, mostly due to a fantastic blending of CG effects with practical, creating a seamless experience. New droid L3-37 is the perfect example of this as the actress wore most of the pieces seen on screen, with smaller details added in where her green suit was digitally removed. This makes each scene L3-37’s in feel more authentic, in a physical way, as she assists Lando co-pilot the Falcon. Where the film falters is in the cinematography. Yes, the scenes are thoughtfully composed and designed, each feeling like they’re naturally lit, providing a sense of realism within this advanced society. However, there’s a pervasive darkness within the scenes due to the natural lighting that makes most any movement hard to discern. This was a common complaint for Solo, blamed largely on the projection balance settings in theaters, but a home viewing demonstrates that it’s an inherent issue that the theaters merely exacerbated. Where other Star Wars solo film Rogue One possessed a crispness and clarity in every shot, the dirty, grimy, orange-brown hued expectation for a scoundrel’s origin just diminishes the ability to really enjoy each wonderfully composed shot in Solo.
Another glaring issue within Solo is the over-reliance on intertextuality instead of the narrative to convey meaning and emotion. Rather than keeping the focus on Han’s reactions to his journey, the film seems more intent on ensuring the audience remembers how they felt upon seeing various significant echoes from previous films by using cues – physical and auditory – to point out relics of the past. When used well – like the small hint of Duel of the Fates that plays over a delightful cameo – it enhances the moment, adding weight to the current action while reminding us of the past. When it doesn’t – as when the Millenium Falcon first makes its appearance – the moment is about the audience seeing something they love, rather than how the characters react to it. Take the scene where Han first enters the Falcon’s cockpit. The audience is aware this is a momentous moment and the camera holds on Ehrenreich’s Han, showing his utter bliss as the ship jumps to hyperspace. The focus being on Han, allowing the audience to feel his joy in that moment, projects onto the audience that same feeling. It’s only equal perhaps being in The Force Awaken when Ford’s Han and Chewbacca burst into the Falcon and Han says, “Chewie, we’re home.” Anytime Solo shifts away from how the characters are reacting, the overall experience weakens; but, by holding on them, the film obtains exactly the reaction it wants: utter joy.
Solo has its detractors and their complaints are valid. The script rushes to the detriment of the performances, the cinematography – while lovely – gives off too natural a visage to follow easily, and it relies too much on intertextuality to create significance, rather than focusing on the significance to the characters. All that said, Solo largely feels like a return to form for the franchise. It’s a fun escape from reality where the audience can go on a new journey with an old friend, smiling from ear-to-ear almost the entire time. Isn’t that why we return to Star Wars as often as we have over the last 41 years? It’s not for the accuracy or the lore, but for the characters and how they make us feel. On that, Solo is an absolute success.
Blu-ray Bonus Materials:
- Solo: The Director & Cast Roundtable (21:45)
- Kasdan On Kason (7:50)
- Remaking The Millennium Falcon (5:36)
- Escape From Corellia (9:59)
- The Train Heist (14:30)
- Team Chewie (6:41)
- Becoming A Droid: L3-37 (5:07)
- Scoundrels, Droids, Creatures And Cards: Welcome to Fort Ypso (8:03)
- Into The Maelstrom: The Kessel Run (8:29)
- Deleted Scenes (15:18)
Final Score: 4 out of 5.